You might know me as a writer, a judge, and a life-long Duluthian. You may also know that, over the past two decades, I‘ve researched, written, and published two historical novels about the Finns. As I type this piece, I’m presently at work on another novel concerning Finnish history and immigration. When all is said and done I’ll have devoted more than twelve years to my Finnish-themed novels. Folks often ask, “If you’re not Finnish, why do you write about the Finns?” Given that Finland recently celebrated 100 years of nationhood (on December 6th, 2017) maybe now’s a good time to answer that question.

I grew up with Finns. As a thoroughly diluted American (Slovenian, English, Welsh, and German with a bit of French, Dutch, Scots, and Irish tossed in for good measure), when I befriended two 100% Finnish boys in 6th grade, I was, given my mutt-like bloodlines, curious. But I didn’t question my new pals’ ethnic purity right off. It wasn’t until the three of us set out to build a log cabin on the Tynjala ancestral farm near Palo when I began to ponder my friends’ Finnishness. During breaks from cutting and peeling and stacking logs I wandered the farm’s abandoned hayfields. As I walked, I took notice of glacial rocks piled high in the fields and wondered: “Who were these people and why did they try to farm this godforsaken land?” Even city kids understand the basics of agriculture: you need ample rain, good soil, a long growing season, and hot sun to be successful. The little Finnish farm in Palo had none of these attributes except ample rain, which, of course, bred ample black flies and mosquitoes and little else. As our makeshift cabin took shape, I puzzled over the hardscrabble lives of those who carved a farm out of forest. But I did not, in my imagined stories, discover anything worth putting down on paper.

In 2000, I stumbled across the tale of Olli Kinkkonen, a Finn found hanging from a tree in Duluth’s Lester Park in 1918. The police ruled Olli’s death a suicide. In my view, the facts pointed to something more sinister. Researching Kinkkonen’s life and times, I became captivated by Finnish immigrant history. Before I knew what hit me, I was penning a broad-shouldered yarn I had no business writing. Once Suomalaiset was in print I feared the worst. Who was I to write the story of the Finns coming to North America? I waited for criticism from the Finnish American community. None came. I breathed a sigh of relief and went on to other projects. I was content−until Gerry Henkel, a Finnish American friend pulled me aside for a “chat”−to leave the Finns alone. I had no further interest in exploring Finnish history in a fictional context. But Gerry convinced me that there was a larger story waiting to be told. What that story was, Gerry left it to me to discover.

I struggled as to what theme could be compelling enough to prompt me to write another book about the Finns. Then it hit me: Karelian Fever, the emigration of thousands of Finns from North America to the U.S.S.R., could fuel a novel. I had an inkling that there was a more complex tale to be told than simply regurgitating themes surrounding Karelian Fever. But what other aspects of Finnish history could be fleshed out? Some topics seemed obvious: many writers have explored the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Finland in 1939. To add another fictional accounting of the Winter War atop an existing mountain of similar stories seemed meritless. Then it dawned on me: No one has explored why the Finns cast their fate with the Nazis during the war. With Gerry’s encouragement, my second Finn book, Sukulaiset, found its way into print. Once again, I waited for criticism but the storm of protest never materialized. Finns remained appreciative of my treatment of their history, culture, and national identity. Even so, after Sukulaiset was published, I tried to put aside my fondness for the Finns.

Except. Lingering in the back of my mind was a question I’d left unexplored:

Why did all those Finns leave Finland in the first place?

This morning, I’m at my iMac in my writing studio cobbling together an answer to my question. The answer is taking shape in the form of Kotimaa (Homeland), the final novel in my Finnish trilogy. In my effort to understand why Finns left Finland in droves at the end of the 19th century, I find myself juxtaposing historic emigration upon contemporary events. Trying to comprehend the past, I’m compelled to examine the present. I peruse newspaper articles detailing the political handwringing of nations−including boisterous debates taking place in Finland−as world leaders consider the demands of beleaguered refugees; refugees who don’t look, talk, or worship like the folks inhabiting the homelands being called upon to provide sanctuary.

