Monday, March 28, 2005

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

In Portable Prairie, M. J. Andersen seeks to find a home as homelike as the one she left to attend Princeton University. Having grown up in South Dakota, her vision of home is a small community surrounded by prairie turned to farmland where people know their neighbors. Her trouble is that she desires that sense of home without resettling in a small Midwestern town. Instead she seeks to recapture the feeling of home by decorating an old house in New England, through travel, by seeking old friends, and through the study of literature, especially the writings of Tolstoy.

Because my library’s copy of Portable Prairie was in another reader’s hands, I borrowed a copy from another library in our consortium. The cataloguer at that library assigned to the book the Dewey call number 917.7 for description of the Middle West of the United States. Most of the libraries in our shared catalogue agree, but I think this call number totally misrepresents the book. Andersen does describe her home town early in the book, but she then tells about her student life at Princeton, her jobs and apartments in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island, her visits to Washington, D. C., and her travels to Denmark and Israel.

In her preface, the author says she has changed the names of most people other than her family and altered some of the stories to protect the privacy of others. She has even changed the name of her home town. One library assigned Portable Prairie to its fiction collection. Where is the line between fiction and nonfiction in this case? How much have the stories been changed?

Andersen returns often to the concept of home in her text. An argument could be made to assign a Dewey 306 number to the book, but I think this would be a stretch. She also discusses Tolstoy and other writers at many points in her book, so a Dewey 800s number could be considered. I do not envy the work of cataloguing librarians.

After consulting with me, Kris at my library put Portable Prairie in our biography section. Another library in our database assigned the Dewey biography number 921. I think this is the best compromise. At all points in the book Andersen is writing about herself.

There is no real end to the story, for Andersen is still living, still trying to make her Victorian house into a home, still studying Tolstoy’s unsettled life. She does, however, come to a well-written conclusion that ties together all the elements of story that she introduces. Many readers will enjoy this thoughtful book, no matter what the call number.

Andersen, M. J. Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005. ISBN 0312326890

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