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Erik Burgess, Published January 25 2014

Fargo author explores 'ND nice' in new book

FARGO - It started out simple enough. A man in line at a gas station spills his cup of soda, and the woman behind him offers to pay for it: an act of kindness meant to be random and insignificant.

But for Marc de Celle, the man who spilled the drink, kindness is seldom random and almost never insignificant.

De Celle, an Arizona transplant who moved to Fargo in 2005, would go on to seek out the name of this woman, and then find out where she worked so he could continue to offer his thanks in person.

The story, and others like it, would eventually make its way into de Celle’s latest book about anonymous acts of kindness in and around Fargo, “Close Encounters of the Fargo Kind,” which hit bookshelves in November. It’s the follow-up to his popular “How Fargo of You,” first released in 2010.

“I don’t like the term ‘North Dakota nice.’ Because I think it goes a lot deeper,” de Celle said in a recent interview.

And de Celle is willing to dig deeper. He says he’s on a mission to make sure North Dakotans recognize how great it is here.

But critics say his countless stories of random kindness here display a rose-tinted and skewed understanding of life in the Red River Valley, where life isn’t quite as perfect as de Celle portrays it.

“It’s an enjoyable book to read, and I like all of his local references, but I don’t think anyone should consider it to be the entire picture,” said Eunice Johnston, a senior lecturer in the English department at North Dakota State University.

Pleasant culture shocks

Born and raised in much warmer climates, de Celle had no intention of ever moving to Fargo, let alone writing two books about the frigid northland.

He’s not even an author by trade. He has training in marketing and was a musician in Los Angeles for several years.

As he describes it in his first book, de Celle was dragged by his wife to visit her best friend in Fargo in 2001, and to his surprise, he fell in love with the warm people, the low crime rates and the smart schools.

In 2005, he, his wife and two young kids moved to Fargo, looking for a more family-friendly community with good schools.

The rest you can read in his books. He was immediately bludgeoned by random acts of kindness – a man who helped fix up his house for no charge, an anonymous person who paid his tab in a cafe in Hunter, N.D. The list goes on and on, oh, for around 250 pages.

“It was one wonderful culture shock after another, particularly our first year here,” the 58-year-old de Celle said. “And then I came up with that phrase ‘how Fargo of you.’ ”

The book has sold about 20,000 copies, by de Celle’s count, and his latest book, “Close Encounters,” has sold close to 5,000.

De Celle calls Fargo a “Goldilocks zone,” where everything is “just right,” and he very much considers himself the investigator that will get to the bottom of it.

“I think there’s lots of reasons for it, and it’s very complicated,” he said. “It’s like a souffle that got cooked here over the last century.”

While the first book is mostly de Celle’s personal tales of encountering random kindness in Fargo, in his second book, he relies on submitted stories from others. It’s proof, he says, that this phenomenon happens to other people here, too.

There are those who agree with him, like Bruce Maylath, an English professor at NDSU who helped edit the third edition of “How Fargo of You.”

“I think he’s really good at capturing what people here take for granted and what seems so unusual outside the Upper Midwest,” Maylath said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker is also a de Celle fan, and even has a box of “How Fargo of You” books that he passes out to visitors at City Hall.

Some would argue, though, that de Celle is describing a universal story of human kindness, no different here than anywhere else. Greg Danz, owner of Zandbroz Variety in downtown Fargo, made that argument.

“I think Marc was tapping into something that we believe about ourselves up here. And I think it’s true, but I don’t think it’s necessarily truer here than it is elsewhere,” Danz said. “I don’t think it says that Marc’s wrong. I think you can write a book ‘How New York of You,’ too, and it would ring as true for people who live there. You can find those kinds of stories anywhere.”

Without a doubt, de Celle is convinced that the behavior here is unique from other places. No matter where he goes in the Upper Midwest, de Celle said he feels like he’s with extended family.

“When you walk outside to Phoenix … it never feels that way. You gotta kind of watch your back,” he said. “You’re going into the jungle.”

But, really, it’s all about perspective, Danz said.

“Maybe people suck in Arizona,” he quipped.

Putting the ‘ice’ in ‘nice’

The culture of “North Dakota nice” that de Celle describes in his books didn’t just randomly appear in the Upper Midwest. It comes from Scandinavian immigrants, Maylath said, and their concept of “dugnad.”

Maylath, who studied in Oslo, Norway, in the ’70s and ’80s, said dugnad is this idea that everybody in any given town, school or organization will pitch in regularly for a community service project.