As the Finns−a people once derided as being clannish, standoffish, and unable to assimilate−debate how to respond to dark skinned Moslems seeking shelter and safety from terrorism, war, genocide, and despotic rule within Finland’s borders, I’ll answer the question of why within the context of the plot and dialogue of a historical novel, letting my readers determine whether my response rings true.

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland.

(c) Mark Munger 2018

*Happy Centennial (at least according to Google translate). This essay first appeared in edited form in the Duluth News Tribune and was reprinted with permission in the Finnish American Reporter.                                                   

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (2018. Holtzbrink. ISBN 978-0312577230)

I loved Hannah’s epic WW II novel, The Nightengale. I relished her story of the siege of St. Petersburg, Winter Garden. (Find my reviews of those books by using the search engine on this page!) So, it was with much anticipation that I began reading this novel of a broken down Vietnam veteran, his wife, and daughter trying to forge a life for themselves in early 1970s Alaska. This a love triangle set against harsh wilderness but not in the way you might think. Ernt Allbright, the veteran, has his moments as a husband and father. But the demons of war have, at least according to his wife’s view of things, shattered the man, making him suspicious, alcoholic, brutal, and unhinged. Wife Cora and daughter Leni try hard to love and protect the man from himself. But who will protect them from his rages, rages made all the worse by the inhospitable landscape and perpetual darkness of an Arctic winter?

Hannah writes well. Her depiction of spousal abuse is spot on. The dynamics of staying or leaving, a choice that I see being debated internally by women in my courtroom when confronted with domestic violence unleashed by men they love, is well documented in this telling of that sad reality. There are some implausibilities and some moments where I thought the lawyer in Hannah got the better of the fiction writer but, in the end, this is a story needing to be told, one that women’s book clubs will eat up like candy.

This is not The Nightengale but that’s okay. It’s a contemporary look at a haunting and difficult issue set in a location that, by itself, forms an esssential character in the story. 

4 stars out of 5.



Boom Copper by Angus Murdoch (1943. Drier and Koepel. No ISBN)

In researching the history of copper mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for my forthcoming novel, Kotimaa: Homeland, the tale of Finnish immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s, I needed to locate resource materials that succinctly laid out the history of the industry with an eye towards the human story behind the hardscrabble lives of the early miners. Angus Murdoch’s book fit the bill.

Murdoch’s storytelling sometimes veers into near-fiction, recalling anecdotal tales as if they were documented history, but, for the most part, his reportage is straight forward, compelling, linear, and succinct.

I would recommend this book as a good starting point for anyone interested in Michigan history, the Finnish immigrant experience, or mining.

4 stars out of 5.



Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick (1968. Del Rey. ISBN 978-0-345-40447-3)

This is not Blade Runner. Though this short novel, really more of a novella, was the basis for the character Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford in both cinematic derivations of the tale), that’s about the only consistency between the book and the movies. The original film, which came out in 1982, is so much more complex and detailed in its examination of Deckard, the bounty hunter whose job it is to “retire” replicants (androids who are virtually indistinguishable from humans), his motivations and his demons, than this written work. In addition, a thread to the book that, so far as I can recall, is completely absent from the film, is the theology of Mercerism, a mumbo jumbo of spirituality that doesn’t really seem to add much to the novel’s plot line. I’m glad the movies chose to eliminate that storyline as it adds nothing to the novel and would be, if attempted on film, even less compelling than in print.

And then there is Rachael Rosen, played in both movies by Sean Young, the one replicant that Rick Deckard cannot retire. Her role in the novel is very different and less satisfying and intriguing than portrayed in either film.

All in all, this is one of those tales that contained a germ of an idea-the hunting of rogue androids by a policeman-that genius filmmakers turned into a franchise with far more heart and substance than the original tale.

