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South Dakota Book Festival brings authors, readers together to celebrate the value of storytelling

The Exhibitors Hall at the South Dakota Festival of Books
photo courtesy of South Dakota Humanities Council
The Exhibitors Hall at the South Dakota Festival of Books

OK, I admit, I can get a little carried away when I’m talking politics.

Or, well, just about anything else.

Start with Trump and Congress and Noem, then throw in a little chatter about Black Hills timber management, buffalo herds, fly fishing from the Black Hills to Patagonia and, well, I can drone on a bit. So I really couldn’t blame Gary Schmidt for drifting off to sleep in the back seat of my pickup, as Henry Cole and I engaged in a multi-faceted dialogue up in the front.

There was much to discuss during our 45-minute drive from Rapid City to The Lodge in Deadwood, where I would drop off both Cole and Schmidt for their stay as participating authors in the 2023 South Dakota Festival of Books.

When we got there, Cole and I teased Schmidt a bit for his catnap, well-intended ribbing that he took in good spirits. Then they were both off with their bags and their planned presentations.

Like other authors at the festival, their role was to fascinate and educate. My role as a volunteer driver was to get them where they needed to go, in this case from a motel in Rapid City to the festival headquarters at The Lodge in Deadwood.

It’s a simple chore that I can handle pretty well, even if I sometimes pontificate to the point of somnolence for some of my passengers, especially those seated in the spacious back seat of my F-150, somewhat distant from the speaker.

I had a fine time, just as I did the day before when I picked up Rochester, Minn., author Meg Hafdahl from Rapid City Regional Airport. The airport pickups are interactive, because you stand near the arrivals gate with a sign that reads: “South Dakota Festival of Books” and the name or names of those you are there to pick up.

Other people notice the signs, and give a variety of expressions. And almost always, at a small airport like ours, you know one or two of the people getting off the plane.

“Are you an author, sir?” I said to Rapid City lawyer Dan Duffy as he hustled by. “I can give you a ride if you are.”

“Sure, I can write something,” Dan said, then added over his shoulder: “Say ‘hi’ to Mary,’ referring to my wife.

Volunteers key to book festival operation

Turning back to the slow-flowing stream of arriving travelers, I soon recognized Hafdahl without having met her, mostly because she grinned when she saw the sign, walked briskly over and asked: “Kevin?”

She is not clairvoyant, as far as I know, although she has been known to touch upon the supernatural from time to time. More on that in a moment.

As for her airport recognition, she expected a guy named Kevin to be there. It was all on an online spreadsheet of authors and drivers. My name was next to hers, along with our cell-phone numbers. She had kept me informed by text of delays in her flight, so I was only at the airport for 15 minutes or so when she walked out.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work in a system that’s carefully designed and overseen by my niece, Jennifer (Woster) Widman. She’s the festival director and a woman who clearly got her organizational skills from her mother, Nancy, not from her dad, Terry. Organizational skills don’t really run in the Woster family, at least not among the males.

Local coordinator of volunteer drivers here in the Black Hills, Francie Ruebel-Alberts, also seems to organize well. She works up the spread sheets so that volunteer drivers can keep track of who, when and where they need to make a pick up. And the authors know who to expect for a ride and who to call if there’s a problem.

If there are problems, Francie is usually involved in solving them.

It works amazingly well. And the drivers are just part of an overall team of 75 to 80 festival volunteers. Other chores for volunteers include help with planning events, setting up venues, hosting sessions, introducing authors and running information and welcome tables.

As he has done in the past, brother Terry served as host for some sessions, while Jennifer’s husband, Rich, helped get authors from one venue in Deadwood to another.

That’s how the 70 presenters at this year’s book festival got where they needed to be when they needed to be there.

It can be a rushed event sometimes, with so many sessions underway. But people made time to stop at the Exhibitor’s Hall at The Lodge, where more than 40 authors, publishers, booksellers and cultural organizations were set up.

Jennifer says that while numbers aren’t yet in, this year’s festival will likely match the typical total of 8,000 to 10,000 session attendees, a term used because many people take in more than a single session. I know Mary and I did.

My South Dakota Public Broadcasting pal Lori Walsh is one of the most passionate book lovers I know. And she attended some sessions, hosted others and offered live-radio conversations with festival authors on In the Moment.

Putting books in the hands of young readers

Lori also provided a special interview with Kate DiCamillo, a well-known writer of fiction for children and one of the featured authors at this year’s festival. The 45-minute conversation is available on the South Dakota Humanities Council Facebook page.

