New book takes gentle aim at North Dakota

The first thing you should know about Abe Sauer, author of the latest book to poke fun at North Dakota, is that he actually spent time here -- and insists that he enjoyed it.

"How to be: North Dakota"

The first thing you should know about Abe Sauer, author of the latest book to poke fun at North Dakota, is that he actually spent time here -- and insists that he enjoyed it.

The book is "How to be: North Dakota," and includes a description of Grand Forks as one of several North Dakota cities established because of "a few dudes (in our case, riverboat Capt. Alexander Griggs and his crew) being trapped by absolutely horrendous winter conditions." If you snow them in, they will stay.

"If you're looking to get mugged, eat sushi or engage in any one of a number of activities available in most any major city," he writes, "Fargo is the place in North Dakota to do it."

But "A true North Dakotan is one who can watch a news report that begins 'a man, a deer and a raccoon were arrested in Grafton last night ...' and not immediately ask, 'Where is Grafton?'"

He cites the phrase "It could be worse" as "the core of a North Dakotan understanding about the world."


From 2008 through 2010, Sauer and his wife, Angela Thompson, lived in Grand Forks. He worked as a writer. His wife, a physician, worked at Altru Health System.

"Grand Forks was such a welcoming place," he said in a telephone interview from Wisconsin. "My wife and I still talk about this: The experience at the DMV (the motor vehicle licensing office) was enjoyable! We have never been to another place where the experience at the DMV could be called enjoyable."

Sauer, 37, has written for The Atlantic, Esquire and other publications and is a former senior editor for a gaming industry publication. He and his wife split their time between an apartment in the Twin Cities and the Wisconsin dairy farm where he grew up.

His father-in-law spent part of his youth in Rugby, N.D., "and he always regales me with stories about North Dakota, like when he and his friends would all go to the one place that had a TV and sit in front of it, even if it was off."

He was pleased, he said, to see the recent news report that the state was rebounding in population and, at nearly 684,000, had topped the previous record -- from 1930. (In his book, he cited the population as 641,481, "not counting undocumented immigrants from Norway.")

With the new numbers, thanks in part to the oil boom in the west, "North Dakota just might claw its way up to being the third least-populated state."

See, he just can't resist. (And we are the third least-populated state now, ahead of Vermont and Wyoming; Alaska is just ahead.)

But, again, he insists that he likes and admires the state.


"As an outsider coming in, it may be easier to see the qualities that make North Dakota what it is," he said. "You have to see past the cold, the miles and miles of flat land."

Look it up

In a chapter on state government, "longer than it should be," Sauer said his goal -- in line with the state's politics -- was "to do a limited amount" for readers. "The rest of the learning about North Dakota's government should be done by yourself, as our founding fathers intended."

Among the governor's principal duties: fly over floods in a helicopter.

The state is rich with towns to visit and later brag to friends, "I have been to ..." and finish the sentence with Berlin, Lisbon, Perth, Edinburgh, Leeds and Verona, with never having been to Germany, Portugal, Australia, Scotland, England or Italy.

In a chapter on famous North Dakotans, Sauer includes Teddy Roosevelt, where the future president's propensity to talk earned him the American Indian name, "Mustache Always Moving."

He recommends that newcomers add to their "North Dakotativity" by adding a suffix to last names, such as -sson, -bjorn, -strom or -gaard.

And for husbands whose wives are about to give birth, Sauer recommends preparation of a "hospital 'go' bag," which should include "agreed-upon name list, secret name list, wife, portable radio and a list of radio stations carrying UND hockey games."


UND hockey, he adds, "is, for all practical purposes, the state's pro franchise."

There's a guide to common and useful North Dakota phrases, such as "I'm fine." Examples of usage: "Want some help cutting that grass?" "No thanks, I'm fine." "Want a vine to grab onto to get out of that quicksand?" "No thanks, I'm fine."

Another chapter provides a glossary of distinctive North Dakota "words" including "dees," "dint" and "donchaknow," which is "the 'fuggedaboutit' of the Great Plains."

He also provides an overview of the state's more popular sports, including ice fishing (a beginner "will need bait, a sled, set rods, pliers, hooks and line, bucket to sit on, ice pick, schnapps, ice auger and nothing better to do") and complaining, a sport comparable to soccer in Third World countries "because it can be played anywhere with little investment or infrastructure."

North Dakota, he notes "is home to hall of fame complainer Ed Schultz," host of radio and TV talk shows.

Sauer said he hopes to produce similar books on Minnesota and Wisconsin. His North Dakota book is available at

"They also have some copies at the Altru gift shop," he said. It sounded like the beginning of a joke when he said it, but it's apparently true, or was.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to .

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