One Man, One River
When great men or women die, the passage of time acts like rust working on iron: as years roll by, the societal remembrance of the departed slowly dissipates until there is only a vague recollection, a caricature of sorts, of the deceased left for consideration. Many of you have no idea who Willard Munger was or how his story is interwoven with that of the modern St. Louis River. Hopefully, this short essay will recall his fight to clean up and preserve the estuary that is the birthing place of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest repository of fresh water.
Willard was born on a farm in Otter Tail County, Minnesota on January 20, 1911, the son of an impoverished farmer and a homemaker of limited education. After a bout of illness, Munger graduated from Fergus Falls High School in 1932 and began working a series of jobs that eventually took him from northwestern Minnesota to Duluth. Other than a few marine drafting courses taken at UMD to secure a job in the shipyards of Duluth and Superior during WW II, Munger’s formal education ended with high school. However, despite this limited exposure to schooling, Willard Munger was steeped in the conservation ethic of his paternal grandfather, a man who, though a poor farmer, was a firm believer in the power of the political process to preserve the land and water for future generations. Lyman Munger exposed his grandson to the forests, marshes, rivers, and beauty of the natural world to be found in rural Otter Tail County, imprinting upon his young grandson a land ethic akin to that later immortalized by Wisconsin’s Aldo Leopold. Willard carried a vague and half-formed appreciation for the natural world with him when he arrived in the Twin Ports in 1935. Settling in Duluth, Munger’s imprecise and somewhat naive understanding of the environment and man’s ability to adversely “soil his own nest” collided with the reality of the tragedy occurring along the banks of the St. Louis River.
Willard Munger settled in northeastern Minnesota at the height of the Great Depression. His first reaction to the sewer laden, foul smelling, toxic waters of the great waterway dividing the industrial cities of Duluth and Superior was disgust. But, with a child on the way and a young wife at home, Munger reconciled the river’s ugliness with society’s need for economic progress and his own need to find work. It wasn’t until Reserve Mining proposed (in 1948) to obtain a permit from the State of Minnesota to dump waste from its taconite processing operation into the pristine waters of Lake Superior and Willard joined the United Northern Sportsmen of Duluth, that Willard came to realize the wrong headedness of what was happening to the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. It was then that the young liberal politician, steeped in the socialism of the Nonpartisan League and Farmer Labor Party of his grandfather and his parents, decided “enough is enough” and began to work against those in power who saw the St. Louis River as an open sewer and Lake Superior as an inexhaustible holding pond for industrial and municipal waste. Though the United Northern Sportsmen’s efforts to stop Reserve Mining’s plan to dump taconite tailings into the lake failed, that effort gave Munger confidence to run for public office. He’d run unsuccessfully, on an economic platform of reform rooted in his ancestor’s socialism, for the State Legislature in Otter Tail County as a twenty-one year old Farmer Laborite in 1934. He lost. He ran again for a position in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1952 under the banner of the newly minted Democratic Farmer Labor Party, placing his passionate love for the St. Louis River estuary, and the need to regulate the waste being dumped into that delicate ecosystem, front and center in his campaign message. He lost again.
Rethinking his strategy, Munger came to realize that he was, in many ways, ahead of his time and his would-be constituents in the blue-collar neighborhoods of West Duluth that he proposed to represent. The environment, the cleaning up of the St. Louis River, was not high on the list of priorities for local voters. Jobs. Taxes. Preservation of social security and pensions. These were issues that galvanized Munger’s fellow West Duluthians, issues that Munger adopted as his own when he won a House seat in 1954. But the fact that Willard publically pivoted away from his dream of cleaning up the St. Louis River did not equate to an abandonment of principle. In 1955, as he took his seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives (a seat he held until his death in 1999) the very first piece of legislation Willard Munger sponsored was a bill seeking $25,000 to study the idea of treating industrial and municipal sewage through regional waste treatment districts. His request was promptly rejected by the conservative forces in control of the House. Undaunted, Munger brought the bill back during the next legislative session. Money was allocated in 1957 to study whether or not all of Minnesota’s rivers, not just Munger’s beloved St. Louis, were in need of rejuvenation. It took Willard Munger the next fifteen years to convince his brother and sister legislators that Minnesota’s shameful abuse of its rivers and streams needed corrective action.