2 stars out of 5. Watch the original film and Blade Runner 2049 for a far more compelling vision of the future.



Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice by Roberta Waburn (2017. University of Minnesota. ISBN978-1-5179-0231-5)

No. This is not how judges act, decide cases, or go about their business. That’s the thought that rings true after devouring Walburn’s well-written and researched biography of Minnesota’s most iconic, debated, loved, and hated jurist. There were so many aspects to how United States District Court Judge Miles Lord went about doing his work as a trial judge that are inapplicable and indeed, inopposite to my work as a state court judge that, while reading Walburn’s accounting of Lord’s work on the Reserve Mining case and the Dalkon Shield litigation, I found myself clenching, grimacing, and well, quite frankly, shaking my head. And yet…

Beneath it all, was a Minnesota Iron Ranger steeped in the DFL Party’s desperate rush, during the 1950s and early 1960s, to establish itself as the People’s Party, filling in the void left by the Farmer Labor Party that had held sway in Minnesota for most of the Great Depression. Lord saw himself as a fighter-both literally and figuratively-for the ordinary man both in his role as Minnesota’s Attorney General and as a judge. Personal friends with both Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, two United States Senators from the DFL who found themselves on opposite ends of the Vietnam War, Lord tried to bridge the philosophical gap between his mentors through mutual friendship, hoping upon hope to propel HHH into the presidency. He failed in bringing McCarthy back into the fold and, in the process, failed at electing Humphrey to the presidency. Admittedly, the sections of the book detailing Lord’s ties to politics are fascinating. But it’s Walburn’s depiction of Lord’s work on the Dalkon Shield cases that is the focus of her dissection of what made the man tick.

A confession here. Perhaps I’m a bit too close to the subject matter. Not because I share Lord’s vocation, but because of my own background. I was a law clerk at the Robins, Kaplan, and Ciresi Law Firm when Judge Donald Alsop forced another Twin Cities law firm, after discovering improprieties, to disgorge over 400 Dalkon Shield products liability cases. I was working at the Robins firm when the boxes arrived a week before I left to begin my summer study for the Minnesota Bar Exam. Later, after I’d passed the bar, I represented two Duluth women who’d been injured by the Dalkon Shield in front of of Judge Alsop. Both cases settled but there’s no question that Judge Lord’s exposure of AH Robins’ malfeasance in manufacturing and promoting a device that devastated women’s health contributed to cases being resolved short of trial.

I found the author’s careful dissection of Judge Lord’s pugilistic background, juxtaposed upon the tense, ugly world of corporate litigation, to be a fascinating read. Mind you, there’s much that Miles Lord did in both the Reserve and Dalkon cases that caught the attention of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and got him in trouble with the appellate court. But, true to his Iron Range nature, reprimands and reversals did not change the judge’s belief that he was not just a referee between unequal litigants. In Miles Lord’s eyes, his role-as described in loving detail by his former law clerk- was to ensure everyone got a fair shake, damn the personal consequences. While that’s an admirable goal for a jurist, it’s one only those appointed to their jobs for life likely are able to fulfill with such unfettered bravery.

All in all, one of the best Minnesota biographies I’ve ever read.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



Faith Works by Jim Wallis (2000. Random House. ISBN 1-4000-6479-1)

An Evangelical friend gifted this non-fiction “handbook for Christians” a year or so back. It sat on my shelf, waiting discovery, until it became one of my bedside and bathroom reads. Because I’m a life-long Liberal Christian (yes, we still exist!), I’ve taken it upon myself to try and understand the recent election of The Orange Headed One through the eyes of my more conservative, vocal, Christian brothers and sisters. I was hoping this book would guide me to some sort of comprehension. It did not. But that’s not because the book lacks depth or quality writing or spiritual insight. Wallis’s work is filled with all of those things. But it is, at this point, eighteen years old already and sadly, written at a time when the current disaster of a president wasn’t in the picture.

