Anthropologist-turned-novelist, coping with vision loss, writes river novels

Tim Kloberdanz, a retired North Dakota State University anthropology professor, is writing a series of novels set along rivers in the Midwest and American West, including the Red River. David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — Tim Kloberdanz thought the erosion of his peripheral vision over a period of years meant he was developing cataracts.

He was getting older, after all. His progressive vision loss, in fact, prompted him nine years ago to retire early from his work as a professor of anthropology at North Dakota State University.

Kloberdanz welcomed early retirement, which would enable him to devote more time to writing fiction, a pursuit that has consumed much of his spare time for the past 15 years. His fiction has been set against the backdrop of rivers in the Midwest and American West, including the Red River flowing a few blocks from his north Fargo home.

But a visit to an ophthalmologist for what Kloberdanz thought was a case of worsening cataracts delivered an unexpected plot twist.

After a lengthy examination, the doctor concluded his vision problems weren’t cataracts, and told him to get in for an MRI scan as soon as possible. The imaging study determined that Kloberdanz had a brain tumor that was impinging on his optic nerve.


Brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic two years ago improved Kloberdanz’s vision, but his eyesight remains impaired. Still, Kloberdanz was able to resume work on his manuscript for “Once Upon the River Platte,” recently released by a small, regional press launched by Kloberdanz and others, Clovis House.

“It felt so good to see clearly again,” he said. “I felt reborn and was ecstatic, so I just wrote and wrote.”

The Platte River book was inspired by a hike Kloberdanz made along the Platte near Columbus, Neb., in the 1990s during a severe drought — so severe that a stretch of the river was dry. Kloberdanz saw a haggard, thirsty coyote scratching for water.

The old timers in the area, west of Omaha, had never seen anything like it, the mighty Platte reduced to a muddy trickle.

“That got me thinking, what if there would ever be a terrible drought?” he said.

He spun a plot set in the near future involving a searing drought, causing wild animals to attack people on lands bordering the Platte. The human death toll spirals within weeks.

The book’s cover suggests the resulting upheavals, depicting the Platte as if turned on its side, with text about a world gone topsy-turvy.

“Once Upon the River Platte” also draws upon the rich history of the Platte, where the Pawnee Indians once were a large and powerful nation.


“I wouldn’t say it’s a historical novel, but it does have a good deal of history in it,” he said.

Fiction can examine characters' thoughts and motivations, which nonfiction writing can’t explore as deeply, and also can be used to create situations that pose provocative questions, Kloberdanz said.

“When you look at archaeological remains, you can suppose all kinds of things, but it’s very hard to get in the minds of the individuals,” he said.

Scholarly writing, which Kloberdanz pursued during his academic career, can be dry and is anything but speculative, so he enjoyed the freedom afforded by writing fiction.

“One Day on the Red River” is a novella about an encounter in Fargo between a Scandinavian man, who is a widower, and a mysterious woman. The two strangers experience a memorable day together.

Kloberdanz has begun work on a third novel, set in the upper Mississippi River area of northern Minnesota, and plans others about the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

“I’ve always felt comfortable on rivers,” he said. “I think the river is very much a symbol for all of us — of life. Rivers all begin, but they end as well. That’s maybe a metaphor for life. I think rivers carry a whole lot of meaning.”

The books are available in some local bookstores, including Zandbroz Variety in downtown Fargo, and also are available online at .

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