“Fargo will be the rival of Chicago or St. Paul someday,” a shrewd political negotiator tells the governor of the Dakota Territory in the early 1880s in Brenda Marshall’s “Dakota, or What’s a Heaven For.” He may even believe what he’s saying, as preposterous as it sounds now. Marshall’s novel, a finalist in the High Plains Book Awards Best Woman Writer category, begins in 1874, extends for roughly a decade, and moves from St. Paul to the area in and around Fargo.
One of Dakota’s epigraphs, from a novel by the 19th-century British author George Eliot, defines a key principle for this story: “There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life.” Intrigues provoked by the Northern Pacific railroad authorities’ land sales, both “bonanza” farms to display to influential easterners and never-plowed plots sold to Norwegian and Russian Jewish immigrants, determine the public life of this novel. Fargo’s role as a “divorce capitol” in the 1880s, a place to establish residency for 90 days to secure an end to one’s marriage, also contributes to the intrigue.
A key figure, Percy Bingham, writes Northern Pacific brochures that optimistically fabricate new lives in unclaimed paradise for families willing to move to the Red River Valley and further west of Fargo. Percy’s success, such as it is, as well as railroad administrators’ and newspaper owners’ manipulation of politicians, also defines the public life in this novel. The events Marshall unfolds occurred 130 years ago, but some features feel very contemporary.
Marshall takes readers to Fort Sully (northwest of Pierre), Yankton (where the Dakota Territory legislators convened), and back to NP offices in Minnesota, filling out the public life dimension of the story. Frederick Billings, “hirsute and dour,” plays a background role. The depiction of him is unflattering: quick to accuse others without solid evidence and distrustful of anyone who might interfere with his profits. Readers living in Montana’s largest city may wish for a name change.
The novel privileges two women. Frances marries the brochure author Percy and moves to a bonanza farm west of Fargo operated by her enterprising father-in-law. Marshall reveals her private unvoiced thoughts, her motives for acting, her desires.
Kirsten Knudson moves into this Bingham household, hired as a teen for a variety of full-time-plus domestic tasks. In the presence of this spirited servant, Frances dispenses with some of her own restrained personal manners. Kirsten progressively sheds her Norwegian language with each passage she narrates. Initially, readers may be challenged by the interference of her Norwegian speech patterns. She plays with the new language she is acquiring, puzzles over English phrases we take for granted, and she’s both comical and insightful. She fails when attempting to make a long story short, which is one of the most satisfying features of her chapters.
The reference to public life determining private life from Eliot’s epigraph also acknowledges cultural conventions, especially as they reinforce rigid gender roles. Frances settled into her marriage with Percy with no family of her own to rely upon and directed by her unspoken love for Percy’s sister, Anna, who Frances knew from boarding school. Anna, inclined to illness, shares a home with her brother, Frances, and her father, first in St. Paul and later on the bonanza farm, yet remains unaware of her sister-in-law’s desires. Marshall vividly depicts a triangulated marriage.
Early in her marriage, “Frances is just plain impatient, with everything and everybody, not least of all with herself, since she is well aware that in the increasingly frustrating contradiction around which she has constructed her life, she can pursue Anna best by doing nothing at all.” Hers is a “paralytic pursuit.”
On her first visit to Fargo, while exploring the land her father-in-law acquired, Frances sees a young woman like a wild mirage stand up in a wagon, reins and whip in her hands, urge her four workhorses at a fast pace: “it had been a breathtaking display, as much for its grace and force as in its inappropriateness. Frances shifted in her seat to rearrange the coils of her bustle and relieve the press of her corset into her side that moments ago she had not noticed. . . . she imagined the girl who had flown past. What, she wondered, must that feel like? And what was this place from which such impossibilities could spring?” In an earlier chapter, Kirsten pondered the word “bustle” after examining magazine pictures of “Yankee women” who “bundle their clothes behind them . . . only to sit on them.” With effective subtlety, Marshall allows Kirsten to highlight what Frances represses.
Percy, an alcoholic underachiever, behaves irresponsibly at home and in public. Anna diminishes as a presence in the life of Frances, in part due to her dependence upon laudanum. A cook for the Binghams posthumously discloses a stunning secret and bestows a gift: all of these plot features cohere in unpredictable ways.
Though Marshall immerses her readers in the public dimension of her characters' lives with impressive historical specificity — this is the traditional core of this realistic novel — the private lives she fleshes out are refreshingly nontraditional. With narrative pacing that's deliberate and circumspect, Marshall creates a full community on the edge of civilization as we know it, and one that many readers will find very satisfying.
Brian Dillon is an English professor at Montana State University Billings.