Too harsh you say? I’m being too judgmental? Here’s the thing. My entire life, my biggest pet peeve is hypocrisy, the “do as I say, don’t do as I do” mentality of certain folks in power. Wallis works hard to paint a picture of the a possible unification of Christians on the right and the left by turning away from debating whether one side or the other has the keys to the kingdom, or has a clue as to WWJD (What Would Jesus Do). He reports on a then-growing movement of like-minded and stout-hearted civil rights leaders, churchmen and women, and deep thinking politicians who understood, at least back in the late 1990s, that economic disparity, racial inequality, wage inequity, and environmental instability (most often in areas inhabited by the poor) are not just political questions: they are Christian issues. His reportage, as a leader in this re-discovery of the need to blend Christian charity with governmental oversight and programming,  is concise and accurate. But there is one fundamental flaw in his logic. He could not anticipate that his audience, fueled by the advance of Balkanization through politically-driven television and radio and websites, would not come together to confront the issues he raises but rather, separate farther and farther until the two sides of any big-picture argument are no longer able to talk in a common, respectful language.

I was hoping that Wallis, an acclaimed Evangelical himself, could point us all in a direction that would lead to reconciliation and healing. But despite his best efforts, that didn’t happen and in fact, seems desperately impossible. His stern warnings about Trump the candidate went unheeded by his fans and those fellow Evangelicals who believed Wallis, back when this book was written, was spot on. (See And yet, here we are. We elected ( I include myself because, well, I am still an American and must live through the next three years alongside my fellow citizens who put Trump in office) a man who thinks only of himself, is a serial adulterer, denigrates women and minorities and immigrants and just about everyone who doesn’t share his white skin and his privilege, avoided military service when called, and worst of all, has no semblance of Christian charity or belief about him. Wallis tried, when he began the Sojourner Movement in the 1990s in the face of  Congressional attacks on the social safety net, to bring Jesus forward, to make Him the focus of a discussion of how to improve morally as a people. I applaud his tenacity and his faith. I am only sorry that his vision of a unified approach to the biggest social and equity issues confronting our nation has led us to this.

In reading Wallis’s book, my one major criticism is that he soft sells the wide gap between Evangelicals and Liberal Christians when it comes to the issue of abortion. The topic is only marginally present along the edges and never is tackled head on. This is, in my estimation, a mistake. Until the two sides in the abortion debate can come to some sort of armistice, whereby the Right is allowed to hold fast to its belief that abortion is a moral sin but admits those who think otherwise aren’t murdering, unfeeling animals; and the Left acknowledges that abortion is a morally difficult topic and recognizes that casually denigrating those who believe abortion to be morally repugnant are ignorant, backwater boobs is wrong; none of what Wallis hopes to accomplish across the spectrum of Christianity is likely possible. My personal take is such an accommodation may once have been plausible and all sorts of Believers might have been able to agree to disagree had that dialogue taken place around the time Bill Clinton (no moral guiding light, I’ll admit) shared his belief that abortion should be “legal and safe, but rare” in 1992. Had that discussion taken place before Hannity and Maddow, perhaps Wallis’s vision might have come to pass. But that era disappeared within the whirlwind of impeachment based upon a Liberal president’s own moral failings. Absent the heavens opening and Jesus descending sometime soon to guide us out of this morass, I’m not encouraged that things are gonna change and men and women across the political divide will roll up their sleeves and do the Good Work that Wallis believes is possible.

4 stars out of 5. Trump isn’t Wallis’s burden to bear. He is ours.



