Andrea Reads America: South Dakota

Map of books set in South Dakota
Andrea Reads America: South Dakota

I grew up loving the Little House books, and when we lived in Minnesota, I didn’t realize how close we were to the prairies of South Dakota where Laura Ingalls Wilder settled. We took a weekend trip to the prairie in the western part of Minnesota when we lived there, near the South Dakota border, and the prairie was everything I’d hoped it’d be. We camped in summer at Blue Mounds state park in Minnesota.

The tall grasses were golden, as was the light at the end of the day, and the prairie rippled in wind like waves on the ocean. The land was flat, and we could see forever in that wide open space, where on the horizon grey-black clouds swept across the land full of fierce lightning. It was a wild and beautiful place, and I was eager to arrive in South Dakota on my reading tour so I could be a part of it again.

Dakota a spiritual geography by Kathleen Norris Nonfiction book: Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
Author: Kathleen Morris, born and raised in western South Dakota
Setting: modern farm near Lemmon, SD

Filled with essays on monastic life and its similarities to the ascetic quiet and harshness of western Dakota, this is a beautiful book about both living alone and living in a small community that depends on its members for survival.

It seems to me that especially in Western Dakota we live in tension between myth and truth. Are we cowboys are farmers? Are we fiercely independent frontier types or community builders?

The setting — the plains, the wind, the brutality of the weather —  is as much a character in the book as the people, if not more so. It is always a delight to read prose by poets for that reason. The way Norris describes the simple act of hanging laundry — and that there would be such a thing as a good laundry day — captured almost everything about the place to me, especially as I remembered the beauty of hanging laundry in Minnesota: the sunshine on it, the way it swung in the breeze, and its fresh air scent, like the sheets and shirts and pillowcases had gathered the essence of outside for us to bring in.

I get started early, before six. It promises to be a good laundry day: a steady wind but not too strong… Hanging up wet clothes gives me time alone under the sky to think, to grieve, and gathering the clean clothes in, smelling the sunlight on them, is victory.

Little Town on the Prairie book cover Novel: Little Town on the Prairie
Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder, settler in South Dakota
Setting: 1870s De Smet, SD

Laura Ingalls Wilder writes the beauty and wholesomeness of the pioneer life like no other. She leaves out the ugliness present in nearly every other pioneer or frontier book I’ve ever read. I appreciate that when I’m looking for light, pretty reading. As I age, though, it’s hard to ignore how whitewashed it is, and it’s disappointing to see the prejudices that exist even in Christian families like the Ingalls. It makes me sad to see how pervasive prejudice is, and I am weary with the struggle of constantly having to separate the art from the artist. Rather than go into all that, I’ll leave a pretty passage here that I loved.

The wind went by, and in the house the air stirred, pleasantly warmed by the cookstove and scented with prairie freshness and food and tea and a cleanness of soap and a faint lingering smell of the new boards that made the new bedrooms.

The Soul of the Indian book cover Nonfiction book: The Soul of the Indian
Author: Charles Alexander Eastman, Sioux doctor appointed to a SD Indian Reservation
Setting: late 1800s Dakota Indian territory

Published in 1911 by a Native American chief, The Soul of the Indian is a first-hand account of the Dakota Indians’ social structure, religion, and some of their ceremonies. It was a bit of a dry read, but given the misconceptions of native tribes and their rituals at the time, I don’t think it was intended to be entertaining. Instead it was intended to observe, inform, and educate.

Given my disappointment in the Ingalls above, I appreciated reading some of Eastman’s wise observations about Christianity, civilization, and their own spirituality,.

Even in those white men who professed religion we found much inconsistency of conduct. They spoke of spiritual things while seeking only the material. The bought and sold everything: time, labor, personal independence, the love of women, and even the ministrations of their holy faith!

Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt, the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime — a black thundercloud with the rainbow’s glowing arch above the mountain; a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood red of sunset — he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship. He sees no need for setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since to him all days are God’s.

