Spring 2007




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Ellen Rice

Reflections on Debra Marquart reading from her memoir,
The Horizontal World: growing up wild in the middle of nowhere

I can think of no better place or time than bustling uptown Minneapolis on a gorgeous Friday night to hear a genuine farm girl read about her “wild” upbringing in North Dakota. My husband, who is a purebred city man and well acquainted with the wild side of life, does not understand my attraction to books, but he insisted, nonetheless, on escorting me downtown. After parking the car, he walked me to the bookstore’s front door, glanced suspiciously first through the window, then at me, and hurried off to the nearest bar. I could only hope he would be okay.

Magers and Quinn is a booklover’s wonderland, overpopulated with an incredibly diverse assortment of reads. If you enjoy spending a good time between the covers as much as I do, you need look no further. Whatever your desire, you can find it here. I prodded myself to the small center of the store, where folding chairs were squeezed close between the crowded shelves, and took the lone seat off to the side. The crowd was surprisingly larger than I expected. Seems more people were interested in windswept farmland and its untamed offspring than I realized.

“Be careful of farmboys, we warned each other. They know how to plant seeds,” she began, reading from the prologue. I couldn’t help but think of my dad, and the truth of the author’s words. She continued:

“Sometimes towngirls who don’t know any better marry farmboys. First they get all soft and romantic at the sight of those rugged farmboy hands. Then they begin to imagine their idyllic life on the farm. It would be nice to have some animals, the towngirls croon. Maybe a horse or two.”

She read on, pulling me into her world with such clarity of detail that I found myself on the farm, watching a young girl grow wildly amidst neatly planted crop rows and corralled-in cows. Marquart mingles her vivid recollections of adolescence with a history of the prairie land and its people, resulting in a story that stretches far beyond her own horizontal world. Still, with all the back telling that Marquart does of glaciers and water-covered land giving way to drought-ridden flatland, she never fails to keep each word, every geological fact, relevantly alive. You understand just how connected the past is to the present.

Her reading evoked a wide range of emotions from the engaged audience, the liveliest response coming from her description of manure. She began blandly enough, considering the subject, but soon took us where surely no one was ready to go: straight into cow shit.

“I’ve seen it in pastures—huge cow pies sprouting mushrooms, amazing droppage buzzing with flies, full of grass, seeds, and maggots, or dried flat as a Frisbee along the trail. There’s a certain shade of it, an orangish, mustardy yellow with an almost fluorescent flow, called scours, which is a signal that you probably have a very sick calf on your hands.”

All the grossness has a point, like everything she writes. A little education, a bit of definition, and some medical interpretation, which most of us have no use for, is no less interesting. I was beginning to understand just how little I knew when it comes to crafting a story. Marquart is a master.

This wonderful writer captivated me, and I’m sure the others present would agree. On the outside, she appeared a refined city woman with delicate features and a soft-spoken voice. Yet her memoir reveals a girl who struggles as girls do, whether farm-raised or not. The universal truths about growing up, breaking free and finding your way, understanding who you are, where you came from and why you’re here, resonate a familiarity with the wildness in us all.

Marquart’s reading enticed me to look deeper than the surface of my own life. It urged me to reach out to deeper places and uncover truths that go beyond the smallness of my brief time and place in this big world. Her incredible ability to tell her own story so that each of us can see ourselves, somehow, somewhere in the middle of hers, speaks for the value of writing that doesn’t settle for good enough. Reach higher, work harder, and tell it better.

After questions about craft, motivation, inspiration and other writerly curiosities, Ms. Marquart picked up her pen and began signing books. I wanted to join the growing line, but having bought my book, I remembered my husband sitting in alone in a bar down the street. I better go see if he’s okay, I thought, and ventured out into the wild city night on my own.

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