The Big Read Blog (Archive)

My Fergus Falls

January 21, 2007
Fergus Falls, Minnesota

The topography of this ancient lake bed presents a seemingly limitless expanse. The prairie winds sweep across its level surface, turning the propellers of generators that provide electric power for rural homes. -- The WPA Guide to Minnesota, 1938

Near as I could find out, the '30s-era propeller-generators are gone. But the energy around here could light up cities a lot bigger than Fergus Falls, Minnesota, population 9,389 souls circa 1938, and (according to its genial Mayor Russell "Q". Anderson) a few thousand more today. That may not seem like very many people, but when you consider that fully 550 of them turned out to kick off their Big Read of Willa Cather's My Ántonia, the numbers start to look a mite more impressive. (Of course, everyone agreed that the beautiful weather helped, with the mercury shooting up well into the teens.)

Winter view of a barn and farmland

The view from Fergus Falls's Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, where Fergus Falls, A Center for the Arts hosted a kick-off reading for the community's Big Read celebration of Willa Cather's My Ántonia. Photo: David Kipen

Imagine if that same proportion of the population of Washington, DC, where I work, showed up in one place to decorate gingerbread men, go for horsedrawn carriage rides, and read aloud from one of America's finest novels. Can't you just picture 23,000 Washingtonians thronging the National Mall (or, as we call it in Minnesota, the "other" Mall of America), circle-dancing to a fiddle combo? Then again, I may have to eat my words this spring, when the Humanities Council of Washington, DC unveils its Big Read of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Washington seemed another world yesterday (1/20) at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, a quondam farm transformed into a spectacular compound of exhibits, classrooms, and bluestem grass vistas under mackerel skies that my poor photographic skills can neither do justice to, nor quite ruin. I did a highly extemporaneous 10-15 minutes on the Big Read and the national reading revival the National Endowment for the Arts hopes to help kindle with it, but Fergus Falls was way ahead of me. From the look of things around here, the NEA may have to start a new program next year designed to get people to leave off reading and do something else for a change -- if only to ease demand on the Fergus Falls Library and Lundeen's Books, which moved more than a hundred copies of My Ántonia yesterday, and have been selling out of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books and Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah Plain and Tall in between reorders.

Maybe I'll work in more later about my invigorating whirlwind day in Fergus Falls --capped by an evening performance with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony by my gracious host Rebecca Petersen of the F.F. Center for the Arts, who's something of a whirlwind herself -- but for now I have to pick up a newspaper and skedaddle for my flight(s) to Wallowa County, Oregon. More down the big road?