Andrea Reads America: South Carolina

Map of books set in South Carolina
Andrea Reads America: South Carolina

South Carolina is close to where I grew up in Georgia, and reading it was like going back in time to when I could see Hilton Head, SC from the beach at Tybee Island, GA. I read a lot of Pat Conroy in my early years, and then Sue Monk Kidd a little later, so it was fun to go back and re-read some of these books and pick up a new one along the way. Reading South Carolina made me crave the brackish water of the salt marsh and the sound of cicadas on hot summer mornings.

Prince of Tides book coverNovel: The Prince of Tides
Author: Pat Conroy, born and raised in South Carolina
Setting: 1960s and 1980s coastal South Carolina

There is no doubt whatsoever that Pat Conroy knows the low country: tides, marshways, shrimp, oysters, odors and aromas, light, and the essence of the liquid and mud landscape. The first time I read this, as a teenager, I think, I was gutted by how accurately he described the marshes and the tidal creeks that run through them.

As I moved the boat through the breakwaters, with James Island on my starboard side, moonlight infused the tassels of sea oats shimmering on the tide-stuck dunes. The waves, inlaid with phosphorous and plankton, fell in soft wings against the bow.

It is a sadder book to me reading it as an adult. Though it was plenty sad the first time for obvious reasons once you know the story, this time I couldn’t help but see how obsessed The South can be with being The South, and the damage that obsession does to its people. All the unwritten rules, the expectations for men, women, blacks, whites. This isn’t unique. Many places are obsessed with being themselves and wave their provincial norms like a banner, ever perpetuating them even if they don’t believe in them, even when they recognize the harm those norms do. Something about this book just called it to my attention in a way it did not in my first reading when I was probably too young to notice something like that.

After a second reading, The Prince of Tides still stands as the best book I’ve read in capturing what the coastal lands and waters of the low country of Georgia and South Carolina look, smell, taste, and feel like: how deep in the bones and a part of the blood they are for many people who live among them.

Clover by Dori Sanders book cover Novel: Clover
Author: Dori Sanders, born York County, SC 1934
Setting: rural South Carolina

Clover, a 10 year-old black girl, has lost her mother and the grandfather who raised her while her father was away earning money. When her father moves back home and becomes principal of her school, and then dies in a car accident the day he marries a white woman, Sarah Kate, Clover is left to be raised by a woman who is a stranger to her.

Clover lives in a small South Carolina community, among her aunts, uncles, and community friends, and nobody understands why Gaten (Clover’s father) would marry a white woman. Nobody trusts Sarah Kate to do right by Clover.

It’s still kind of hard getting used to someone like Sarah Kate. She just doesn’t seem to fit in anyplace.

Clover is the story of Clover, Sarah Kate, and all of the community grieving together, helping one another, coming to love each other, and Sarah Kate becoming a part of the community nobody ever believed she’d belong to.

I appreciated the grace in this book, and the descriptions of summer in inland South Carolina — at the peach stand the family ran, in the hot living rooms, and the sounds that make you feel it even when you’re reading in the mountains of Virginia in late winter.

Anytime you have them old cicadas singing so strong this early in the day, you know it’s gonna be a scorcher.

Mermaid Chair book cover Novel: The Mermaid Chair
Author: Sue Monk Kidd, lived in Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, SC
Setting: a South Carolina barrier island

Set on a fictitious island off the coast of South Carolina, accessible only by boat, The Mermaid Chair is Jessie Sullivan’s dive into the deep waters of herself after putting herself into the box of her marriage of 20 years. In those 20 years she did not grow: she did not explore her needs, passions, or deep loves.

Early in the book she travels from her safe and routine life to her childhood home of Egret Island to tend to her mother, who has chopped off her own finger with a meat cleaver. While there, Jessie falls in love with the marshes of her island home, and also with a doubting monk who tends the rookery for the monastery on the island.

The descriptions of Egret Island were more of a tackified tourist village of a coastal town, with knick-knacks and brightly colored buildings, than I expected. It felt a shallow description of the coastal world when compared with Pat Conroy’s deep knowing of the marshes, so I wasn’t surprised to read in the author’s notes that she’d researched barrier islands of South Carolina — she hadn’t grown up there. The small towns of Secret Life of Bees seemed more authentic (though I’ve never lived in a small town in SC, so what do I know?), but I loved The Mermaid Chair anyway.