(PS One could write volumes about the disconnect between how Evangelical Christianity held its collective nose and voted for an immoral man simply because he assured them “I stand against abortion” and yet aimed its collective slings and arrows in the direction of an intelligent, honest, faithful, and thoughtful black man. But this isn’t the place…)




Big Shoulders by William Jamerson (2007. Pine Stump. ISBN 978-1-882882-12-0)

The back cover jacket of this “coming of age in a CCC camp” novel reveals that the author is an award winning filmmaker (Camp Forgotten: The CCC in Michigan) so when my writer-turned-aunt handed me this book, being that I am a historian by training, I thought, “what the heck.” I must say, even though I managed to finish the story ( ever the optimist, I rarely ever give up on a novel), it’s not a story that I’d recommend to anyone over the age of 16. So. in addition to all of the book’s other flaws and faults, I’d add false advertising to the mix as well. Why?

There’s nothing on the back cover or inside the novel that warns the reader that the book is written for middle and high schoolers. That’s probably because the author did not intentionally set out to write a juvenile novel. But that, in the end, is what readers are left with. Beyond that, Jamerson’s writing style, while accurate, is stiff and analytic and contains few, if any, memorable scenes or passages. The old adage for budding fiction authors, “write like your parents are dead” is completely absent. Mr. Jamerson, while likely a very nice man and a find filmmaker, takes zero risk in his prose. The protagonist, Nick Radzinski-a city boy claimed by the camps for redemption-ambles along in this tale, avoiding, as the author does, any real consequence or conflict or revelation of mind or spirit. Two major plot points, Nick’s looming fight with the camp tough and his burgeoning affection for a local girl (Betty) end in abject disappointment. And the ending, where Mr. Jamerson attempts to “bring it all home” with a climatic, suspense-filled, nail biting conclusion, fails to excite or engage. The final scenes, in which Nick uncovers the identity of a camp thief-a person he’s been seeking to uncover to clear his good name-don’t even rise to the level of middle school suspension of disbelief, much the thrilling  to an adult-level read.

On the plus side, I discovered no sentence clunkers or typographical glitches or major deviations from the English language in this book. But technical competence cannot bring life to a body of words that lacks heart.

In the end, I wish I’d watched the documentary.

2 and 1/2 stars out of 5.




Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah (2011. St. Martin’s. ISBN 978-0312663155. This review is of the Audible version of the novel.)

It’s a long way from Duluth, Minnesota to Williston, North Dakota. So, when my wife Rene’ and I decided to change things up and not “do” Thanksgiving at home but travel to our son’s home in the Bakken, bringing my 89 year old mom with to visit her great granddaughter, I knew the only way we’d survive 10-11 hours (one way) in the Jeep was to have a good audio book ready to go. Having thoroughly enjoyed The Nightingale, a fabulous portrayal of conflict, love, and the French resistance during WW II, when I saw this title, saw that it was by Ms. Hannah, and read a few blurbs, I guessed it’d be a story my wife, my mother, and I would all enjoy. I’m glad I trusted my instincts.

Set in present day Washington State and WW II Leningrad (St. Petersburg), this tale is a complex family saga, historical novel, and contemporary love story (or actually, love stories) chronicling the lives of two sisters, Meredith and Nina as they slowly uncover, while mourning the loss of their father, the truth of their mother’s heritage and the reasons behind her stern, Russian demeanor. While the contemporary sections of the story were, as is always the case with Ms. Hannah’s expert narration, dialogue, and word craft, well paced and cleanly drawn, it is the “story within the story” (actually, at one point, this novel includes a story within a story within a story as well!), Anya Whitson’s (the mother’s) recalling of her survival of the siege of Leningrad by the Germans (for more on the siege see that is both riveting and heart-wrenching. In the details of Anya’s life during the war, Hannah hits on all cylinders, compelling readers (or in our case, the listeners) to fear and dread and hope as each scene slowly unfolds. In a word, the Leningrad segements are masterful; expositions of fine prose by a writer at the peak of her craft.

