I’m glad I wrote it. I would not write it today. It damaged several friendships. I learned the hard way that when you write about living people, you invariably upset some of them, no matter how favorably you write about them. The book is really a love song to the Great Plains. It takes the form of a series of essays about how the Great Plains shape the character of the people who live there. The hero of the book is not I—I’m merely the one lucky enough to have been the lens, to have engaged in the travels and the adventures. The hero is Patti Perry, the former mayor of Marmarth, North Dakota, and one of the most remarkable persons I have ever met. A good deal of the book takes place in and around Marmarth, a very odd and enchanting place in extreme southwestern North Dakota.
My purpose has long been to try to understand the Great Plains and the people who live there. I address questions of spirit of place, family, the clunky integrity of small towns, the future of agriculture, gender construction, the “culture” of the plains, space, and above all the improbability of Great Plains life.
My favorite chapters in the book are the account of Anne Rawlinson’s flute solo at the bunkhouse in Marmarth (“Rampal, Opus 47, in Marmarth”), and the chapter about my mother’s journeys in cowboy and ranch country in western North Dakota (“Let Them Be Rock Stars and Scholars and Such”).
The corridor is sacred because the people out here are closer to the raw than the rest of us. Most of them have seen a calf pulled. Most of them have witnessed a fatal car accident. Most of them have hauled a bale of hay. Most of them have swept their refuse off the back of the pickup into the pungent gash of the town landfill. Most of them have been to a foreclosure auction. Most of them have dug open a drain field and smelled the smell of death and unbridled organicism at very close range. When the horse dies they call up the rendering plant and then they smell the result as they drive on a Friday night to the VFW dance in the nearby market town. Everyone knows someone who lost a finger in a power takeoff accident. This is a landscape of fundamentals.
To read Clay’s chapter on Patti Perry and his youthful friend Anne Rawlinson, click here.