Willard Munger’s foresight led to the creation of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, the WLSSD, a regional waste treatment facility that, along with a myriad of other conservation and environmental legislation Munger passed over a laudatory and lengthy political career, made Minnesota’s waterways cleaner. When Munger began his efforts to revitalize and reclaim the river, human feces floated in St. Louis Bay. The ancient fishery, one that boasted bountiful populations of walleye, pike, sturgeon, bass, and other game fish, was dead. The few walleye that managed to spawn in the turbid, toxic waters of the St. Louis were inedible. The sturgeon were gone, killed off by progress. The pike tended to stay out by the cooler, less polluted waters of the Big Lake. Today, on any given summer afternoon, one can look out across the flat, broad waters of the St. Louis River and see countless fishing boats bobbing at anchor or trolling the repatriated weed beds of a healthy ecosystem. Willard Munger’s persistence, his refusal to accept “no” for an answer, is a big reason why the folks in those boats are enjoying themselves.
As Willard’s staff assistant Ann Glumac once said, “I’ve known many famous, important men in my lifetime but I’ve only known one great man. That man was Willard Munger.” Indeed. Representative Munger’s life should not be forgotten but remembered by posterity as an example that even ordinary men can do extraordinary things.
Happy Earth Day 2016!
(This essay was originally written for the One River, Many Voices project regarding the history and importance of the St. Louis River. It was not chosen for airing on Wisconsin Public Radio but another of my essays, “Ducks”, was. Stay tuned!)
If you are in the area or know anyone with an interest in Finnish history, world history, or literature, pass along this snippet if you would: I’ll be at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center on Friday, May 6th at 7:00pm talking about Sukulaiset; the background and the story. Here’s the link:
Hope to see some folks show up and buy a signed book or two from the Cultural Center bookstore!
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe (2006. Scribner. ISBN 9780743297318)
Time for a confession. I have always confused the Thomas Wolfe, renowned contemporary of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Stein with the other Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities) who was born seven years before the author of Look Homeward, Angel died of miliary tuberculosis of the brain. OK. So I admit I’m no literary scholar. Cut me some slack already. Still, I love to read and having never read either Wolfe, I thought I’d start with the more senior of the pairing. I wasn’t disappointed.
Eugene Gant, the troubled, talented, confused young protagonist of a family saga entwined with Gene’s “coming-of-age” revelations, is a character that all readers, regardless of gender or upbringing, must eventually come to love. Precocious, intelligent, curious, and adventurous, young Eugene reminds me in some ways of another young man in another coming-of-age novel, Holden Caulfield. The difference between Wolfe’s take on the genre and Salinger’s is not just the depth and weight of the family saga that Wolfe uses to backstop Gene Gant’s journey to adulthood; it is the complexity of the language Wolfe infuses into the story, a choice that is at equal measure frustrating for its winding, digressing, and meandering style, and one distinctly at odds with the reclusive Salinger’s simplified prose. Perhaps the difficulty of tracking the arc of Look Homeward, Angel‘s storyline in and around Wolfe’s sweeping and soaring wordsmithing is why nearly every high school student in America has read Catcher in the Rye but far fewer have delved into this thick volume of Southern musings, anecdotes, and twisted familial disasters.
Though set in the mythical town of Altamount, North Carolina (loosely based on Wolfe’s ancestral home of Asheville), clearly written in the languid and internally conflicted style of other Southern writers (Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty come to mind), and deeply rooted in place as the overriding character looming behind the story, Wolfe’s take on family and maturation is universal and deserving of closer scrutiny and a larger following. And yet, the difficulty of his craftsmanship, the author’s incessant need to digress and add countless cultural, literary, and regional asides to the narrative, is likely one reason why Wolfe is not studied nor read with the same width and depth that his aforementioned Depression era contemporaries seem to be. But once the reader comes to appreciate the cadence to Wolfe’s elegant prose, the saga of Oliver and Eliza Gant and their expansive brood of little Gants (including Eliza’s favorite child, Eugene) this book truly is a transformative read. Here’s a sample of what I am talking about:
Oliver had about twelve hundred dollars, saved from the wreckage of Cynthia’s estate. During the winter he rented a little shack at one edge of the town’s public square, acquired a small stock of marbles, and set up business. But he had little to do at first save to think of the prospect of his death.
