A meditative mÇlange of observations on Midwest land and spirit. Twenty years ago, Norris moved to tiny Lemmon, South Dakota (pop. 1600), to inhabit the house in which her mother grew up. After two decades there as a businesswoman, librarian, and poet-in-residence, she finds that her feelings toward the region remain ambivalent. She enjoys its many little gifts--no crime, no traffic, the closeness of nature (``the way native grasses spring back from a drought, greening before your eyes; the way a snowy owl sits on a fencepost, or a golden eagle hunts'')--but she decries the insularity and pettiness of small-town life, where gossip, inertia, and ignorance are rampant (many people have trouble using a pay phone). She also complains about how outsiders perceive Dakota as a wasteland, a dumping ground for garbage, a home for nuclear missiles. In a word--which she repeats endlessly--Dakota is for her a ``desert.'' This revelation leads Norris, despite her Protestant background, to find solace in local communities of Catholic Benedictine monks, followers of a tradition born in the deserts of Egypt. From them, she learns to relish her Christian heritage; to value hospitality, play, and prayer; to see the silence of the Plains as akin to the silence of the cloisters. This parallelism is effective but overworked: Norris tells us time and again of her struggles while ``pursuing my vocation as a writer''; of how monks resemble farmers; of what's right and wrong about Dakota. The book's structure seems makeshift as well: While the essays on monks and Dakota life share a plain-spoken, kindly intelligence, they sometimes seem only distantly related. Some of the material appeared earlier in small journals (Massachusetts Review, North Dakota Quarterly, etc.), which may account for the echoes and the fuzzy focus. Quiet and clearheaded, with typical first-book flaws.