In Minnesota, 'California Dreaming' on the Prairie

Carleton College Prairie Road
Carleton College Prairie Road | Photo: Robert Hest/Flickr/Creative Commons License

I spent most of the other week on the prairie south of Minneapolis in Northfield, a college town on the Cannon River. It had been a hard winter there. Spring had only been a suggestion until the Tuesday I arrived when temperatures began to climb toward 80. I was continually thanked, in an excess of Minnesotan friendliness, for having brought the good weather with me from Los Angeles (where it was grayer and colder).

I came to Northfield to meet with students and faculty members of Carleton College and to do a reading from my memoir about growing up in a place and time vastly different from the rolling, soybean-and-corn countryside of Rice and Dakota counties. The unplowed land around Carleton College was uniformly green. Here in Lakewood, Calif., lawn after lawn has gone September brown from drought and a certain amount of disregard.

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California the Golden looked ironic from the perspective of the tidy houses on the gridded streets of sunny Northfield where the Malt-o-Meal breakfast food factory sometimes fills the air with the scent of roasting grain. The literature of California that the Carleton College students had read -- Joan Didion, Mike Davis, John Fante, Nathanael West -- told the students how mixed the extravagant dream of California had been, even while the dream was being retailed to America by the state's booster economy.

The collapse of that pyramid scheme puts a question before the students for which I do not have an answer. How should they imagine California when it's not exactly "California" anymore? And was there any value to the American experience -- or them -- in re-imagining California at all? I refrained from asking the students if their study of California literature had beguiled them to emigrate or dissuaded them from ever living here.

Every fall, the citizens of Northfield hold a weeklong celebration of events that unfolded over a few minutes in September 1876. Jesse and Frank James and the Younger gang had planned to rob the town bank. They failed miserably, outgunned by immigrant Scandinavian farmers and the town's shopkeepers. 50,000 visitors watch the reenactment of the shootout during the Defeat of Jesse James Days. As a metaphor for what some communities will do when threatened, Defeat of Jesse James Days shows an American plainness of intention however ambiguous a guide for civic action a shootout might be.

The exurbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul are extending toward Northfield. It's not uncommon, I was told, for residents to make the 45-minute commute to jobs at the urban edge, even in the teeth of a Minnesota winter. Growth restrictions have lately been imposed in at least one county concerned about development, limiting lot sizes to no less than 40 acres. That's too small for a paying farm, I was told, and too large for a homeowner to keep up.

Which led me to ask (but only myself) how will we speak of Northfield ... of Minnesota ... of America ... when our former myths of place no longer serve what we've become?

Towering. | Photo: Robert Hest/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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