My only criticism of the novel is that the ending (no spoiler here) is a bit too convenient, a bit too coincidental for my taste. But the two females on that long ride to and from Williston do not seem to share my concerns in this regard. Perhaps I’m too engaged in my own craft as a writer to allow for suspension of disbelief to the degree Ms. Hannah requires at the end of a very, very satisfying tale. The truth is, even with my slight critique of the book’s conclusion, this novel is a well-written generational tale that both men, who like action and warfare and history, and women, who are more partial to cerebral tales of familial conflict, can enjoy.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A page turner and a marvelous read.



Kena waiting for the hunt.

October. Every year. It’s a tradition that began with my old man and his buddy Bruce. They started the legacy my sons and I are carrying on sometime back in the 1990’s. They were already old men then, old men who still had vim and vigor to chase wild pheasants and ducks in the Dakotas. At first, they hunted South Dakota. But when that became too pricey, too uppity for Harry and Bruce, they moved north a bit. They found a little town not far from where Lawrence Welk was born. Ashley, ND has been the center of the Munger pheasant hunt now for twenty plus years. I’ve been part of this trip for going on fifteen years. My eldest son Matt joined us a few years back, followed by his brothers Chris and Jack. Reid, one of Matt’s buddies, rounds out our five-some. The old guys don’t come out anymore. Joints and heart issues and maladies and such. Time and age eventually catch up with even the most stubborn hunter. Oh, they’d both be making this trip if they could. But such is not to be. Sometime during this trip, we’ll tip a beer in tribute to Harry and Bruce. It’s not much but at least it’s something in honor of our hunt’s founders.

This year, Kena-“the greatest champion” in Celtic-Jack’s four-year old black Labrador is our “go to” dog. Matt’s yellow Lab Lexi is battling cancer, is over ten, and isn’t able to hunt anymore. In Lexi’s stead, I’m bringing my five-month old Brittany pup Leala-“faithful” in French. I’ve never had a pointer so I’ve been working Leala and Kena every day. They’re both eager to hunt. For the Mungers Plus One, expectations are low. Why? The five of us are poor shots when it comes to hitting rooster pheasants on the fly. Shooting trap, you suggest, might be of help. Not so much. We’ve tried that and it really didn’t improve our collective effort. And so we go into the field as we are.

It’s a seven hour drive to Ashley. Should be six but we’ve started a tradition of stopping partway to grill lunch. Last year, we pulled over at a city park in Fergus Falls. This year, with Matt and Reid in Matt’s Dodge pickup and Jack, me, and the two dogs in my Grand Cherokee we pull off in Pilager. Matt cooks lunch on  a portable LP grill. We munch on brats and chips, sip soda, and let the dogs run around. The sky is high and blue. The weather is warm. Unseasonably so for mid-October. Our bellies full, it’s back on the road.

Matt the chef.

We count rooster pheasants over the flat desolation of North Dakota farm and ranch country as we head south on No. 11. We pass through familiar towns, none of them bigger than a postage stamp, arriving in Ashley-the county seat of McIntosh County-near dark. Chris, who lives in St. Paul, is already at our rental house and has likely turned on the water and the heat. When Harry and Bruce first started coming to Ashley, they stayed at the one and only motel in town. Then they befriended a local rancher and rented his extra house, thereby gaining permission to hunt acres of private field and forest. This relationship soured shortly after I started coming along (maybe it was something I said?) and so for the last decade, we’ve stayed in town, limiting our hunting to PLOTS land and waterfowl production areas. I’m not keen on paying farmers to hunt their land or asking permission to walk their property and though such an attitude limits our opportunities, so far, no one in the crew has mutinied. 

Morning. It’s glorious working open fields beneath an endless sky, watching the dogs track birds. Kena is steady and strong and conserves energy: finding scent, following scent, her tail relatively calm until she hits on a bird in cover. Leala is a coiled spring of boundless energy, all youth and spunk. Jack never touches the remote controlling Kena’s eCollar. She’s so compliant and diligent to task, there’s no need. On the other hand, the pup needs constant mild reminders from my thumb on her eCollar not to roam too far or chase corn fed white tail bucks or scoot off after owls that slowly flap away from hidden nesting places as we hunt.

