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REVIEW: ‘For the Love of ND' offers history, expertise and modesty in a collection of essays

Posted on 4/7/2013

By Richard Aregood, Grand Forks Herald

Clay S. Jenkinson is in love with North Dakota, both as a place of compelling great beauty and as an inspirational concept. After all, he points out, we do live in a place most people would consider unlikely.

His new book, "For the Love of North Dakota and Other Essays: Sundays with Clay in the Bismarck Tribune," (Dakota Institute, 268 pp., $29.95 hardcover and $18.95 paperback) is a collection of his quirky columns about everything from development in the Oil Patch and the glories of the Badlands to running over a red fox with his car.

Guy's got range.

Like any collection of columns, this is something to be read over several sittings, not in one gulp. Even collections of master columnists like Jimmy Breslin or Molly Ivins can get wearying after the first few. Jenkinson's columns are longer than the standard and considerably more academic in style, but they nurture and deepen our appreciation of our own history.

The Tribune deserves credit for stepping way outside the box with these columns, which are in no way your typical newspaper column. Some are dense with historical detail. Some are quite personal. All are long.

My favorites are the ones in which Jenkinson lets his passions have free rein. His remembrance of Thanksgiving at his grandmother's farm is lovely. His "Modest and Extremely Important Wilderness Proposal for North Dakota" is deeply reasoned, rational and probably too sensible to ever happen.

He's sentimental about our heritage of family farms and ranches, the history of the Indian nations, the very prairie and its wildlife. But he's painfully aware of the complications that surround every one of those things once we approach them as issues.

His column in hesitant support of the Keystone Pipeline across the Upper Midwest from Alberta to refineries in Texas, written a little more than a year ago, is detailed and serious. In fact, his evidence might lead a reader to exactly the opposite of the conclusion he came to. He admits it in an afterword written for the book: "I may be full of beans."

That's not a bad place for an opinion writer to be, to have the courage and acceptance of responsibility to take a clear position, but to have the modesty to acknowledge that you might be wrong.

Anyone who's ever written a column knows there are always some you'd like to have back. I think Jenkinson seriously underestimates "The Great Gatsby," for instance, and is seriously naïve about what would happen if we made impeachment constitutionally easier. Saying that, though, means he reached a sweet spot for a columnist: a man I've never met is good company saying things I don't agree with.

The very best columns are the ones that exploit Jenkinson's skills in history.

His 2008 column that seemed to have evolved from beginnings as opposition to UND's Fighting Sioux nickname into an accounting of the outrages of various treaties, culminating with the Garrison Dam's damage to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people, makes a compelling case for delayed justice, then admits to powerlessness, just as he does when he writes about what to do with the oil boom.

Expertise and modesty. Not a bad combination.

Read the story online here.

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