“This was no little house on the prairie. We smeared musky blue shadow on our eyelids and raspberry gloss on our lips. We wore platform shoes and bell-bottom jeans. It was the times. We were hip-huggered, and tight-sweatered, and navel-exposed. We walked around town like the James gang, tossing this and flashing that.”
Although it has been nearly nine years since I’ve heard my major professor’s voice, I could instantly recall it within the first sentence of her memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. Deb Marquart is a musician as well as a writer, and her voices are rich and lyrical–both her writing voice and her speaking voice. I love everything about this book, from the feel of the dust jacket to the last line. Perhaps it is because I have an affinity for poetic memoirs where place is central. Perhaps it’s because I enjoy these kinds of memoirs, like McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Walls' The Glass Castle. I appreciate a writer who takes time crafting language, fitting words together for the sheer joy of poetry.
Perhaps I love this book because I knew the author, and she picked me. I was two-thirds of the way through my master’s program, and I had taken a year off when Laurel was born. Perhaps I never would have finished if Deb hadn’t called me one day and said, “You need to finish. And I want to help you.” I had been assigned another professor, who was wonderful but willing to let me fizzle out unfinished. Deb took it upon herself to ask him if she could “have” me—if she could step in and be my major professor. And I churned out my thesis, poem after poem, piece by piece. I am eternally grateful to her for that.
Maybe it’s because I recognize myself in this book. Deb has a beautiful way of giving words—giving shape--to familiar thoughts. I had moments all through the book where I said, “Yes! Yes! I know this feeling! I have been in this place!” Just a few:
“There at the supper table I learned to listen. As the youngest child, I was at play in a field that everyone around me had long ago mastered. But listeners have their place in stories as do laughers, a job my grandmother took on. Without listeners and laughers, stories have nowhere to live. They float away and are forgotten.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to pin down a family story. They shift before you like mirages.”
“You have to keep an eye on family stories, lest they fall through the crack between the two worlds.”
“Another reason you can’t go home again is that the shape you made upon leaving does not match your shape upon return. Not even for a weekend is it comfortable to step through the ill-fitting hole that your exit created and take up residence in your old life.”
Marquart writes not only about herself and her family heritage, but about North Dakota itself, the state that is “largely invisible to the rest of the country.” The cold and flat state that was partially and purposefully omitted from Rand McNally’s 1989 World Atlas. She writes of her great-grandparents, Russian immigrants, who saw this land as a place to start fresh—and all she saw was a hated place from which to escape.
Marquart’s writing is exquisite, and the combination of personal memoir and North Dakota lore is perfect. And I really do love the feel of the dust-jacket.