Outing the Midwestern "Bachers" of Garland's A Little Norsk

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Author: Adam Sonstegard
Date: Fall 2020
From: The Midwest Quarterly(Vol. 62, Issue 1)
Publisher: Pittsburg State University - Midwest Quarterly
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,576 words

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Eastern South Dakota might seem to be the last place on earth to locate a likely queer history. Queer historiography, fortunately, has proven so prolific, so popular an academic pursuit, it is seemingly reaching the last place on earth for identifying a burgeoning, historical LGBTQ+ community. As a queer academic and Scandinavian son of the northern plains, I would like to stake such a claim in Hamlin Garland s A Little Norsk, an out-of-print novella that otherwise risks remaining undiscovered. While films like Boys Don't Cry and Brokeback Mountain, and certain, prevailing political affiliations show Plains and Mountain culture violently deeming unconventional families "unnatural," A Little Norsk naturalizes a threesome as native agents for establishing queer Midwestern family homes.

The narrative, subtitled Old Pap's Flaxen, runs serially in Century and makes its one appearance in a book edition in 1892, a work of 25,000 words. The setting, near the winding James River, probably lies in present-day South Dakota. The time frame lapses between Minnesota's statehood in 1858 and the Dakota Territory's organization into States in 1889. The characters include two unrelated pioneer bachelors and an orphan girl. The action has them forming a provisional family on the unforgiving plain, and lasting until the end of her youth, their retreat from the harsh Dakota aridity to St Peter, Minnesota, and the ceasing of their "baching"--their lives as paired, unmarried pioneer farmers. Critics complain about the novellas slight, romanticized structure, read the work's conformity to Dakota settlers' overall disenchantment with the environment and "eastering" back to gentler groves, but they miss this family's perfect fit--sans adult females and legal, matrimonial ties--with the winter weather, settlers' culture, and queer literary convention. They are Garlands prescription for a naturalized Midwestern family persistence, all in spite of harsh farming conditions, social pressures to reproduce more conventional, nineteenth-century family norms, and a "closet" that is so effectively constructed around them, I can be the first to "out" the bisexual bachers of A Little Norsk.

These adult, unrelated male peers share a dug-out household, raise a child together, think and act, to put it frankly, as an "old married couple." No character in the nearby boom towns, no hint in the omniscient narration, ever suggests their family is queer or unnatural for the two men's companionable "baching" or for the ethnic girl's unconventional, boyish ways. Anson, the bigger, more paternal "Pap" of the pair, never formally adopts her. The Norwegian family of origin, lost to a snowstorm, never reclaims her. The Dakotas, not yet organized as States, never regulate this family, institutionalize nor foster out this child. They practice the subsistence farming the Dakota soil and summer drought will bear, commune to some slight extent with other prairie dwellers in nearby hamlets Boomtown and Belleplain, depart for more settled Minnesota--but only when the Dakotas prove to be no place for the woman whom the "little Norsk" is growing into.

Garland himself, still early in his career in the first third of the eighteen-nineties, "would devote his writing...

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Source Citation
Sonstegard, Adam. "Outing the Midwestern 'Bachers' of Garland's A Little Norsk." The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 1, fall 2020, pp. 27+. Accessed 20 Oct. 2021.
  

Gale Document Number: GALE|A644718252