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Tell Me A Story

“Tell me a story.” Four words that are most often followed by four more words. Once upon a time. From the time we are small children we beg to hear adventures of fairy princesses, dragons and handsome princes quick to the rescue. Or of boys who had adventures in woods, rivers, or other realms.

As a member of Tom Isern’s NEH Seminar on The Great Plains, I have been discussing four authors previously referred to here on Plainsfolk as the Dream Team with my fourteen newfound friends. Our adventures at NDSU are ending this week. While in Fargo I have gained new perspectives on the concepts of memory, place, and identity and how those four writers present story. Webb, Cather, Momaday, and Stegner all wrote really good stories. Some factual, some distortions of truth. This has upset some members of the group who have tried to categorize them into genre. Is it history? Is it factual? Is it memoir? None of these fine selections ends with the princess being rescued or the dragon slayed. Quite the contrary. Webb ends by commenting on the Plains portrayed as a land of adventure and adversity. Cather’s story ends with Jim Burden contemplating his past with Ánton_a as he takes in the landscape with “the sense of coming home to himself”, although he no longer lives in Blackhawk. Momaday’s tale reminds us that the Quest for understanding self is as important as getting there. Wolf Willow closes with Stegner’s commentary on the fictional Eastend of his youth and its ability to be “a good place to be a boy and as unsatisfying a place to be a man as he could imagine.”

So what makes these stories so important?

All places have stories. Stories make connections to identity and memory. This is certainly true for me.

For example, as a small girl of three or four I remember listening to my grandfather and great uncle tell stories of boyhood mischief. During the summer Fr. Clement, a Franciscan, would come for two months to visit us in Omaha. His life was full of stories. Boyhood mischief was a familiar theme to their tales. One tale I fondly recall is how their mother, my great-grandmother Apollonia, caught them smoking green grape leaves on the back stoop. As the story goes, they were caught and in punishment for ruining the vines to be used in weaving something useful they were made to smoke fresh grape leaves until they puked their guts out. The small lessons: don’t do it or don’t get caught. The big lessons: Actions have consequences and your mom will find out.

And so it is with story. Narratives have a way of drawing you into a picture bigger than yourself. How do you fit it? What are your goals? Stories connect the listener to history and to language. The Grapes of Wrath tells the history of a particular time and place through story.

Its small lesson: Living during the depression was hard. The big lesson: Drastic situations can be overcome by “the milk of human kindness.” Wallace Stegner called this heritable hope. Meaning has been created by reading the text and connecting it to self.

As an English teacher, story is the way I make things relevant to my students. Cultivating that relationship between text and self is crucial in order for them to make meaning of the readings I have selected. I believe I have learned a few things about how to continue to do that here in Fargo, and on the road in Saskatchewan.

When I get back home — wherever that is — Omaha, where I’m from or Central Texas where I teach, I can begin with four words, “This summer in Fargo…”

~Connie Martin

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