Portable Prairie

Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner

M. J. Andersen

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

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In a moving and bittersweet story, M.J. Andersen chronicles her childhood and adolescence in South Dakota, her departure to forge her own life, and her persistent longing for the landscape she left behind. Her hometown, given the fictional name of Plainville, is so quiet that one local family regularly parks by the tracks to watch the train pass through. Yet small-town life and, especially, the prairie prove to be fertile ground for Andersen's imagination. Exploring subjects as seemingly unrelated as Roy Rogers and Tolstoy's beloved Anna Karenina, she repeatedly locates a transcendent connection with South Dakota's broad horizon.

Andersen introduces us to her hardworking newspaper family, which produces one of Plainville's two competing weeklies; to Job's Daughters, a Christian association intended to prepare young women for adversity (Plainville's chapter assumes the added responsibility of throwing the town's best teen dances); and even to a local variety of hardy alfalfa, to which her best friend has a surprising kinship.

Leaving behind her physical home, Andersen travels East for college, remaining to begin a journalism career. With her husband she eventually settles into her first house, a beautiful Victorian that, though loved, somehow does not feel like home in the way she had anticipated. Through subsequent travels, memories, and a meditation on Tolstoy's complex relationship to his ancestral home, she arrives at a new idea of what home is -- one that should resonate with every American who has ever had to pull up stakes.

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Praise for Portable Prairie

"When you come to the end of [Portable Prairie], you'll feel that you grew up here on the prairie. Or if you did grow up here, you'll get teary-eyed, as I did. I bow to this young writer and kiss her hand. Bravo. Tolstoy would be proud."
- Garrison Keillor

"MJ Andersen's memoir brings to life a kind of small-town America that is our national dream, even as it meditates on the endless disavowing of home that is our national lot. Spare, witty, poignant, brave and never sentimental, it's a book you can dive into and find yourself."
- Elizabeth Kendall, author of American Daughter and The Runaway Bride

"Portable Prairie is an uncommon memoir, a luminous account of one woman's intellectual flowering in the Plains States and beyond, and a deeply moving and intelligent meditation on the essential human experience of home. Andersen writes about places, people, objects, and ideas and reveals how hopelessly and beautifully they are bound together. This is not a confessional book, and those details she selects (and what a treasure they are) are precisely the sort which stimulate in us our own poignant recollections. This is the sort of book one presses on friends and interesting strangers. This is the American story made fresh."
- Jincy Willett, author of Winner of the National Book Award

"M.J. Andersen's memoir, Portable Prairie, unfurls in a finished tone-straightforward, uncluttered, headlong, with a wry smile-in its contemplation on the meaning of "home" worthy of Bachelard. The identifying trait of this memoir among others is its ability to lift you into a sudden dimensional moment-where was I? you wonder-then set you back inside the pacing of its gentle, assured voice. Andersen is a visionary of the lives lived in the realm we too often self-confidently call home. Andersen causes us to readjust our focus, as Willa Cather and Wright Morris do."
- Larry Woiwode, author of What I Think I Did

Reviews from Goodreads


About the Author

M. J. Andersen

M.J. Andersen grew up in South Dakota and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband. She is a graduate of Princeton University and holds a master's degree from Brown University. A recent fellow in the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, she writes for the editorial pages of the Providence Journal.

M. J. Andersen


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Available Formats and Book Details

Portable Prairie
Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner
M. J. Andersen

Trade Paperback

Trade Paperback
St. Martin's Press
St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books
March 2006
Trade Paperback
ISBN: 9780312326913
ISBN10: 0312326912
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 256 pages

e-Book Agency

e-Book Agency
St. Martin's Press
Thomas Dunne Books
July 2010
e-Book Agency
ISBN: 9781429901260
ISBN10: 1429901268
288 pages

From The Publisher

St. Martin's Griffin

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