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PORTABLE PRAIRIE by M.J. Andersen

PORTABLE PRAIRIE

Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner

By M.J. Andersen

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-312-32689-0
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Genial and sometimes lyrical memoir of a South Dakota girlhood and an East Coast adolescence and adulthood—with Tolstoy and Anna Karenina serving as signposts along the way.

Andersen (editorial writer for the Providence Journal) has no grand or pretentious ambitions, despite the continual Tolstoy allusions, despite her references to other intellectual heavyweights like Sartre, Proust, Matthew Arnold, Keats and Kierkegaard. (To show her populist passions she also mentions Doris Day, Nancy Sinatra, June Cleaver, The Rifleman, Roy Rogers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) Instead, she looks for significance in the mundane, explores the loneliness of a prairie childhood, wonders at the allure of place, and marvels at coincidence and fate. She tells about her childhood in a town she calls “Plainville,” describing the old family home, her experiences at church camp, her Barbie collection, her favorite TV show (Fury), her memories of the JFK assassination and of the Watts riots. She did well in high school—very well—and headed off to Princeton, where she met an odd young man with a mole (she calls him “The Mole,” seemingly unaware of comedian Mike Myers’s m-m-m-mole-moments in Austin Powers in Goldmember, 2002—there go her pop-culture credentials!). Following Princeton, she migrated to Cambridge, Mass., and worked as a secretary at Harvard Law before finding herself in journalism, the family profession (her parents ran a weekly back in South Dakota). Andersen takes us many places—Scandinavia and Jerusalem, among the more exotic—and writes eloquently about how her new home in the East is both lovely and inadequate (it’s not South Dakota). Most effectively, she relates the stark arrival of MS in her mother’s life. In a spare, perfect sentence, she captures it: “She has gone off somewhere, become Job.” She ends with a surreal account of the death of a young woman on train tracks near her home—a final Anna allusion.

A quiet meditation on the great significance of small things.