I’ve read two North Dakotans’ memoir books in the past few weeks, written by two very different men. Yet there are surprising similarities between them, which made reading them back to back more interesting.
Both Bud and Sam were raised in strict North Dakota Catholic families, although there is nearly a generation difference in their ages, and both went away to St. John’s University in Minnesota to ostensibly study for the priesthood, something they had both dreamed about as young boys and high school students. Because they are both personal friends of mine, and because I know them both pretty well, I can assure you that the Catholic Church is much better off today that neither completed their priestly studies. And I can assure you they will agree.
But both remained men of faith—faith in their home state of North Dakota, and the people who live here. They both returned home after seeing some of the world, brought new wives from the “outside world” with them, took up their fathers’ business, became successful financially, and assumed positions of leadership in their communities, although in different manners.
Now they’ve given us books—not really great books, as books go, but very interesting if you are a North Dakotan who spent the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st here, as they did, because they reflect pretty well, from their perspectives, on things that happened here, and their roles in their families, communities and state. Would North Dakota be different today if they had not been here? Perhaps a bit. Did they matter? I think so. Certainly they affected the lives of those around them, and it’s fair to say their circles of influence were larger than those of most average North Dakotans.
But after reading their books, I was left with the feeling there was something missing: Joy. I’m puzzled about that, because from all outward appearances they have both led pretty happy and fulfilling lives. But when it came time for them to put their stories on paper, Joy did not emerge. Fun, but not Joy. The books are full of fun, and neither of them, when they felt a good story coming on, let the large or small facts get in the way. I know enough about the two of them to know that not all of the stories happened just exactly the way they told them. They’ll be criticized for that a little, but hey, these are THEIR books, their names are on them, and they can say whatever they want.
The major differences in their books are several. Bud’s book deals almost exclusively with the biggest stories in his life, fewer stories, told in greater depth, and stories at which he is the center. And he only flirts with strong language and sexual innuendoes. Sam’s book, on the other hand, is raucous and ribald, full of words that would get bleeped out on The Daily Show, and the literally hundreds of short stories are mostly about people around him, stories in which he may play a small role or only an observer role. His book is funnier, but not recommended for tender sensitivities. Both vent their frustrations with the Catholic Church, Bud quietly and almost regretfully, and Sam in a number of hilarious multi-page rants.
I also had different reactions at the end of each book. I thought, when I finished Bud’s book, “I’m glad those are the things you remember, and that that’s the way you remember them.” And when I closed Sam’s book, I thought “Well, Sam, do you feel better now?” And when I see them next I will say those things to them in person.
I don’t like either one of these men less after having ready their books. In fact, I like them a little more, because they’ve shared their human sides with me, sides I haven’t seen otherwise. In a state as small as ours, it takes a pair of balls to lay your life out in front of everyone who knows you, and both of them proved over their lives, and now through their books, that they were equipped to do that.
Neither of these books is going to go into my archives of “The Best Things Ever Written About North Dakota.” But both of these men are among the best North Dakotans I have known, and I hope we remain friends as long as we live. I think you should read their books. You can buy them online or at local bookstores, or you can check them out at your local library. I read them both straight through without getting sidetracked by other books along the way, which, as my wife will tell you, is something unusual for me.
“Turning Points: a memoir” by George A. “Bud” Sinner (with help from his press secretary, Bob Jansen). Sinner was Governor of North Dakota from 1985 to 1992.
“There is a Road in North Dakota: Memoirs of a Dakota Budman” by Sam W. McQuade. McQuade is the retired owner of McQuade’s Distributing, a beer wholesale business in Bismarck.