The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere
By Debra Marquart
Counterpoint, 270 pp., $24
From the very start, Debra Marquart dreams of escape from the never-ending, back-breaking chores of the flat North Dakota farm where she was born and raised. We know she will succeed, becoming a teacher, writer , and poet. Along the way, she will waste her teens and 20s singing with a rock band, experimenting with boys, neglecting the demands of college. Elegiacally, she describes the unforgiving land that her family, using all their resources, energy, and imagination, had maintained for 110 years.
``Grow Where You're Planted" reads a poster on her teenage bedroom wall. Despite her ambivalence and self-doubt, she resists this advice with all her strength. Her mother, critical and distant, is remembered vividly only for her prohibitions -- do not sing in the house -- and her orders -- get up and do your chores. But her father loves her and roots for her, although he, following North Dakota tradition, does not give out praise. Recognizing that her father has been on her side all along is the soft center of ``The Horizontal World." A quiet, withholding man, he resembles his fellows. ``Growing up, I believed I was surrounded by the most austere, pragmatic, hardworking people. But now I know that we were hopeless romantics when it came to land -- the worst sort of high-stakes gamblers, betting the farm and all of our lives every day when we went out into the fields." This epiphany, scratched out of the dry earth, is hard won.
College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-eds, Then and Now
By Lynn Peril
Norton, 352 pp., $16.95
For most of the 19th century in America, women's fundamental intellectual inferiority was an accepted fact, and any woman who wanted to receive an education was misguided, uppity, or insane. Early education for women focused on domestic economy. Toward the end of the century, when Smith, Wellesley, the Harvard Annex, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard were founded, women were finally allowed to study Greek, Latin, and higher mathematics.
Having won the right to an education, women then faced rules governing their social as well as academic behavior. Acting in loco parentis, administrators decided where women could go, whom they could entertain, what they could wear. Too much study was considered dangerous to the fragile female constitution, causing mental illness, even death. If a woman lived through an education, would she manage to find a husband? Finding a husband, would she make a better wife? In ``College Girls," Lynn Peril reminds us how restrictive life was for women then, and how, even now, the greater number of women graduating from college creates a ``marriage gap." Less than two years ago, Harvard president Lawrence Summers attributed women's lack of success in math and science to ``innate sex differences." Peril's point, illustrated with images less naughty than nice, is that we've come a long way , baby, but not all the way.
What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver
By Maryann Burk Carver
St. Martin's, 356 pp., illustrated, $25.95
Maryann Carver, the trusting, long-suffering wife of writer Raymond Carver, put up with his lies, lovers, drink, and violence . Her acceptance of his unpredictable, often cruel behavior is maddening in itself but especially irritating as delivered in her gee-whiz tone and schoolgirl prose.
Ray and Maryann met and married as teenagers. Maryann was pregnant when she married Ray at 16 and pregnant a second time while still nursing her first infant. They spent years at numbing jobs, living in squalid apartments, moving frequently from California, to Washington State, to Iowa. Publication as a poet and story writer came to Ray only after years of effort, years made bearable for him by alcohol, parties, and women. Maryann, a true believer in the fresh start, reports her eternal willingness to try again -- even after Ray becomes sick with drink, hits and hurts her, and leaves her for other women, eventually to divorce her and remarry. Toward the end of ``What It Used to Be Like," when any other woman would long before have given up, Maryann writes in typical turgid prose, ``What I had to do was bring reality around, make things right, get my life with Ray back on track. That's what I believed. Because I had to. Yes, had to. Not a very trendy stance, is it? I guess it smacks of romantic idealism and female self-sacrifice. So be it." Actually, it smacks of utter delusion.
Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.