(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris writes about the stark, scarcely populated landscapes of western North and South Dakota. Norris writes of a harsh and beautiful country, of small towns rich in immigrant traditions, of a Benedictine monastery as sacred as the grasslands surrounding it, and of her journey toward constructing a literary and spiritual life.

Dakota, a nonfiction work, is part autobiography, part religious meditation, and part social history. The book captures the specific character of the European American immigrants who settled and still inhabit the western Dakotas. The western Dakotas share a terrain and an identity different than their eastern counterpoints. These isolated places share particularly barren winters and fierce summers. The people who live there are insular and fiercely independent. According to Norris, the western Dakotas are often presented as lacking physical beauty and culture.

Without ever leaving the landscape behind, Norris subtly inverts what is commonly regarded as lack and reveals the area’s hidden plenitude. What others might call deprivation—isolation, lack of airports and symphony halls, small town life, harsh winters, monastic discipline—she reimagines as privilege. Norris’ definition of spiritual identity and conversion is hard-won and perhaps unsurpassed in contemporary American letters. Norris writes about being an oblate, a lay member of a Benedictine monastery in western North Dakota, offering a rare and honest glimpse into American Catholic, monastic spiritual traditions. Norris also writes about her work as a lay preacher in a small, Protestant church in South Dakota, affirming the importance of such communities. Dakota is almost an elegiac work, written about communities that have survived rigorous demands of weather, landscape, and the changing American culture. She writes with an awareness, however, of what the threatened loss of western Dakota communities, and perhaps communities like them all over the country, might mean.

For Norris, external geography shapes internal geography. One’s external landscapes shape one’s internal senses of time and place, influence one’s view of material goods, and shape one’s ways of talking and acting. The landscapes of the western Dakotas are different from any other American landscapes—so, too, must be the inner landscapes of those who live there. Dakota speaks of an American need to construct a sense of soul or identity somehow at peace with the geographical places and the human communities where one lives.