Andrea Reads America: Rhode Island

Map of 3 books set in Rhode Island: Spartina, The Lowland, The Book That Matters Most
Andrea Reads America: Rhode Island

Until I read Rhode Island, I had no idea it had a rich coast of marshland like my home state of Georgia, 900 miles to the south. I had seen the title Spartina on a list of National Book Award winners and was startled when I saw it was based in Rhode Island rather than the southeastern or mid-Atlantic coast, which I thought was Spartina grass’s northern limit. The Lowland also features the coastal beauty of Rhode Island’s marshes and estuaries, where fresh water meets the sea. Because of these marshes, the beaches, the ocean scenes, and the marine life that appear in these books, I loved reading Rhode Island. I’d like to visit and explore it more in real life now.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri book cover
Novel: The Lowland
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri, raised in South Kingstown, RI
Setting: Providence, Rhode Island and Calcutta (India)

In The Lowland, Subhash, a quiet, stable Indian boy moves from the estuarine areas of Calcutta to those of Rhode Island to study marine chemistry. His brother Udayan – the risky, idealistic revolutionary – stays behind and gets himself killed. Udayan’s early, violent death shapes the next 50 years of the lives of the people around him: his brother, wife, parents, and unborn child.

Filled with beautiful descriptions of both Rhode Island and Calcutta, and especially of the estuarine life within them, The Lowland was a comfort in many ways.

On cloudy days, at intervals, the sound of a foghorn pierced the air, as conch shells were blown in Calcutta to ward off evil.

In other ways, The Lowland was full of sorrow. It shows how a single moment can break people for the rest of their years: they can be alive in that they breathe and move physically through space, but dead to the beauty of the life they still have.

What struck me most about this book is how magnificently Lahiri illustrates the ways death can distort life. The Lowland is a masterpiece for that.

The tree seemed more overwhelming when it lay on the ground. Its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived.

The Book That Matters Most book cover
Novel: The Book That Matters Most
Author: Ann Hood, born West Warwick, RI
Setting: Providence, Rhode Island

When Ava’s husband leaves her and she’s desperate to cope, she begs Cate for an invitation to the library’s hard-to-enter book club: there are only 10 spots in it. Ava lucks out and gets to join, and the assignment for the  year is for each member to pick the book that matters most to them. The book club will read and discuss it as a group.

As Ava navigates her divorce and a bad-girl daughter gone missing in Europe, memories of the summer both her sister and mother died keep coming back to her, along with memories of the book she read and re-read that entire summer to get through it. That book was the book that matters most to her. Finding copies of it for the club to read proved almost impossible, and led her on a quest that ultimately answered questions she’d been asking all her life.

Though sometimes unrealistic, like how easily one character recovers from a heroin addiction, this was a quick and fun read with a love of books at its heart.

Spartina by John Casey book coverNovel: Spartina
Author: John Casey
Setting: 1980s coast of Rhode Island

I have a soft spot in my heart for authors who capture the essence of the marshy world on the edge of the Atlantic ocean. Until I read Spartina, the only author who moved me and made me feel like, “Yes, they know the marsh, they get it,” is South Carolina’s Pat Conroy. Now I know John Casey gets it as well.

Unfortunately, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. After reading this book about a crotchety, Rhode Island waterman who chases a younger woman who gives him her full attention, and therefore cheats on his exhausted, neglected wife while she does all the work at home and raises their children, it is no surprise that the author himself, a professor at UVA, has been accused by his students of sexual harassment. I read the book, its style, and how easily the husband cheats without being held accountable by the people he hurt, and think, yep, I can see that. I can see this author being an asshole.

Spartina is filled with scenes of marshes and mud, sea birds and lobster pots, and a mariner’s life on the water. It is a story of a lost, working class white man in New England who is trying to find himself, and does so in the crucible of a storm at sea. This scene —  of a man saving his boat from a hurricane by boarding it and riding out the storm by meeting it head on, in all of its violence of howling wind, mountainous waves, slashing rain, and darkness — is one of those scenes from a book I will always remember.