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on 20 August 2004
Kathleen Norris is the author of Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and The Cloister Walk. She is a poet. Dakota was her first work of nonfiction/memoir. Having read both Amazing Grace and The Cloister Walk, I had an idea of what to expect from Norris's work. She writes deeply personal and deeply spiritual books. Dakota has the same type of feel to it, but the location and the subject is different.
Kathleen Norris's past lay in western South Dakota, but for twenty years she had abandoned both her faith as well has her history. She went to school in New York but decides to move back to Lemmon, SD with her husband. Her book is subtitled "A Spiritual Geography". She writes early on that geography comes from the words for earth and writing, and so knowing that this is a spiritual geography we immediately know that this is a spiritual discussion of the Dakotas, as well as also being about Norris herself.
Norris writes about small town life and small town church, and a semi-history of the town of Lemmon. Since most of the details are told in anecdote, it makes things easier to read. One thing that struck me was how she was comparing monastic life to small town faith and how much things tied together like that. The focus on monastic life and on monks is a theme and a topic that will run throughout the book as well as into her subsequent books. Kathleen Norris may not have a mainstream Christian faith, but she has a deep reverence and respect for the Christian tradition and faith, especially that which has come from the monasteries.
This is a slow moving, peaceful book. It is thoughtful, intelligent, and moving. It is filled to the brim with a steady faith in Christ and in some ways, it moves like time spent in a monastery. I don't know if this sounds like a recommendation, but it is meant to be. I found Dakota to be very interesting and along with Dakota, I would recommend Norris's later book: Amazing Grace.
-Joe Sherry
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on 13 November 2000
I read all Kathleen Norris' other books before reading this one, which is the book which really explains where she is coming from.
As a poet, her approach to the story of her return to the church and her family home in North Dakota is not a straight line. We learn not only about her own life but about the life of the land which has had such a deep impact on the way she views Christianity.
The constant battle against nature and globalisation waged by those living in this strange land is described lovingly.
Of interest to anyone who likes travel books, books on spirituality, poetry and/or biography.
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HALL OF FAMEon 29 June 2005
`Nature, in Dakota, can indeed be an experience of the holy.'
From the earliest days of Christianity (and indeed, since the earliest days of religion, period!), women and men have sought understanding in the the large, unpopulated expanses of the earth, far from the madding crowds of urban life. Moses discerned his call from God in the desert wanderings after fleeing Egypt, only to return as the Deliverer; Jesus' first act after baptism was to wander the desert; Mohammed had his desert experience; prophets, sages, wise women and men have always found in the solitude and magnitude of places such as Dakota a spirituality hard to express.
Kathleen Norris, however, does an admirable and enlightening job of putting words to that very ephemeral concept. Combining personal stories with prayerful reflections and mediations, Norris weaves together a book whose riches slowly unfold only for those who give particular attention; however, it yields treasure to even the most cursory of readers, too. Neither Kathleen Norris nor her husband were natives of the land, both having come from vastly different places than the sparsely populated, silent and enigmatic plains. Yet Norris has become a spokeswoman of sorts for the spirituality that is found in a place such as this, the modern equivalent of the early Christian Desert Fathers.
Like those early fathers (alas, not much is recorded about the women who made such decisions in favour of isolation), she has attached both a meditative and monastic framework to her searchings. Being a protestant by upbringing, Norris brings a critical, outsider view to the understanding of monastic practice and the spirituality inherent therein. One of the particular vows of a Benedictine monastic, the variety with which Norris has become most familiar, is the vow of stability--i.e., to remain in one place.
Remaining in one place is important, for in the modern world (as in past times) there is a tendency to see residence in any given place as impermanent and transitory; it is only by becoming wedded to a place that one can get to understand the hidden and secret aspects that are crucial to forming the fabric of life in such places. Dakota is one such place. Those of us who are more urban cultured (and, chances are, 92% of you reading this are urban- or suburban-cultured) tend to regard the plains as empty.
`Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.' - St. Hilary
The Plains have become for Norris, quite simply, her monastery -- her place to be apart and to be set apart, so that she may thrive and grow. There is room to move and grow. There is silence to grow into, without the problem of being caught by the noise and stunted. There is an emptiness to contemplate, to fill, to deplete, and to marvel at as it continues its vast expanse.
How much more of a spiritual awakening can one have than to witness the passing of a storm, seen rolling in from miles away, to fill a vast expansive sky, and then to dissipate, leaving the wideness free again to its original stillness? In the contemplation of such natural events, the wonders of all creation become present.
Of course, Norris points out the advantages of this kind of isolation.
`Living in a town so small that, as one friend puts it, the poets and ministers have to hang out together has its advantages. We raid each other's libraries and sustain decent arguments on matters of science, politics, and religion. ...There is a wariness on both sides: poets and Christians have been at odds with one another, off and on, for two thousand years. There is also trust: we are people who believe in the power of words to effect change in the human heart.'
Norris intersperses weather reports with her narratives and essays -- weather being a crucial and vital elemen to the life of the plains. After all, one might get wisked off to Oz by the upcoming twister. Alas, this happens all to often in spiritual development -- one becomes mesmerised by the storm, the power and awesome force, the elegance, or one becomes terrified; rarely does one have a neutral response. How one responds to the internal storms makes all the difference. One spiritual director of mine used to start our discussions with the 'weather report', by which he meant for me to report simply what is happening spiritually, with a minimum of interpretation (saying a cloud looks like Mickey Mouse may be well and good, but is that cloud just floating by or is it turning into a tornado?).
Life on the plains, life on the farm, is earnestly cyclical, as is the pattern of the rule of monasticism. The cycle is never ending, regardless of any events or crises that may arise--the community carries on, and life carries on, always with the long-term in view. The storm will pass, the seasons will pass, the harvest will come, and come again, and again. And still it all remains.
Thomas Merton wrote:
Love winter when the plant says nothing.
Be still
Listen to the stones of the wall
Be silent, they try
To speak your
To the living walls.
Who are you?
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?
Dakota is a place to find the answers. Come find treasures beyond rubies in the empty fullness of Norris' Dakota.
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In Saudi Arabia there is a vast area, almost a fourth of the country, known as "The Empty Quarter," (Rub Al Khali), with perhaps a thousand permanent residents. It is the lack of good water that makes permanent inhabitation practically impossible. America has a similar region, although the conditions are not as dire. It is the area between the 100th and 105th meridian, roughly spanning a seventy-fifth of the world's circumference. Due to the lack of sufficient rainfall (less than 20 inches per year), John Wesley Powell (as well as others) said that the land should never be tilled. It was; one of the "fallouts" was the Dustbowl days of the `30's. Today, those who have not emigrated face a hard-scrabble existence, with the remaining farmers tapping deeper and deeper into the Ogallala aquifer. The area is called the High Plains, largely pancake flat, has strong winds, and unlike Saudi Arabia, particularly in the Dakotas, it can be bitter cold.

