“Dakota, Or What’s A Heaven For”

“Dakota” could have been a Ken Follett novel, so sweeping and huge is this novel. It spans nationalities and social classes, and zeroes in on two families whose fortunes intersect in Dakota Territory. From there author Brenda Marshall puts her own distinctive stamp on this novel with a historical background.

Dakota Territory is still being settled when we meet the characters, most of them connected somehow with the Northern Pacific Railroad. Anyone from these parts will recognize names that are sprinkled throughout – Chaffee, Billings, Kindred, Stutsman — as men who went on to name towns after themselves or have counties named for them.

Marshall, who grew up in Cass County and now lives in Michigan, has a great imagination, creating conversations and turmoil among characters who fit in well with the recorded history that she’s researched. At a book reading in Fargo, Marshall said that her purpose was to show immigrants becoming Americans. That evolution is most evident in Kirsten, a Norwegian immigrant who goes to work as a housekeeper for the Bingham family on their bonanza farm.

Marshall re-creates the pioneer times through the characters and their language. Kirsten is curious enough to ask about meanings of words and she works hard on learning the language. Entries from her perspective show her progress in English, and the breakdown of class distinctions. The blurring of class lines also comes from both directions, as Frances Bingham begins to interact more casually with the hired help than her high-class husband Percy would prefer.

At times Kirsten sounds like Yoda in Star Wars, but that’s the cadence of the Norwegian language that she’s learned from birth. Some spellings are eccentric, in keeping with the times, but other errors are apparently those missed in proofreading. Still, Kirsten can be the comic relief in the novel. She’s a strong woman, who becomes stronger with education — an emerging American.

Alcoholism, bigotry, poverty are problems in Dakota territory just as they are today. Kirsten’s father, Torger Knudson, “escapes” to Fargo with milk, eggs and crops to sell, but comes back drunk and empty-handed. Whenever possible, the eldest son, Sten, goes with Torger to make sure that he comes back with supplies from the store. At times Torger turns into a nasty drunk and accuses his wife of having an affair with a neighbor.

In contrast, Frances’ husband, Percy Bingham, is the alcoholic in the family. His father, John Bingham, doesn’t perceive the drinking as a problem, until Frances brings it to his attention, and then extracts a promise that he won’t say anything to Percy. And where the Knudson family lives hand-to-mouth by the fruits of their labors, the Binghams live on credit.

Marshall includes everything notable about the Dakotas: blizzards, floods, the wind, the lack of landmarks, and all the lore that has been passed down about each. She also talks about the plentiful prairie roses and wildflowers, the bright blue skies, the sunsets and the waving fields of grain, as well as the strength of its pioneers.

The only big glitch in the novel is the strong homosexual theme. Frances is in love with her sister-in-law Anna; in fact that’s why Frances married Anna’s brother, Percy. Certainly homosexuality isn’t new, but in those days, wouldn’t Frances have been taught that it was a perversion? Wouldn’t she have tried to suppress her desire? Frances is a strong character and wants what Kirsten ultimately possesses: land in her own name and freedom to determine her own destiny. The question is: Will she get it?

Published by the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, “Dakota” is also available through Amazon.com.