Children’s literature author Kate DiCamillo reads from one of her books at the South Dakota Festival of Books
Photo Courtesy South Dakota Humanities Council
Children’s literature author Kate DiCamillo reads from one of her books at the South Dakota Festival of Books

DiCamillo has written more than two dozen books that sold more than 35 million copies. Her novel The Tales of Despereaux was chosen by the South Dakota Humanities Council as the 2023 Young Readers One Book South Dakota. And South Dakota’s 12,000 third-graders each received a free copy of the book.

That’s third-graders in every school in every town across the state. Pretty amazing.

Jennifer says that while DiCamillo was here for the book festival she spoke to more than 2,000 young readers, most of them third graders gathered at The Monument center here in Rapid City. DiCamillo spoke to me, too, during one of her events in Deadwood.

Well, it wasn’t just me. It was me and a few others, as in a room full.

I haven’t read any of DiCamillo’s books. But Mary thought I’d enjoy the session she was attending. So I went with her. And it proved, once again, that I’m usually better off when I listen to Mary.

DiCamillo began her presentation by reading an essay she wrote recently to mark the 20th anniversary of the 2003 release of The Tales of Despereaux, a story of a mouse, a rat, a princess, dungeons and, well, lots of stuff. Kids’ stuff, you might say. But it’s kid’s stuff that matters to more than kids.

In her 20-year essay, DiCamillo wrote about flying back to Minneapolis from visiting her mother in Florida a few days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

But stories matter at anytime, in so many ways

During the flight, she was talking to a middle-aged man sitting next to her when he asked what she did. She said she was a writer. He asked what she wrote. She said she wrote stories. He asked about what. She said, with hesitation, that she was writing a story about a mouse.

He asked: “A mouse?”

She was embarrassed at such a time in the world to admit that she was writing a story about a mouse who falls in love with a princess.

“It doesn’t matter,” she told the man. “Stories don’t matter now.”

But after the flight, the man came up to her in the luggage area, wished her luck with her mouse story and added: “Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe stories do matter now. Have you thought about that?”

After that, she thought about it plenty. When she got home, she scribbled “Maybe stories do matter” on a piece of paper and taped it above her desk. Then she went back to work on a story about a mouse, one that would matter, one that still does.

Because, stories do matter. Oh, my, how they matter, in so many ways. Which is why the book festival matters so much, year after year.

I was saddened during a couple of years of health challenges to miss the festival. So I was especially grateful this year to be back, attending some of the sessions and driving some of the authors from one place to another.

Which is how I ended up at the wheel of my pickup, heading back to town from the airport and asking Meg Hafdahl how her life took a turn down a road to the macabre. No, it’s not that things got really strange for her. She’s a doctor’s wife and mother of sons age 12 and 16, with all the normal, rushed responsibilities that go with those roles.

But she’s also a professional writer and podcaster, which is where the macabre comes in.

Remember those creepy twins from The Shining? Well …

She specializes in the macabre, with short stories and books of suspense and horror and examination of the horror industry. She also has co-authored books such as The Science of Steven King and The Science of Monsters with her good friend Kelly Florence of Duluth, who also was a presenter at this book festival. The two of them host a podcast called Horror Rewind.

“So, the horror thing,” I said during the drive back to town. “How did you get into that?”

Pretty simple, she explained. From a young age she was entertained and fascinated by Steven King’s novels and other horror stories. Her interest grew and became action and her action grew and became, well, a career — in horror, or in the study and telling of stories about horror.

It has left its marks, including on her arm, where she has a tattoo of one of the creepy little twin girls from the movie The Shining. Florence has the other twin tattooed on her arm. And while I never saw them together during the festival, I can imagine the effect is, if not macabre, at least far from mundane.

Maybe I’ll catch up with them at a future book festival. That’s always the hope when you make the tough choice to not attend one session in favor of another.

This year I made one of those hard calls for the 10:15 a.m. session Saturday in Deadwood. One featured my long-time friend and former Sioux Falls Argus Leader colleague Chuck Raasch. He was to talk about his new book Life Painted Red, the story of Corabelle Fellows, which examines her 1884 journey to Nebraska and the Dakota Territory, her life on the frontier and the furor caused by her mixed-race marriage.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? I’m sure it is. And I intend to get it. But at the same time as Chuck’s presentation at a different venue there was a quartet of writers — Linda Marshall, Bryn Nelson, Michelle Nijhuis and Dan O’Brien — talking about natural-resource conservation through literature.

Dan O’Brien discusses grasslands restoration during a panel discussion ecological writing with fellow authors Linda Marshall, Michelle Nijhuis and Bryn Nelson
Kevin Woster
Dan O’Brien discusses grasslands restoration during a panel discussion ecological writing with fellow authors Linda Marshall, Michelle Nijhuis and Bryn Nelson

It wasn’t easy, but I went with the panel on conservation writing, because, well, that’s what I do a lot of the time myself. And that’s what I have done at least part of the time through a journalism career that began almost 50 years ago.

