Kathleen Norris, author of “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography,” may live in Hawaii now, but that doesn’t mean she’s removed from the Dakotas — and the isolation, economic challenges and desolate beauty found there. It’s something the three states have in common, she said.
“Obviously, it’s not the climate,” she said by phone last week. “If it gets into the 50s here, it’s news. There are so many differences, but one of the similarities is that a lot of the people who grow up here would love to stay, but the young people have to leave because the jobs just aren’t here, unless you have a family business or a farm that you can move into.”
The economies of the Dakotas and Hawaii can both be very fragile, she said.
“In Hawaii, we’re way too dependent on the tourist economy,” she said. “The Dakotas can be too dependent on whimsical things, like farming. Farming isn’t usually described as whimsical, but you put your seed in the ground and it’s a gamble.”
And then there’s the isolation.
“The Hawaiian Islands chain is the most isolated in the world,” she said. “The Dakotas are isolated. They’re kind of left off the national radar. It can make the people insular in their thinking. Not with everyone, certainly, but you can find it.”
Norris has made the connection between landscape and lifestyle before. It’s been 21 years since her award-winning nonfiction book “Dakota” was released, drawing critical acclaim as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and as one of Library Journal’s best books of the year.
Now “Dakota” is getting another look as this year’s One Book South Dakota selection. Each year since 2003, the South Dakota Humanities Council has selected a book that all South Dakotans are encouraged to read and discuss. Norris’ book is also the common read for North Dakota; the two states’ humanities councils and anniversary committees are collaborating to commemorate the states’ 125th anniversary of statehood.
Norris will tour the state beginning with a stop at 1 p.m. today at the Rapid City Public Library.
“Norris’ work is really a unique reflection on what it means to be a Dakotan, what our characteristics are and how we’re shaped by the amazing landscape around us,” Jennifer Widman, director of the South Dakota Center for the Book, said in a news release.
In “Dakota,” Norris tells the story of her journey back to Lemmon, the hometown of her maternal grandmother, Charlotte Totten. The book is also a story of faith: Norris became the first Protestant oblate, or associate, of Assumption Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in North Dakota.
The often-inhospitable Dakota landscape frames the story, which she fills with descriptions of small towns and the people who live there, a wide-open sky and remote places that can seem very foreign to some.
“So many people back East were curious about the place; only a few of them had the nerve to make the drive,” Norris said. When friends finally came out and drove down Hoover Road through the Slim Buttes, “They were all just stunned,” she said.
“The Black Hills are an easy sell. It just takes a different eye to appreciate what’s out there on the prairie,” she said. “People talk about this — they hear there’s nothing there — but there’s everything there: Someone’s planted a crop, the grassland, the flowers. It doesn’t draw the eye the way the mountains do — and some people just can’t take it.”
On a recent flight over South Dakota on a clear day, Norris took note of the familiar landscape.
“I kept looking out the window. And coming up on the Missouri River, we passed over Chamberlain. And everything I said about the geography, you could see it from the air. Boxes of farmland: a little greener, more trees. The minute you cross into West River, the landscape starts to look like a crumpled paper bag. The difference is where the glacier stopped. It’s really stunning if you know what you’re looking at,” she said.
On her tour, Norris is looking forward to hearing readers’ own take on the landscape and how the book may or may not still ring true.
“I’ll be very interested in the responses and for people to tell me how things have changed,” she said. “In a way, it’s dated. The farm crisis I described, I was talking about what I saw in the early ‘80s in Lemmon. But of course, it’s become a perpetual farm crisis. A lot of the conditions that existed back then still exist.”
Even the current North Dakota oil boom is familiar; Norris worked as an artist in the schools during the oil boom of the ‘80s in Williston and Dickinson.
“One of the things you hope a book like this does is to inspire people to work on their own stories about the state,” she said. “I’m kind of hoping that it will inspire people to keep talking about South Dakota. Even with the oil boom in North Dakota, both of those states are pretty much ignored in the national scene. They’re almost exotic.”
In 2000, Norris left Lemmon after 25 years and moved to Hawaii due to her husband’s health problems. While she was writing her most recent book, 2008’s “Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life,” both her father, Dr. Frank Totten, and her husband, poet David Dwyer, died.
“The last book I wrote kind of wore me out,” she said. “I researched it for 20 years. I’m kind of regrouping now.”
She continues to live in Hawaii, where she grew up, to be near her mother.
“I never expected to be here full time,” she said. “It was a kind of place I loved and my parents loved. They were both from South Dakota.”
And South Dakota is very much in her future plans. She may get to spend a semester at South Dakota State University teaching a seminar on creative writing. But she doesn’t have a specific book project in mind.
“The thing I haven’t explored much but might in another book is the weird similarities between Hawaii and South Dakota.,” she said. “I’m in this unique position of knowing both places.”