‘Lincoln Journal Star’ reviews ‘Natives of a Dry Place’

This is a book of stories about a North Dakota town before the oil boom changed everything, about the virtues displayed in the place the author grew up. This may not seem like much of a promising premise for a memoir, but the book is surprising, inspiring, deeply personal—and a page-turner.

Edwards - Natives of a Dry Place (CI)

Edwards grew up in Stanley, North Dakota, one county south of the Canadian border and smack dab in the Bakken oil deposits that transformed western North Dakota in the past few years into an overpopulated, industrialized, polluted area with all the ills of a fast-moving oil boom that now seems to be dying down. This is all covered in the introductory chapter in which the old and new Stanleys are contrasted.

The heart of the story of Old Stanley is in a series of eight virtues inherent in a small Great Plains farming community that are illustrated with the lives and actions of the town’s inhabitants. The stories are unique to Stanley but similar to the history and culture of many such places on the Plains. Each virtue has its own main characters and stories, often daunting and all providing their own kind of heroes.

The virtues are resoluteness, steadfastness, devotion to community, pluck, commitment, dauntless optimism, spirit of adventure and modesty. That residents of a small North Dakota town can so supremely exemplify these universal qualities of hope and life is a tribute to Plains culture in America.

Richard Edwards is the director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a longtime professor of economics with a Ph.D. from Harvard and has served as chairman of the Economics Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

 

R Edwards photo a 3.27.15

 

Find Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota before the Oil Boom at sdhspress.com for $16.95, plus shipping and handling.

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The Art of Book Reviews

When you pick up the latest issue of your favorite magazine or journal, do you peruse the contents page and then immediately flip to the section containing the book reviews? If so, you have something in common with many readers of our quarterly journal South Dakota History, who admit to sampling the back pages before partaking of the journal’s more substantial fare, just as we do, here at the South Dakota State Historical Society Press.

What makes the book review section so appealing, of course, are the titles. A good selection is always tailored to the interests of readers, which in the case of South Dakota History, is just about any aspect of Northern Great Plains history. We’re continually on the lookout for the most recent and significant works pertaining to the history of the region’s exploration, politics, economic life, tribal and ethnic groups, art, and architecture, to name a few.

Possibilities come to us directly from book publishers themselves, who send out copies of books as part of their marketing strategies. We scan the catalogs and websites of publishers, both large and small. We read the book review sections of other regional journals to learn whether there are titles we may have overlooked. We also rely on our contacts in the academic world to alert us to what might be new and important for readers to discover.

Some topics, such as American Indian history or military history, are perennial favorites among book publishers, making the decision as to which of several books to include in the journal’s limited space difficult at times. In any case, readers can know that the books reviewed in each issue of South Dakota History have been chosen with an eye to both the works’ potential contributions to northern plains history and a desire to address the broadest possible range of readers’ interests.

So, how do you choose a good book?

This article in Salon magazine got me thinking. When it comes to choosing the next book you wish to read, what parameters, influences, suggestions, critics, etc., do you use?

There used to be a time (not all that long ago, either) when you could pick up just about any fairly-large-circulation newspaper and read a section filled with book reviews. That time seems to have passed, and now there are few newspapers in the nation that regularly feature full book reviews. Certainly, those that still do, are concerned purely with the large publishers and the latest blockbuster novel from some famous author or other; you are unlikely to see the latest book from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press on those big name broadsheet papers!

As a result of the demise of the review section, we must get our book recommendations from somewhere else. For instance, if you have read a book from the SDSHS Press, where/how did you find out about it? We’re lucky in that as an academic press we can still get reviews in scholarly journals, and a great many of our books have been reviewed in that manner. However, I’m guessing that most of you did not find out about our books through that avenue. After all, typically, scholarly journals can take anywhere up to three years to publish a review of a book! No, I’m guessing you found out through another method. Maybe, someone you know recommended the book to you or, maybe someone gifted it to you. Perhaps, you follow this blog or our twitter or facebook feeds, and read about our latest release and decided you just had to check it out. It could have been that you saw an ad in a local newspaper or attended a book signing in your favorite local bookstore. It might even have been my preferred method for discovering books that aren’t on the bestseller lists: spending a good couple of hours browsing through a good bookstore. Finally, you may have used one of the various online sites that helps in your quest for the perfect book. That site might not even have been one of the big e-tailers, but instead might have been a modern take on word-of-mouth such as Goodreads or LibraryThing.com.

Whatever method you currently use to discover good books is perhaps less important than the enjoyment they provide once you have found them.

The Art of a Good Review

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a good review might just be worth 1,000 sales!

Here at the South Dakota State Historical Society Press we value a good review just as highly as anyone else does, but we see reviews from two sides. When we publish a new book we send review copies out to academic journals, newspapers, blogs, and other publications, hoping that they will see fit to send that copy out for review, and that once they receive that review, they will publish it. At the same time, South Dakota History our quarterly journal publishes reviews of books from other presses, so the editors are always searching for people to review books.

From either side, there are certain aspects that make a good review and a good reviewer. We have a set of guidelines that we send out when someone is going to review a book for the journal, just as other publications do for their published reviews. The idea behind the guidelines is to ensure that we receive as high a quality critique of the book as is possible. If we published (or received) reviews of lesser quality (whether they are positive or negative), we’d be doing an injustice to the book in question.

