The lives and schemes of frontier politicians, Northern Pacific Railroad executives, bonanza farmers, and homesteaders converge in the story of Frances Houghton Bingham, who marries the son of a Red River Valley bonanza farmer in order to remain near her new husband's sister. Emotionally complex, willful and resourceful, Frances is seduced by the myths of opportunity driving the settlement of Dakota Territory, and dares to dream of a new world in which to realize her unconventional desires. Providing a counterpoint to the dramatic risks taken by Frances is the generous voice of Kirsten Knudson, the daughter of Norwegian homesteaders. As Kirsten grows from a voluble girl to a formidable woman, her observations (equal parts absurdity and insight) reveal the heart of the novel.
I could begin this story of an unlikely place, composed in equal parts of excess and lack, those opposites so fully integrated into the regional psyche as to be indistinguishable, anywhere, and too much would be left out. I sort of like the part about how glaciers once covered the northern plains, but a glacial pace, Reader, would surely tax your patience. As for the millennia when Native Americans and their ancestors spent a few months of each year hunting here, that is not my story to tell. I will skip, too, the pre-territory trading and trapping days, and the stories of forts and soldiers, of treaties made and broken, and of small pox and Indian agents and graft and despair and fury, and get right to the real excitement: farming.
Once upon a time a railroad was given a land grant by the U.S. Congress to build from Duluth, Minnesota, to Puget Sound, but was given no federal money to accomplish such a thing. A Philadelphia banker named Jay Cooke said to the directors of this Northern Pacific Railroad Company, “I’ll give you the money, lads. I can finance a war, surely I can finance a railroad.” Then he went bankrupt, leaving the railroad with millions of acres of land and no money, and shareholders with worthless bonds. But a Northern Pacific employee had an idea: offer a land-for-shares trade, on the condition that the land be farmed, and not held for speculation. Most of the land was in eastern Minnesota and Dakota Territory, and the shareholders were in the east. Yankees. A couple of the directors of the railroad took control of gigantic parcels of land, miles and miles and miles. Other shareholders joined in to do the same. Preferring to remain with their families in New York and Philadelphia and Boston, they sent business managers to oversee operations and to farm in a brand-new way, with the newest implements and an army of seasonal laborers per field, and one crop: wheat. The newspapers, even those not on the payroll of the Northern Pacific Railroad, told stories of the magnificent “bonanza farms,” and of the new land’s glory, of soil so fertile that seeds cast upon the ground leapt into the sunlight in sheaves of gold. Apples grew to the size of pineapples. The climate was so salubrious that the infirm would spring from their sickbeds to grasp a plow. Best of all, a fellow could be his own boss, required to doff his hat to no man. Reports of the new Nile spread across the globe. And the people came.
Some bought land from the Northern Pacific Railroad. Some filed homestead claims. Some prospered, some failed, most just hung on. The advertisements had told the truth about the fertile land of the Red River valley of Dakota Territory, and about the miracles of sunsets that set the prairies ablaze with color, the blue skies that clapped the land with clarity, the peace of space. But they hadn’t mentioned the wind, or the dust, or the hail, or the tornadoes, or the locusts. A “sea of grass” did not translate in the emigration leaflets into “no trees,” and few could imagine the cramped isolation of a ten-by-twelve-foot shanty on the Dakota prairie. Inside, no privacy. Outside, no neighbors. The settlers discovered soon enough that there was no market for their wheat nearby, and, unlike the bonanza farmers, they did not get special transport rates from the railroad, or special storage rates from the elevators that were owned by the railroad. They did not receive rebates from the milling companies. They paid retail prices for their machinery. Their interest rates from the banks in the east were high; twenty percent was not uncommon.
So they told themselves the story: they were special because they could live in this place of wind and dust and hail and tornadoes and locusts, despite the railroad, the milling companies, the implement dealers, and the bankers. The story gave them back their independence.
That narrative of independence remains as powerful, as false, as necessary as ever in the Dakotas. It has become our fetish, replacing the lost object of desire, the impossible place that never was. You have been told that there is nothing there. I tell you there is too much. Even where there is nothing, there is too much of it.
And who am I?
I am an old politician, pretty close to honest, and I know the stories of this territory from before there was such a thing.
I am the Land Commissioner for the Northern Pacific Railroad, in charge of the Land and Immigration Department. Sometimes in my dreams I wear a robe and flowing beard, and behind me the multitudes flow toward this land of milk and honey.
I am a Scot from Ontario and I have come to this land to chew it up and make myself fat. Someday I will be called the “Boss of North Dakota.”
I am just a girl from Norway.
I am Frances Louise Houghton Bingham, daughter-in-law of John Bingham, wife of his son, Percy, friend of Percy’s sister, Anna, and I mean for this to be my story. It, too, is a story of what a woman’s patience can endure, as well as of what a woman’s resolution can achieve. As to whether that refers in this case to one woman or two, you will have to make up your own mind.