Short Take: Natives of a Dry Place

When I agreed to review Richard Edwards’ book Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota Before the Oil Boom for a well-regarded journal, I almost immediately regretted it. I had already heard stories of proud North Dakotans giving this book, wrapped in lutefisk, to other North Dakotans at the holidays. I dreaded reading (and reviewing) another paean to an idyllic, pre-Bakken Boom North Dakota, full of stoic heroes commanding the windswept prairies with their penetrating gaze.  

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I am pleased to report that this is not one of those books. Richard Edwards documents life in the small town of Stanley, ND in the 1950s, but he does it in a distinctly entertaining way. Its title alone gives it away. (The title is a quote from the aptly named poet, Willian Stanley Merwin, and a nice nudge to the reader to look more carefully at everything in this book). People who live in the town of Stanley are not not “natives” of Stanley in any proper sense. Edwards makes clear that the people of Stanley came from someplace else and collected there like alkali water in prairie pothole. As if to emphasize this, the book starts with the oil boom, as all books on 21st-century North Dakota must. The boom remade the town with new money, new people, new industries and new challenges. Edwards himself had left Stanley in the late 1950s, when he was 12. He returned to town several times since then and collected stories from family and friends to understand the fabric of this small community.

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Mostly, Edwards wants to talk about values, but not in a simple way. The book’s main theme is that societies usually get what they celebrate. While this might seem simple, or even banal, Edwards complicates the ideas in subtle and intriguing ways. First, he starts the book with the disruptions and tensions of new, oil infused Stanley, and uses them to set the stage for the stories of old Stanley. On the surface, Edwards appears to suggest a disjunction between the old and the new, but at the same time, he leaves that as an open question. Long-time residents did not exist outside of the tensions in new Stanley. The stories of old Stanley offer insights into the new.

By retelling the stories of old Stanley, Edwards does more than just indulge in historical critique or nostalgia. He goes beyond the pious tales and reveals the complexities of Stanley’s past in ways that complicate any simplistic appeal to wholesome prairie values. He’s just a bit deceptive as he arranges his stories around a series of themes: resoluteness, steadfastness, devotion to community, pluck, commitment, dauntless optimism, spirit of adventure, and modesty.

For resoluteness, Edwards tells the story of Tom Scrivner’s disappearance. A search party from the town eventually found him, dead, in a dry well. Swede Edwards, the author’s uncle, eventually pulled Tom’s body free from where it was wedged and demonstrated commendable resolution in going about the task at hand. On one level, this is a simple story of rural folk doing what needed to be done. In Edwards’ hands, however, the story blossoms. It sure seems that Tom Scrivner was murdered, perhaps as part of ethnic tensions with the local Finnish community. For all the resoluteness of the search and recovery of Tom’s body, there was not the same interest in finding his murderer or resolving the tensions that caused his death. Resoluteness, in old Stanley, only went so far, it would seem.

Likewise, Edwards explores commitment through the story of Arne and Irene (the author’s aunt). The high school sweethearts went separate ways in life, each marrying someone else. Arne, however, did not get over Irene and upon learning that Irene’s husband died, he resumed his courtship, despite being married for over 20 years with children of his own. Eventually, after a series of secret meetings, Arne leaves his wife, he and Irene marry, and the couple lives happily ever after. The story is a story of commitment, but not in any traditional sense.

In the hands of a less confident author, these stories could become simple irony-tales, but in Edwards’ deft hands, they become something more. He shows his wry smile in his treatment of modesty. In the final story of the book, he tells his own story of old Stanley in which he manages to comment on his Harvard, Ph.D., his important academic position at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, his house on Martha’s Vineyard, and his substantial honoraria to headline a conference at a prestigious private high school. At the same time, he can laugh at himself as he showed up on the wrong day of the event, inconvenienced the host institution, and ultimately had to win back the good graces of his audience.

For Edwards, the world is not simply one of abstract values carried forth by principled men and women, but a world full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and ironies. This forms a compelling backdrop for his “stories of Dakota before the oil boom.” After all, the oil boom in North Dakota is not simply the story of outsiders coming in and disrupting traditional life on the Northern Plains. The oil boom is, like Edwards’ stories, not as simple as it seems. Many of the celebrated values of old Stanley are not innocent, but like the rolling prairies of the Bakken oil patch, conceal deeper, almost geologic, fissures and contradictions. Edwards’ book offers a gentle, lutefisk-wrapped, critique of the new Stanley that has grown from the seeds of the old. Societies usually get what they celebrate. 

Bill Caraher is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota. He recently co-edited with Kyle Conway, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, 2016) and has co-authored with Bret Weber, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press, forthcoming).