Essentially, we look for a brief summary of the scope, purpose, and content of the book and its significance on the extant literature on the subject. We ask that the reviewer includes a critique of the author’s use of sources, organization and presentation of the material, and success in achieving his or her goals. We realize that not every person will enjoy every book, and so we do not presume to require a favorable review. We do, however, require that criticisms be presented in a civil and gracious manner, and that the reviewer provides a just and balanced evaluation of the book. In other words, we’re looking for a fair critique of the book, not a review that might have strong evidence of an axe to grind!

To achieve such a review, a reviewer should be somewhat knowledgable about the subject of the book. They should have a good grasp of the existing literature and be articulate in their writing. They should be sympathetic to the author/book, but rigorous in how they evaluate the publication. Finally, the reviewer needs to show tact and demonstrate an unpretentious nature towards their own knowledge and that of the author.

So, long story short, a good review is priceless, but getting that good review takes a fair amount of work and just the right kind of person!

Kind words

9780977795581-80x120I’ve mentioned the joy of good review before. It is always pleasing to read that someone else likes the books that we work so hard on for so long. Of course, the author, most likely receives even more pleasure from such things.

The always intriguing Google Alerts notified me of a new review of Waiting for Coyote’s Call posted on Amazon.com, so I clicked on the link to see what it said. A perfect review is hard to find of course, but this must rank as fairly close. Thanks have to go to the reviewer as he spent time crafting the comments and delved deep into the meaning of the book. So, without further ado, read on:

Excellent, informative, and enjoyable eco-memoir, November 15, 2008
By Dean J. Spader (Midwest) – See all my reviews

Book Review of Waiting for Coyote’s Call:
An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff by Jerry Wilson
(South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2008)

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote: “Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner a liberal education. This crop of wisdom never fails, but it is not always harvested.” Leopold’s analogy urges us to harvest the crop of information provided by the specific ecosystem in which we live. Most of us fail miserably at this harvest, and perhaps that explains why humans are the most invasive species on Earth.

Fortunately for us, Jerry Wilson heard Leopold’s admonitions and spent 25 years harvesting this wisdom by daily recording the facts and observations of his bluff habitat in his journal. Now we the readers of this memoir can feast at the banquet that Jerry offers us from his laborious harvest. He serves a multicourse feast (20 chapters) that rivals those offered by his naturalist mentors (Leopold, Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Candace Savage, and many others). The banquet includes vivid descriptions of wildlife, detailed documentation of plant life, lively stories from his early farm life, and a verbal movie of his family’s ongoing experiment of life on the Missouri bluffs. My favorite course is the chapter in which Jerry details the laborious but inspiring years of successfully restoring prairie on 30 acres. Paradoxically, the chapter on the darkness and befriending the night was most enlightening! In short, all readers, especially Midwestern naturalists and Sierra members, should enjoy many, if not all, the courses in the feast of local knowledge and wisdom served in this book.

The book is divided into five parts with each part containing four chapters. The first part, “Rehomesteading the Prairie,” covers their purchase a bluff site and construction of a solar home using their own skills and labor. In the second part, “Into the Woods,” Wilson relates many “long-treasured images of youth,” (such as climbing trees and exploring forests, learning about water in streams and rivers, and probing how to let “darkness become my friend”) to his beliefs and practices.

In part three, entitled “All My Relatives,” Wilson uses extensive research to document the many human incursions into eastern South Dakota prior to 1858, and to tell engaging stories of past owners of the land since 1858. He ends part three with two informative chapters on the birds and wildlife along the bluff. Part four covers the many tasks of living in a “Prairie Home”—log splitting, removing rocks, gardening and raising food, to mention only a few—to show the concrete means used to achieve their goal of living more sustainably. Part five, entitled, “The Bluff and Beyond,” contains four chapters that follow the traditions of Leopold and Thoreau of critiquing destructive, modern practices, such as mono crop farming and surface mining in the Black Hills. The book’s final chapter, “A Year on the Bluff,” takes the reader through one year of the unique, month-by-month changes in bluff ecosystems that simultaneously point to broad circular and continuous patterns in nature.

Interspersing quotes from Leopold, Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Candace Savage, and many others, Wilson reveals a caretaker’s concern for nature’s diverse beauty (“Taking care is our highest calling.”) Though his memoir describes one family’s specific experiences, it contains universal appeal to all who seek a sustainable land ethic. To sustain nature, one must understand nature’s ways—at least enough to allow nature to pursue its own biotic complexity. This book delves into nature’s complex diversity while inviting all readers to imagine and feel its wondrous mysteries still unknown.

We know that nature unleashed becomes nature diversified. Wilson’s goal is to unleash nature and document its growing diversity. He knows that any attempt to describe the complex web of life is a mere snapshot in time, and he often uses the brevity of poetic vividness to add sharpness to his snapshots. But this is not a book of poetry, and he uses mostly a lively prose style to create dynamic verbal images that make his memoir flow like a movie. (A series of color photos in the middle of the book also add the touch of local flavor to his memoir.)

Wilson models the life path of land stewardship that both diminishes invasive footsteps, and labors strenuously to restore nature’s complex diversity. He encourages us to stop, listen and learn as we activate all our senses. He asks us to expand the quantity and quality of our own harvest of nature’s wisdom. Like Leopold, he warns that without both the information to know when to remain passive and when to bring our senses to high alert, we destroy nature’s invisible and interconnected webs.

I greatly enjoyed reading this memoir and profited richly from its intricate details, insightful quotes, stirring memories, critical observations, engaging humor, and lively stories. It is more than a memoir compiled from 25 years of daily journal entries; it is a coherent ethic for sustainable living through ongoing learning and inherent appreciation of nature’s feast of wisdom.
By, Dean Spader, Living River Group, Sierra Club