‘Dakota, or What’s a Heaven For’ by Brenda K. Marshall

Dakota, or What’s a Heaven For (North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies) describes how the Dakota Territories were settled by outsiders: Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Russians, Jews, and women. A few of the women settlers quietly entered into relationships with each other but never identified themselves as lesbian.

This romantic, and sometimes melodramatic, novel is based in the history of the Dakotas and, while a bit too long, strives to fill the large physical, historical, and emotional territory.

The main character is Frances Bingham, who marries a man of whom she is not fond so that she can remain close to his handicapped sister. This forces her to work with her husband at times, as well as her husband’s rich and power-seeking father. The novel is the story of Frances’ emotional life. She slowly grows to dislike her husband, but her lack of options drives her to make tough decisions about staying in the Dakotas with her son.

While Frances is well connected, Kirsten Knudson is the 15-year-old daughter in an immigrant family who must learn to fend for herself. She becomes central to the novel as she pursues educational, occupational, and emotional opportunities in the new world. Because Kirsten’s sections are presented in a Norwegian-American dialect, they may be difficult to read at first but eventually become easier to understand and offer much appreciated humor.

The richness of the minor characters compensates for the simplicity of the villains, who appear as selfish politicians, Indian killers, and easily bribed businessmen. While the bad guys slowly get their expected comeuppances, a few carefully placed twists throughout the story make the background characters come to life in fulfilling ways.

Dakota… is as much about land speculators and the push of the railroads westward as it is about the settlers. It contains a history of bonanza farms, which were run like factories, and homesteads, which immigrants farmed in hope of an eventual payoff. It also outlines the early political and newspaper battles of The Dakotas.

Brenda K. Marshall was born and raised in Dakota, and her writing shows that she still loves the area. She includes many poetic descriptions of the territory, including the beautiful skies and fields (as well as the wildfires) during the summer, the rich harvest of literal gold in the autumn, and the horrifyingly long winters that end with floods and mud in the spring.

The chapters have amusing Dickensian titles such as “In Which an Ill Wind Blows Some Good,” “In Which the Impossible is Seen and Done,” and “In Which a Monster is Revealed and a Friend is Lost.” These titles add a period feel to the novel.

Dakota, or What’s A Heaven For is a good read for romantic historians who appreciate the period and characters that originally settled the Dakotas. It is recommended for readers who are anxious to imagine themselves in this pioneer period and take pleasure in the mild payoff that the richly drawn women characters also enjoy in the novel.
Dakota, or What’s A Heaven For
by Brenda K. Marshall
North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies
Hardcover, 9780911042726, 473p
November 1, 2010