Leala waiting for her master.

We don’t know it at the time but the first flurry of the first morning, a passel of roosters rising as we push a fence line marking the edge of the CRP land we’re hunting is our best opportunity for multiple birds. Reid downs one, which the dogs have trouble locating but eventually find. The rest of us miss our shots. After finding Reid’s bird, I introduce Leala to her first pheasant. I toss it a few feet. She runs to the bird and struggles with a dead rooster that is about a quarter of Leala’s weight. Which is to say, having hunted over Labs and the occasional Golden Retriever and Springer, I am not used to considering a twenty pound dog a hunting companion. But over the course of days, the Brittany’s stamina and nose convince me of her worth. Unlike past years, where we’ve lost a half dozen or so downed birds, we don’t lose a single rooster this year. Granted, we don’t hit all that many. But still. It’s nice not to lose birds. After that first day-when we down three-it gets very, very tough. The wind roars in, gusting to over 50mph, making it impossible for the dogs to follow scent. In turns it rains and spits and blows harder, making our time in the field miserable. But when the weather calms we hunt long and we hunt hard. The health app on my phone says we average 8.5 miles per day. We walk over 10 miles on Sunday. So, if nothing else, we’re getting our exercise!

A pair of Dakota roosters.

I have to stop here to say this: Without the efforts of my eldest son, this hunt would never happen. Once the old guys stopped coming, Matt took it upon himself to become trip planner, quartermaster, and chef. He rents the house, buys the food, and cooks every meal (except breakfast which is cold cereal). He’s the guy. Period. For that, I thank him deeply.

And I don’t want you to form the conclusion that these trips are complete affirmations of familial love. Reid, who’s now tagged along with the Mungers for more than half a decade, will attest to the fact that we’re all stubborn bastards and that every year (this one included) one of us will march off in a huff, threatening to drive back to Duluth and “never come to Ashley again.” But it’s all bluster and nonsense and, as with the weather, eventually things calm down. That Reid Amborn is willing to put up with such drama is a testament to his good nature. Or maybe, he enjoys a little theater on the Plains. Whatever. He’s managed to figure out how to stay out of the fray, keep his head down, and have a pretty good time despite us.

My contribution to these annual trips? I’m the dishwasher. Chris and Jack clean and pack birds, with Chris being the teacher and Jack the student. Reid pitches in peeling potatoes, cutting carrots, grilling steaks, sweeping up; doing whatever he’s asked to do whenever he’s asked to do it. Despite my earlier proclamation of discord, for the vast majority of the time we spend together, we’re a jovial, happy crew. Especially when the cold beer comes out at the end of a long day…

Three days in, Kena has worked so many fields and marshes and swamps that she’s split open a pad on her right front paw. And both she and the little one are the very definition of dog-tired when we get back to the house after dark, hitting the couch as soon as they get in the door.

A hard day’s night…

I bandage the Lab’s foot and hope for the best. In the morning, she limps a bit but once her adrenaline starts pumping, she forgets her pain. Still, Jack’s careful not to overwork her. She, like Leala, are more than hunting dogs. They are family. That having been said, Kena doesn’t miss a beat, retrieving every bird we hit, poking her nose in every possible roost, never slowing down.

Matt, Reed, and Chris working the grass.

Still, I’m amazed at the little pup’s stamina. For a tiny bit of dog flesh-she’s mostly fur and sinew-she never backs down from a challenge. Cattails so thick that a man can barely bust his way through don’t stop her. Bramble and thistle don’t deter her. Whereas Kena will power through such obstacles, Leala simply ducks down and avoids the worst of it. After four days of watching the dogs, I’m pleased with how well they work together. By the end of the hunt, I’m reaching for Leala’s eCollar remote with less frequency.

“You want to try that CRP up north, where we saw those roosters driving in?”

