In Browning’s famous Victorian poem “Andrea del Sarto,” the titular speaker, an Italian Renaissance painter, justifies his way with his art by asserting that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” Brenda Marshall titles her expansive and absorbing new historical novel Dakota: Or What’s a Heaven For. Marshall clearly used some late nineteenth-century models (think Middlemarch) to build her book, and she shares the love of detail, politics, and the historical moment those earlier novelists used as they slowly built their characters. This local novelist also obviously enjoys playing on the edge of older styles. For instance, consider this description of a cold morning on the American prairie: “The intricate geometry of frost lacing the windows would have been quite beautiful had it not introduced within the frozen world without.” It’s a lovely sentence, and it could have been written 150 years ago as part of a pastoral English setting.
But it wasn’t, of course. It was written by a contemporary novelist writing a book placed in North Dakota, right at the time in the late 1800s when railroad moguls were running roughshod over the territory, planning to make as much money as they could, grabbing land and selling it to northern European immigrants, then gouging those new farmers to ship their produce back on the new railroads. Greed decided everything–from where a state capital ended up (Pierre, South Dakota!?!) to who married or slept with whom. One of the most beautiful landscapes on earth (or beautiful for those who love the uncluttered and seemingly infinite prairie) becomes the stage where some of the worst human characteristics are displayed. Or what’s a heaven for?
Marshall’s protagonist, Frances Bingham, is a poor girl of some social standing who marries into a Minnesota family with pretensions to wealth and power. The Binghams are associated with the Northern Pacific Railroad and are unwittingly used by even wealthier and greedier folks to control some of the early farmland in what would become North Dakota. Frances marries the Bingham son so she can be close to the real object of her affection, her husband’s invalid sister, Anna. The attraction between the women creates the emotional subtext of Marshall’s Dakota, but she shows exquisite restraint in her portrayal of the fear and barely acknowledged repression that controls their lives. To say that this is the “love that dare not speak its name” would be far too easy for these characters. It is a love that the characters cannot even allow themselves to recognize. But into this picture comes Kirsten Knudson, the daughter of penniless Norwegian homesteaders, who is one of the strongest and most winning characters I’ve met in any recent book. To my mind, she becomes the spiritual heart of this large and absorbing chronicle of one American moment and the people living through it. I’ll leave you to discover her on your own.
Brenda Marshall reads from Dakota at Nicola’s Books on November 10 and discusses it at the Hatcher Library Author’s Forum on November 17.