She wanted more than farm life, but can't forget it

Review Essays


The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere

Debra Marquart

Counterpoint / 270 pages / $24

Born and bred in a "small North Dakota town east of the Missouri River," Debra Marquart was the youngest daughter of a farmer father - a pretty blonde with a fine singing voice and a genius for rebellion.

Even as a girl, she knew she wanted out of a place that offered little more than "[t]hree blistering months of summer packed between eight bitter months of winter." She knew she despised her chores, pitied the presumed captivity of farmers' wives, wanted not to be what she was supposed to be - a guardian of a swath of land passed down through generations. She studied TV shows and consulted maps with a fevered determination to take leave. She smoked her cigarettes and went off with boys to do the sorts of things that proved her independence. She had a talent, she writes in her new book, The Horizontal World, for metaphor - "[t]his habit of drawing equations between unlikely objects."

The Horizontal World is a collection of essays, of memories shaped over time. It is a book of reflection on a place that few of us will ever know - a repository of richly limned anecdotes about the separation of calves from their mothers, chickens' heads from their necks, town girls from farm girls, brothers from sisters and dreams from reality. Marquart's ability to place us there, with her, in that desolate, surprising, defeating, liberating, pitiable, gorgeous world is her great talent. Her decision to focus on the crafting of each individual essay, as opposed to the creation of a cohering, narrative whole, makes for a book in which exquisite phrasing and insights bump up against occasional repetitions of biographical fact (we're frequently reminded throughout, for example, that Marquart had a career as a rock singer), not to mention jarring shifts in tone.

Marquart reaches her most effective emotional heights writing about her father, a man who loved to sing and was physically fragile, yet who nonetheless took on the shackled life of a farmer. He was a great storyteller who steered clear of intimate moments. He had his kids driving trucks and dangerous machinery before their feet could even reach pedals. When the author drops out of college to tour with a leather-clad rock band, her father can hardly hide his disdain. Marquart is not at her father's side when he dies, though at the hospital where he lay ill she had promised him that she would return. She barely makes it home in time for his funeral. She doesn't get to say to him, in the end, "Dad, I do love you."

And yet, the love of this daughter for her father is unmistakable - the book's clearest through-line, its most wrenching, prevailing emotion. Maybe, we come to understand, Marquart needs to leave her father because she's too much like him. Maybe she doesn't give herself enough time to get to the funeral not out of selfishness or poor planning, but out of a desire to keep her cherished memories alive: "I thought of my father's body dressed in a blue suit, lying parallel to the horizon inside a steel blue coffin lined with satin. I didn't want to see his hands held together in eternal prayer, a black rosary wound around his fingers. I didn't want to shake the thin, sympathetic hand of the undertaker or admire the sheaf of wheat bound with a blue ribbon and placed inside his coffin. ... I wanted to remember those hands shuffling a deck of cards, dealing ten to me, ten to him, picking up spares and slapping down discards. ..."

Marquart has published poetry as well as a collection of lyrical stories, and her mastery of the single sentence is superb. One hears the singer in her, the woman who has spent a lifetime holding notes high, or cutting them, dramatically, short. One can imagine passages being read aloud.

But Marquart's artistry can devolve into gimmickry, and sometimes the connections between her purported themes and anecdotes run dangerously thin. I found the chapter "The Horizontal Life" to be particularly difficult. Announcing itself as a piece about Marquart's early sexual exploits, this essay, written in an odd third person, feels more like a literary exercise than an honest reckoning. The insights don't quite feel earned, and the writing is coy - strutting and proud in places, eliding and tedious in others: "The grain elevator burning down will prove to be a symbolic event in her life, not that the girl that I was would have perceived it as such, since she had never heard of symbols and will not hear about symbolism for a good many years - long after she had ceased to be herself and was well on her way to becoming someone else who would, by some strange twist of fate, become me."

Such passages notwithstanding, Marquart regains her power over readers in ensuing chapters. In the book's strongest essay, "Signs and Wonders," she effectively combines the discovery that a river has been flowing - mysteriously, unheralded - beneath her hometown for years with a deeply touching final sequence on her father's life and death. Here Marquart keeps her themes close, her story purposeful. She weaves a web that holds. She finds vestiges of her father in dimes, and on the letters of a student's baseball cap. She hears him speak in a dream. She has a confession to make, and she makes it. "Signs and Wonders" is Marquart at her best - her language musical, her heart open, her faith in forgiveness ripe and real.

Beth Kephart, the author of five memoirs, wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times. Her first novel, for young adults, and another book about Philadelphia's Schuylkill River are due out in 2007.

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