Book Review : The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart

Reviewed by Sue Kreke Rumbaugh

North Dakota, with its lack of elevation, vegetation, and rain along with the demands of the farming life, provide the fertile ground from which the luscious layers of desire and longing in our author and protagonist develop. Debra Marquart’s memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, for those who enjoy memoir and stories about place, is a must-read. Marquart’s tone of language along with thoughtful imagery and texture of relationships are delicious.

From the outset we are taken into the world of a young girl on a farm, wanting out. North Dakota was not the landscape, nor the lifestyle that Marquart wanted, despite her family’s long and proud history here. She watched as her mother work tirelessly, milking cows while simultaneously washing clothes and preparing meals. The roles for women on the prairie were not for her. Farmboys, “their hands heavy with horniness,” were intriguing, but in the end, not for her either. Driving tractors through rocky land was not for her. Their farmhouse, once an icehouse, “big, drafty” in winter and “hot and airless” in summer was not for her. Getting out was what she wanted. To launch herself on a road to someplace else, somewhere that she could put down roots and grow, took courage, vision and a strong spirit to break free from the boundaries of her family and the strong pull of this place.

She was a farmgirl, “the ones who lived north, south, east, and west of town. In the middle of all this was me – the girl I was then – the watcher, leaning toward the periphery.” Marquart survived by learning to manage the demands placed upon her and through her love of music, singing, books and imagining her life elsewhere. In the end, the harshness of the land is what enabled her – pushed her – to cultivate the life of her dreams.

In the prologue: “Pilgrim Soul” we learn about the author’s, eager, restless and adventurous soul and her desire to move out into the world. At its conclusion we know that we are going with her on this adventure, the beginning of all that lies ahead for her. Off to college, she looks back at the 70-foot tall rows of cottonwood trees that her great-grandfather planted on either side of the driveway to her family’s farm and laments, “I got myself on that road, and I did not wave back. I concentrated only on flight.”

Marquart’s story that follows begins, ironically, with a return to North Dakota. She comes home with her husband, to attend her father’s funeral, and sees things in a new, deeper way. Revisiting as an adult brings a new point of view, one of researcher. Now she is in search of answers that have haunted her and send her into an investigation of her Russian ancestry as well as what it means to be a farmer’s daughter. Throughout, we see here seeking her father’s approval, which shows up after his death, here and there, as oddly funny little affirmations. As the story unfolds through memories of her childhood, we are reminded that our author feels a strong connection to this place: “Gravity seems to pull stronger in Logan County….the grounding heaviness of the place.”

As the story progresses and we find our protagonist on the other side of her college career, working as an English teacher, Marquart reflects back on an earlier time when her father advised her about her pending work life. “Meaningful work, my father once told me, is something I should never hope for….” Which leads the reader to reflect on the work in which our author is now engaged. The story ends with the moment she learned of her father’s death and remembrances of conversations between the two of them, including their final conversation where we experience the forgiveness between a well-intentioned father and a high-spirited daughter.

In her epilogue, “Sustainable Agriculture: The Farmer’s Daughter Revisited”, Marquart creatively uses the age-old “farmer’s daughter” jokes, placing herself, fictitiously, at its center. In the end we learn how her version of the joke ends. To say more would ruin the story.
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Debra Marquart is a professor of English at Iowa State University. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University and the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Marquart’s work has appeared in numerous journals such as The North American Review, Three Penny Review, New Letters, River City, Crab Orchard Review, Cumberland Poetry Review, The Sun Magazine, Southern Poetry Review, Orion, Mid-American Review and Witness.

In the seventies and eighties, Marquart was a touring road musician with rock and heavy metal bands. Her collection of short stories, The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories draws from her experiences as a female road musician. Marquart continues to perform with a jazz-poetry rhythm & blues project, The Bone People, with whom she has released two CDs: Orange Parade (acoustic rock), and A Regular Dervish (jazz-poetry).

Marquart’s work has received numerous awards and commendations, including the John Guyon Nonfiction Award (Crab Orchard Review), the Mid-American Review Nonfiction Award, The Headwater’s Prize from New Rivers Press, the Minnesota Voices Award, the Pearl Poetry Award (Pearl Editions), the Shelby Foote Prize for the Essay from the Faulkner Society, a Pushcart Prize, and a 2008 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship.

The horizontal world was published in 2006 by Counterpoint and received the “Elle Lettres” award from Elle Magazine and the 2007 PEN USA Creative Nonfiction Award. In addition, Marquart is a performance poet, the author of two poetry collections: Everything’s a Verb and From Sweetness. She is currently at work on a novel, set in Greece, titled Evidence of Olives; a roots/travel memoir about immigration, geographical flight, and cultural amnesia titled Somewhere Else this Time Tomorrow; and poetry collection titled, Small Buried Things. For more information or to contact the author: www.debramarquart.com

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