Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture
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Plains Folk: Wind
Tom Isern, Professor of History
It's a sneaky book, this new one by Clay Jenkinson entitled "Message on the Wind: A Spiritual Odyssey on the Northern Plains" (Marmarth Press). I wrote a promotional blurb for it, and you know how those things are, but I always try to be honest with them.
"The Great Plains have become so chic that I hesitate to open any new memoir or travel narrative of the region," I said. "My advice now is, ignore all the tin mystics, fire all the visiting firemen, and read Clay Jenkinson.
"This is prose that could only have been generated by a boy from the Little by-God Missouri River badlands. I have never read a book so utterly real, and yet so profoundly romantic, as ‘Message on the Wind.’ Welcome to Marmarth."
Now here's the sneaky part: Jenkinson is no boy. I see that receding hairline in the PR packet photos, and more than that, I read between the lines of the book. This is a work by--dare I say it?--a middle aged white guy.
Many people on the plains know Jenkinson because of his distinguished career as a public scholar. He was one of the founders of that great romantic enterprise, the Great Plains Chautauqua, and has made a cottage industry out of the portrayal of historic characters--chiefly Thomas Jefferson. He hails from western North Dakota, studied at Oxford (not Oxford, N.D.), and was one of the first recipients of the Charles Frankel Prize (now known as the National Humanities Medal).
His new book is going to tick off a lot of people. He names names. He tells personal stories about the dubious experiences of prominent people, including a distinguished Democrat and the managing editor of one of the region's great metropolitan newspapers. He has a whole collection of stories about certain faculty members from the University of North Dakota who had a hard time fitting in at the Pastime of Marmarth.
Jenkinson is going to be much misunderstood, too, and probably assailed for alleged insensitivities. Most of these have to do with men and women and sex. Not explicit sex, but the general consideration of it. My feminist colleagues, if they open the book, will boil over when they read the chapter, "Learning to Hunt with the Wally Brothers." I fear that many will fail to persevere to the end, where there is redemption.
And something like wisdom, although that will have to be assessed over time, for wisdom is a moving target, or rather no target at all, but more like a wind, something that, as a plainsperson, you learn to embrace, like a bison, and not flee from, like a cow.
I have long argued, too, that the population of the northern plains is the most literate and reflective reading audience in the world. Here is the book to test my proposition. I know a little something about the classics and quite a bit of American literature, but I still struggle to process all the allusions in Jenkinson's text. He also writes some mighty serpentine sentences.
So give over some time to the book, work through it, and what do you get from it? First off you get a droll, passionate, irreverent, reverent tour of those parts of the plains that lie on the banks of Highway 85. The narrative boils up from Dickinson, meanders along the Little Missouri, gets lost a few times, and camps for a good while in Marmarth. Read the book for the love our own country and for the companionship of a fine mind.
Then, if you are in need of wisdom, or redemption, or any such elusive manifestation of grace, listen for the message on the wind. It happens that the airy voice speaking to Jenkinson tells me pretty much the same things and offers the same sort of grace. You'll have to listen for yourself.
"All that is special in me," Jenkinson concludes, "is North Dakota to the core. It makes my heart ache."
Click here for a TIF photo of Tom Isern that is suitable for
Click here for a TIF photo of Tom Isern wearing a hat that is
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