Why would anyone voluntarily move there? Kathleen Norris did. She left a life in New York City, and embraced the austere bleakness that is northwest South Dakota. Many of her friends were flabbergasted at the move, and this book is largely an answer to why she did it. There are three principal subject matters: the environment, which encompasses the land and the weather; the kind of people who struggle to live there; and, as indicated by the subtitle, "a spiritual geography," dollops of philosophical musings. Norris has brief chapters entitled "Weather Report", with a given date, and generally the reports are not surprises, save, perhaps, the extremes that they can cover. Early in the book she assesses the dynamic tensions and contradictions in the people with a: "...between hospitality and insularity....between open hearts and closed minds." Later she says: "Small-town society often reminds me of the old joke about academic politics--they're so vicious because there so little at stake." And one of the sadder observations that she makes, and counterintuitive in some ways, since you would figure that it is the remote places that reading is more likely alternative: "Many teachers here also seem to give up any thought of lifelong learning... why so many adults in a town like Lemmon stop reading. More than once I've been surprised to discover that people who show no sign that they've ever read a book in their lives, are in fact former teachers, college graduates from the days when an education was said to mean something." She fleshes out these general observations with pithy vignettes involving the very real people of the town.

Concerning how the inhabitants relate to the past, Norris says: "One popular form of writing on the Plains is the local history. These books reveal a great deal about the people who write them but do not often tell the true story of the region... As one old-timer told me, `people have been writing it the way they wished it had been instead of the way it was.'" But it this a "differential diagnosis" of the region's people, or a broader observation on how much of history is written?

As to the philosophical musings, her erudition shines through, and her referential points bounce from Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century to Carl Jung. Fitting for a place with `spiritual geography', she becomes involved with a nearby Benedictine monastery, and mentions the tales of Heloise and Abelard, when the "monk's face brightens, almost innocently, as he says, "It was the Benedictines who castrated him, you know.'" One might assume it was time to move on! Some of her spiritual geography might be too "new age" for some readers, but I was able to suspend some of my natural cynicism, and reflect on the impact of that "infinite horizon."

So few people live in this area, and only a hand-full have Norris's knowledge and perspective, which is the real strength of this book. Particularly for those on the coasts, looking out their windows as they do indeed "fly over," this book would make their journey much more insightful.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on November 09, 2009)
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