And at no time over that course of those many years has writing about the natural world and our effects on it been more important than it is today.

Trusting the wisdom of buffalo in land restoration

O’Brien, an author and restoration-minded buffalo rancher out on the grasslands southeast of Raid City, fears that in many cases environmental sustainability isn’t the answer. Isn’t even possible. Too much has already been lost, he said, primarily because of “too many people and too much stuff.”

“I think it’s too late for sustainability,” he said. “We have to regenerate. It’s a really big problem.”

O’Brien said buffalo are the smartest range managers around. And through their natural grazing habits, they are restoring native grasses on his ranch.

“We let the buffalo graze pretty much as they want. They’ve been doing it for 30,000 years,” he said. “We let nature take over.”

Seattle-based science writer Bryn Nelson said a “good start” in restoring damaged landscapes is to restore damaged perspectives by offering good literature about wild places. The goal is to “get people to fall in love with different places” and understand their value.

He called that “empathy of place, the idea of caring about a place so such that you mourn its loss.”

Have you mourned the loss of a piece of land that mattered to you? I have. More than once.

We should all have an empathy of place, don’t you think?

Marshall, who specializes in children’s books, spoke of her years raising sheep and embracing the environment on a farm in the Hudson River Valley of New York State. She said her chosen field carries a responsibility to take an optimistic approach to the complex environmental issues of our time.

“I can’t write for kids and not write about hope,” she said.

Nijhuis, who lives with her family in White Salmon, Wash., is a long-time editor of High Country News and author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. She believes conservation writing presents “an opportunity to change minds or at least bridge some of our deepest political divides.” The difficulty, she said, is “bringing it all down to a fundamental human level.”

She said it’s important to remember that while species have been lost and much damage has been done, many species and places have been saved because of the conservation movement.

So I left with both a sense of what has been lost but also a sense of what can yet be saved.

More difficult decisions in choosing book festival sessions

The next session I attended was a more technical presentation by W. Carter Johnson and Dennis Knight, a couple of retired natural-resources professors who examine the ecosystems of North Dakota and South Dakota in their book Ecology of Dakota Landscapes.

Dennis Knight and W. Carter Johnson discuss their book Ecology of Dakota Landscapes
Kevin Woster
Dennis Knight and W. Carter Johnson discuss their book Ecology of Dakota Landscapes

From them, I got useful information for future writings, including what climate change is likely to bring to the northern plains. But I also missed some excellent sessions elsewhere, including The Lost Journals of Sacajawea by Debra Magpie Earling and The Science of Horror by, you know them by now, Kelly Florence and Meg Hafdahl.

And somewhere in there I also missed a session by my previous passenger Gary Schmidt called Writing for Kids in a Time of Book Banning, which is especially relevant these days (Who would have thought 20 years ago that it would be?).

But Mary and I caught evening poetry readings by, first, the Women’s Poetry Collective of Norma Wilson, Lysbeth Benkert, Pen Pearson and Marcella Remund. They were followed by a reading by South Dakota Poet Laureate Bruce Roseland.

Then came an especially powerful presentation by David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, a painstakingly researched story of the horrific murders of Osage owners of oil leases by non-Natives intent on stealing their riches in Osage County, Okla., in the 1920s.

It’s both an examination of that historical wrong and a lesson in the importance of understanding history in its totality, even and maybe especially the difficult, painful parts.

Grann was introduced by Shelly C. Lowe, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Along with her participation in the book festival, Lowe made stops at cultural sites in the area and moderated a book festival panel on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons.

The MMIP panel and authors were supported this year by a National Endowment for the Humanities initiative called United We Stand: Connecting Through Culture, which is designed to “leverage the arts and humanities to combat hate-related violence.”

My niece Jennifer said the South Dakota Humanities Council “chose to focus this funding on violence against our state’s Native population with festival sessions. And this will continue all year with grants to individual libraries for local programming.”

This is a huge issue. A life-and-death issue. A law-enforcement and a justice issue. And, yes, a humanities issue.

There was and is so much to consider and reflect upon from the 2023 South Dakota Festival of Books. But not for long. At least, not for my niece and the seven other staffers for the South Dakota Humanities Council. Along with their other chores, they have already begun work on the 2024 Festival of Books, set for Sept. 20-22 in Brookings.

You should attend. I plan to. And even though they’ll probably have a team of Brookings-area drivers, I might volunteer to be a fill-in, if needed.

Which would give me another chance to put an author or two to sleep.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.