'Stories Lodge Deep in the Heart'

kent nerburn

Kent Nerburn Returns to 2015 Festival
By Anna Wempe

Rather than dates or trivia memorized by rote in order to regurgitate on an exam and then promptly forgotten, education should form the mind and inform about the surrounding world. By this definition, Kent Nerburn’s books, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace, and his latest, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, are certainly educational. Not in a textbook or even necessarily non-fiction way. Rather, they tell emotional truths, personal, factual, and regional histories, set within a story. As Nerburn said, “I often cite an Ojibwe elder who said, ‘People learn best by stories, because stories lodge deep in the heart.’”

Writing fiction based on history poses its own set of challenges, including walking the line between accuracy and creative license. In The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, Kent Nerburn delves into one of the darker pieces of South Dakota’s past. According to Nerburn, his book was “special to me because it gave me a chance to lift the curtain on the horrifying Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians that existed in Canton, South Dakota and has been all but forgotten by history.” To write historical fiction, Nerburn relies on the truth and all its shades. He said, “We share a historical experience that has been badly distorted by the standard historical narrative. I try to write from our common humanity by revealing the human heart of my characters while honoring their personal and historical uniqueness, and to do what I can to correct our distorted historical narrative.”

Nerburn both distinguishes between and blends the truths of memory and the truths of fact. He said, “I will not falsify historical truths or human emotions on either side of the cultural divide.” When he was working on a project focusing on the oral tradition and collecting memories of elders, he learned much that he applied in this book. “You quickly learn that all histories are personal, because they reflect individual memories and experience. You also learn that stories told from memory and the heart have a blood coursing through them that the objective historical record can never duplicate. And you learn that memories are faulty and that the truth of personal experience is more real in the human drama than factual accuracy. History, to me, is the story of people’s experience, and I try to write my books with fidelity to those experiences. It is a way to honor the human heart.”

Stories are not the only thing that has a special place in Kent Nerburn’s heart. He waxes eloquent about the Dakotas and their landscape. “Both Dakotas hold a special place in my heart, each for a different reason. The landscape in South Dakota—especially western South Dakota—is so musical, with its swells and swales and staccato punctuations of stone outcroppings. It also feels ancient — the geology is not hidden beneath layers of obscuring, renewing vegetation. The eye runs easily to distances and the heart and mind move effortlessly to meditation. And then there is the Missouri, that great languid presence. And the history that is so close to the surface. I could go on and on. But this is a place that has captured me since I’ve been a child. I can’t wait to come back.”

Kent Nerburn and many more will be coming back for the 2015 South Dakota Festival of Books.

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