The Books of the States: North Dakota (3 electoral votes)

Quarter_north_dakota_erdric I'm not sure why I didn't try to see if Louise Erdrich could be our guest nominator for North Dakota. (She wrote the essay on the state for State by State, after all, which has been my route to most of our guests.) Maybe because she seems too grownup and substantial to be messing with our little blog. Maybe because she just seemed too on-the-nose a choice. But probably most of all because how do you have a list of North Dakota books without any Louise Erdrich?

When we've had guests from State by State I've been quoting from their pieces from the book, but just because she's not our guest today there's no reason not to quote from hers. I'm passing up passages about ditch skiing (a prairie pastime concocted by her father), sugar beet harvesting, and the time she crumpled bits of business letters in her ears to get that "cool swimmer's ear look" that all the Viking blondes on her swim team had, for a more lyrical and iconic paragraph about the Dakota sky:

Shattering, spectacular, inescapable. The North Dakota sky is a former tallgrass prairie heaven tarp that stretches down on every side and quiets the mind. In the summer, distance melts off into mirage, a jitter of shaking air on hot dust. When the sun is magnified by a dust storm it can fill the sky like a nuclear dawn. Sounds travel as far as the ear allows. Vision stretches as far as the eye can strain. Pure sky pulls you right out of yourself and yet bears down so close it seems crushing.

Here are my suggestions for three North Dakota representatives (with requests for your own suggestions). One note: it would be very possible to pick an N.D. slate solely made up of books from 2008. All three of the writers below have new books this year that have been among the most praised of their careers:

  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich: Okay--I offer this one tentatively. Not because I don't love it--I do--and not because it's not loved by many others--it is--but because, I confess, it's the only full book of hers I've read. I've had a little statement running in a loop through my head for a while now (you can tell what a strange head I have): "Louise Erdrich is totally taken for granted." I'm not sure if it's just me or everybody else who's taking her for granted. She continues to add threads and layers to the world she started to create in Love Medicine, and continues to get often rapturous reviews. As Old Media Monday readers know, I read a lot of book reviews, and, aside from 2666 and perhaps The Forever War, I'm not sure there was a book this year that got better reviews than her new one, The Plague of Doves. But now, at year's end, where is it to be found on all those 10 best lists (our own included)? And any time one of her stories pops up in the New Yorker, I'm reminded that she's one of those writers with storytelling gifts to burn. (And also funny!) So why haven't I sat down with another of her books? I guess because a) I like to discover new things, and she seems a known quantity, and b) I'm a little wary of heading into the thicket of all her crossreferencing storylines. Both stupid reasons, I understand. I know she has passionate readers who have followed her all the way through, and I'd love to hear what you think should be on this list from her.
  • Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman: You could go with one of the globetrotting pop-culture collections the Wyndmere, N.D., raised Klosterman is known for, or for his debut memoir, Fargo Rock City, which stripped the "guilty" from the pleasures of '80s glam rock, but let's put his latest book here instead, a novel that made our customer reviewers argue over whether it seems like true Klosterman or not, and that was one of my colleague Dave Callanan's favorite books of the year.
  • Beyond the Bedroom Wall by Larry Woiwode: Woiwode is, after Erdrich, the North Dakota writer most often cited as North Dakotan (Erdrich herself does so in her essay above), and he's the been the poet laureate there for over a decade. His most recent books, What I Think I Did and this year's A Step from Death, are both memoirs of a life split between the rural plains and the hot center of New York writing, the latter of which he has long-since left behind, but I'll go with one of his most acclaimed books from that New York period, a big, multigenerational novel from 1975 set in North Dakota and Illinois that has since been "rediscovered" and then fallen out of print again.

More: Matt Weiland mentioned Thomas McGrath in his Minnesota post, and McGrath's great life work is Letter to an Imaginary Friend, a vast modernist poem grounded in the Great Plains that the Boston Review said "might have been written by Carl Sandburg, had Sandburg been a hard-boiled socialist instead of a corny populist." Larry Watson is another well-known N.D.-raised novelist, but his best books, especially (and obviously) Montana 1948, have been set in the neighbor state to the west. And Eric Sevareid, the newsman who was one of the last century's best-known North Dakotans, wrote an early memoir, Not So Wild a Dream, that is still in print over a half-century later and has some convincingly enthusiastic customer reviews. South Dakota next! --Tom 

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