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Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota

By William C. Sherman

North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota, 1983, 152 pages, hardcover.

Book review by Ron Vossler, North Dakota Quarterly, Spring, 1983


Imagine a state almost a century old, where more is known about the soil and crop conditions than the national character of its peoples - that is not the terrain of some wild Latin American novel, but how William Sherman - a pastor at St. Michael's Church in Grand Forks, and a professor of sociology at North Dakota State University - describes North Dakota in the introduction to his new 152 page volume Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota. It is also a major reason for his writing the book, which is published by the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies: to provide a comprehensive listing of the surprisingly large number of ethnic groups that had a hand in settling this northern state.

That is what Sherman manages to accomplish, and it consists of a lot of information; there are maps and lists and statistics - the outcroppings of a rich vein of struggle. He uses Census Bureau data, railroad records, church archives, country land atlases, and local sources and correspondents to tell of those peoples comprising the state's rural population: the more numerous Norwegians, Germans, German-Russians, and Anglo-Americans; and also the less numerically significant ones, as Jews, Blacks, Syrians, Czechs, Swedes, and others.

There are double paged maps showing settlement patterns and the ethnic topography of each of the six sections into which the state is divided for purposes of the study; and there is an accompanying commentary for each section, and thus, major ethnic groups are discusses six times, which brings a disunity and lack of form to the book. But it is in these commentaries that the cultural pursuits and religious affiliations and habits and other interesting nuggets of information are given: of gypsies remembered now only because they treated their horses badly and paid for their land with gold - the seeds of at least one short story must wait in that anecdote for some writer; and of one group of German-Russians who futilely tried to farm the sand hills south of Rugby before moving on into Canada; and of Jewish entrepreneurs who founded speculative towns, including one called Jerusalem, which no longer exists.

Sherman tells one of the Icelanders who, after settling along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg and calling their fledgling settlement Gimli, after the paradise in Icelandic mythology, moved to northeastern North Dakota to establish a town called Mountain:

"A large room above a grocery store in Mountain was the settling during the 1880's and 1890's for frequent Icelandic lectures, dramatic events, and debates. In fact, Icelandic settlement life reflected a strong emphasis on the more "intellectual" sorts of national pursuits such as poetry and drama. A lending library and especially the school were of great importance. A debating society was organized in Mountain in 1886...From the earliest days, Dakota men and women of Icelandic background attended universities in numbers far beyond their proportionate population size."

Sherman deals with each group - indigenous and immigrant - in similar fashion, using well-reasoned paragraphs and prose content to describe and explain. It seems a style well-suited to talk of North Dakota and the nature of its people; and well suited to elucidate some quite truths and illuminate an occasional touchy subject, such as when he tells of how some people, as the Danes, with their concern for maintaining ethnic traditions less intense, entered the main stream of American life more quickly; while others, such as the German-Russians - those farmers who left a troubled Napoleonic Germany and spent several generations on the Russian steppes before coming to North America, among other places - resisted change and didn't really want to become Americans.

One important point Sherman raises is that national origins - and to urge this thesis towards some Hegelian ideas, that landscape and space and isolation - may underlie the behavioral patterns of present day relatives of those early settlers. It is a timely point too, for now various disciplines in the social sciences are recognizing the importance of nationality and ethnicity in understanding human character. And since North Dakota is one of the last states to be settled and had at the turn of the century one of the greatest percentages of foreign born inhabitants in the nation, and if we understand this in all its implications, that there are still many residents who still remember the passage to this land, it brings into perspective some of the idiosyncrasies and strengths abounding here: as Sherman indicates in his introduction, local residents often seek to "know not only such usual information as one's name and home address, but also one's nationality. This is, indeed, a unique question. In much of the United States such knowledge is of little consequence, but for the North Dakotan it can be of great significance."

To borrow and idea from anthropology, we can theorize (and hope) that just as ancient Asian trade centers flourished where different cultures rubbed together, places where caravans stopped and variegated races intermingled, so now in North Dakota, not that the spring mud and winter snow are no longer the impassable obstacles they once were, and the little Norways and little Germanys are no longer so isolated, and with people like William Sherman giving us research and ideas in volumes like this one, the same flowering will occur here: a transfer of the well-known work ethic to solving social problems, and encouraging intellectual endeavors and social relationships - carrying as great a load in our minds and our hearts as those early settlers once did on their backs.

With its appealing cover photograph of a tractor amid alternating strips of fallow and corps, and with a background of smooth glaciated hills, Sherman's book will make and excellent gift, and belongs on your bookshelf, somewhere between the astute historical analyses of Elwyn Robinson's History of North Dakota, and the rich human relationships of Larry Woiwode's novel Beyond the Bedroom Wall.


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