“It might be cleaning up the seashore along the fjord, but you’re expected to show up. And if you don’t show up, you’ll hear about it,” Maylath said. “So the word didn’t transplant itself here, but the concept did.”

De Celle said one need look no further than the communitywide response to the frequent floods in the Red River Valley. The flood of 1997, he said, seems to be the point in time when the culture here started to warm up.

“People who lived here at that time told me that it really did bring this place together in a way it hadn’t come together before,” he said. “You know, some lady in a burka handing some old white guy a sandbag changes the way people think.”

But Maylath and Johnston said de Celle’s books only scratch the surface and don’t get beyond the rose-tinted fluff of “North Dakota nice.” Beneath that fluff, they said, is a darker side to the culture that de Celle doesn’t tackle.

Scandinavians tend to be introverted and exclusionary, Maylath said, and this is often referred to as the “ice” of North Dakota or Minnesota “nice.”

Outsiders, like de Celle, may be treated politely at first, but eventually they will be treated like, well, an outsider, Maylath said.

“They feel frozen out,” he said. “There’s this surface niceness or politeness, but it’s hard to break through the ice.”

Johnston, who grew up on a farm just eight miles east of Hunter, said you can’t just blame the Scandinavians.

“You get into these small North Dakota towns and there definitely is an insider-outsider (culture), regardless of country of origin,” she said.

For instance, with the anecdote of a stranger paying for de Celle’s meal in Hunter, Johnston pointed out that before de Celle even sat down to eat, his son told the waitress that he was a student at nearby Northern Cass. This made de Celle an “insider” and more likely to be treated nicely, Johnston argued.

As the state continues to grow and diversify, Johnston said that insider/outsider dilemma could grow, too.

“I’m not sure we’re quite as welcoming of some of that diversity,” she said. “I’m not sure that, say, an Asian or an African-American in the same circumstances might be receiving quite as friendly of a reception as Marc has had.”

Maylath said it’s also likely that de Celle experiences such kindness here because many of his friends are not from here. De Celle himself said that around 75 percent of his friends here are transplants to the area like him.

“I’ve mentioned to Marc that you ought to follow up and look at the dark side of this, the frozen side, but he’s still enamored with just the kindness he meets,” Maylath said, “and I don’t want to squelch that.”

‘He’s really eccentric’

De Celle’s obsession for documenting Midwestern kindness shows itself in his persistence.

And he is nothing if not persistent.

There’s the story of how he first met Julia Dobbins, the 27-year-old Moorhead hairstylist who picked up

de Celle’s tab at a gas station after the author spilled his soda across the counter.

Dobbins left the scene almost immediately, expecting her act of kindness to be nothing more than anonymous. De Celle wouldn’t have it.

He questioned the gas station attendants for her name, then found her husband on Facebook and sent him messages of thanks, Dobbins said. Then, he found out where she worked and showed up for a haircut.

Dobbins said it shocked her, but only because she’s not used to getting praise for her anonymous acts of kindness.

“I wouldn’t say he was creepy at all,” she said. “It was just really shocking to me that he went the extra mile to do that.”

There are other stories just like that, like when de Celle wanted Forum Communications, which owns The Forum, to publish his latest book.

To persuade President and CEO Bill Marcil Jr., de Celle found out that Marcil likes Diet Coke.

“He came every day and gave him a Diet Coke with a bow on top,” said Allison Leslie, Marcil’s executive assistant.

“He’s really eccentric, let’s just say that,” Leslie said. “He was really nice, but very persistent.”

Maybe it’s de Celle’s informal background in marketing that makes him so dogged, but he doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m a reluctant entrepreneur. I don’t like doing business,” he said. “I would like to just write all the time.”

De Celle eventually self-published the book “Close Encounters of the Fargo Kind.” He also self-published “How Fargo of You.”

The author plans to write at least two more books about the region, and he hopes they can reach a wider audience.

New copies of the first edition of “How Fargo of You,” which is no longer in print, are selling for as much as $280 on Amazon, by the way.

Used copies online are going for much cheaper.

“I’ve been studying the ups and downs of human history for a long time, and how certain places flower at certain times, and I suspect that we’re at the beginning of something here,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the middle. I think it’s early.

“I haven’t tried to get to the bottom of it yet,”

de Celle added.

Maybe he never will get to the heart of it, but you can bet he won’t stop trying.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518