It’s Wednesday morning. We’re cleaning the rental house, leaving it-since Reid, Jack and I are all Eagle Scouts-cleaner than we found it.

“Sure,” Jack replies.

I pack the Jeep. Chris packs up his Nissan. Matt and Reid close the tailgate on the Dodge. We lock up the little white house and garage and hit the road. A couple of hours later, Jack and I are walking another grassy section of CRP; a huge slice of acreage further north than we’ve ever hunted. The dogs get birdy. A rooster bursts from cover. We shoot. For a moment, I think I’ve clipped it. But if I did and it hit the ground running, the PLOTS land we are hunting is so vast, the dogs will run themselves to exhaustion trying to corner the bird. And truth be told, I think I am being overly optimistic. Chances are, the bird is unharmed. We hunt for another hour but no other roosters take wing. We’ve missed our last chance at a pheasant. With the dogs back in their kennels and our shotguns packed in their cases, we take one last look at the Plains, and climb into the Jeep for the long ride home.

Jack and two more birds.




Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway (1950. Scribner. ISBN 978-0-684-84464-0)

Mmmm. How to begin? How about with this. After being lured into the crazy world of writing, editing, and publishing by the seductive, dynamic, and brusque style of my authorial mentor; after diving headlong into the pool of words to create seven novels, a collection of short fiction, a biography, and one volume of essays, reading this book-the last novel written by Pappa Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea came out two years later but is a novella)-made me feel like I’d hit my head on the bottom of that linguistic swimming pool. I should have heeded the critics who, when this book was released four years before I was born, panned it as “Hemingway’s worst” (see But, being this was his last effort to write another Great American Novel, I had to give it a chance. Sadly, I must report those critics-most of whom are long dead (as is the author)-were spot on.

Here’s a story of a fifty-something combat officer, a career army man who’d served in both the Great War and WW II, and who’d spent considerable time during both conflicts in Italy. The Colonel falls in love with a 19 year old Italian girl, Renata (I’m not being pejorative here; the protagonist refers to her as “Daughter”) while on a duck hunting trip to Venice. Or perhaps, he met her somewhat earlier and they are ending their relationship. One can’t really be sure about timelines or much else in this jumble of a late-in-life Lolita story (Hemingway is more cautious with his lust for young things than Nabokov since Renata in this tale is at least older than the age of consent). What’s the problem, you ask?

First off, I’ve written before about sixty or seventy year old white men writing tales of love where the object of the thinly disguised autobiographical protagonist’s affection is a woman twenty or thirty or forty years younger than the male centerpiece. I’ve criticized Jim Harrison, Larry McMurtry, and John Irving for similar flights of fancy. Not because such December-May relationships don’t happen in real life (they do) but because the versions of this age old daydream from testosterone deprived men I’ve come across simply don’t ring true. Other than the classic Lolita I’ve yet to run across a novel that pulls off the December-May thematic alignment with poise and grace. Hemingway doesn’t do it here and additionally, in an apparent nod to Joyce and experimental prose, Hemingway discards punctuation, capitalization, sentences, plot, and any sort of meaningful tension to create interest in either the Colonel or his young mistress as the tale labors towards its predictable conclusion.

In addition, readers of this slender tome experience a fictional version of A Moveable Feast starring two lovers and no one else. There are no interesting supporting actors or actresses adding context or color to the tale. It’s boring, staid, and not at all titillating. Two scenes out of this 170 page disaster of a story convince me that, had he actually cared, Pappa could have pulled it off. The book’s beginning and end feature some fine writing about duck hunting in the tidal marshes of Italy. But if I want great duck hunting stories, I’ll read Sam Cook or Gordon MacQuarrie. Here, the outdoor scenes, while well written and concise, are too little, too late to save the plot or the characters or the author.

Pick up a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Sun Also Rises or Farewell to Arms and regale in Hemingway’s masterful, curt yet precise writing. Don’t waste your time on this outline of an old man’s lustful desires.

2 stars out of 5.



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