Pioneers on the prairies of Dakota Territory

  • Article by: CHUCK HAGA
  • Updated: February 25, 2011 - 3:02 PM

A sweeping novel set on the plains of North Dakota.

Dakota by Brenda K. Marshall

This sweeping novel about the late 19th-century settling of Dakota Territory is not a substitute for O. E. Rolvaag's "Giants in the Earth," that greatest of immigrants-on-the- prairie stories.

But it's a worthy supplement and expansion on the theme, broadening the story of pioneers challenged by wind, fire and desperate loneliness to include the bankers, railroaders and land speculators, many of whom came out of the Twin Cities to make their fortunes in such muddy upstart towns as Fargo, Yankton and Bismarck, and on the vast "bonanza farms" of the Red River Valley.

Marshall, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, grew up on a Red River Valley farm, and she writes knowingly about the rich but treeless land, the wheat ripening from green to gold in fields reaching to the horizon. She knows the screaming pitch of wind in a two-day blizzard, and she appreciates the languorous beauty of a late-spring prairie sunset.

This is a work of fiction, but she has drawn deeply from the true history of this time and place to portray the lives, characters and dreams of Scandinavian, Jewish, Bohemian and other immigrants, including one of the heroes of her story, an insightful and delightfully earnest Norwegian girl-becoming-woman named Kirsten Knudson.

Alexander "Boss" McKenzie and his political stooges are here, and so are people -- high-born and low, rich Yankees and penniless immigrants -- who struggle with alcohol, greed, family dysfunction, thwarted ambition and despair. Marshall writes about them all, giants and failures, and their Dakota, with grace and sensitivity.

  • DAKOTA, OR WHAT'S A HEAVEN FOR

    By: Brenda K. Marshall.

    Publisher: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 473 pages, $24.95.

    Review: Written by someone who knows and loves the prairies, this novel is true to the lives and characters of the late 19th-century Dakota Territory.

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