There. That short passage says much, in a mere three sentences, of the inner demons afflicting the hard drinking patriarch of the Gant family. And such wonderful exposition of soul is only the beginning.
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars. An American classic.
Unrestorable Habitat: Microsoft is My Neighbor Now by Lois Pillips Hudson (2010. Foreverland Press. ISBN 9780996528924)
I loved Hudson’s one and only novel, Bones of Plenty, a compelling melodrama set on the plains of North Dakota (see review elsewhere on this site). So when an organization I am involved with, the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. suggested that I review this collection of Hudson’s essays on modern life, the environment, and contemporary culture, I leapt at the chance. I accepted the “read” knowing that the pieces were essentially unedited, rough drafts of Hudson’s musings on technology and it’s impact on the author’s beloved Sammanish River. As the back jacket of the book states:
There are many parenthetical comments within the text where she reminds herself to recheck sources, verify facts, and to delete repetitions…Also there are a few typographical mistakes. However, the text is being published as Hudson left it, without editorial corrections.
OK. As an author who studies other writers and their techniques, I’ve found such revelations, as in the recent Nodin Press version of Minnesota novelist John Hassler’s classic, Simon’s Night, which included Hassler’s personal journal as part of the book, to be of great value. That said, I can’t say the same about the asides included in this work. First, the parentheticals don’t, when taken as a whole, reveal all that much about Hudson the writer or Hudson the person. And because the parentheticals are simply included alongside the text, without being italicized or otherwise distinguished from the body of the work, they are distracting. Also, the choice not to edit out repetitive passages (how many references to the life cycle of Pacific coast salmon need to be included to make the author’s point?) or typographical errors seems to me to be a curious way of presenting this educator and writer’s epistle on contemporary life.
A bigger flaw to me, however, is found in the overall dire alarmism of Hudson’s prose. What do I mean? A reader’s attention is consistently and constantly called to childhood obesity, lack of juvenile attention and inquisitiveness, environmental degradation, and a host of other maladies that Hudson blames upon computers and the digital age. Here’s a sampling of the author’s remarks in this regard:
As a descendant of Irish-immigrant farmers who slaughtered Native Americans and grubbed their way across North America without ever cashing in big, I will guess that if we ever do find another planet to plunder, once again it will be those who already have who will ultimately take over the New Frontiers. And with the rest of the world’s proletariat, I will be inhaling the clouds of rocket exhaust watching the pioneers blast off “to seek a better life” in Boeing space ships financed by me.
Seems to me that Hudson, much like current presidential contender, Bernie Sanders, is decrying problems, such as wealth inequality, without offering concrete solutions.
Despite the repetition of scenes, comments, and thoughts that plague this book, and despite the author’s consistent rage against Microsoft, Bill Gates, and assorted other computer innovators, I found validity in Hudson’s dire predictions about where mankind is headed both socially and environmentally. However, when all is said and done, it seems to me that the author’s fatalistic approach to the decay of American life, much of which she attributes to sloth and greed, is tiresome in that, while Lois Hudson has a sharp tongue for criticism, she has little to offer in way of suggested solutions to the ruinous path we’ve embarked upon. The points Hudson makes here are valid but, without any hint of an alternative path, really don’t add much to the discussion. Instead of coming off as the wise old sage who has seen much and has deliberated on society’s ills to the point of offering helpful insights, Lois Hudson’s alarmism, without more, reminds me of the cranky old lady who lived between me and my best friend Eddie. Mrs. Swanson’s voice was loud and critical but always ignored by us as we cut through her manicured back lawn.
One other point. This collection originally came out as an eBook and the print version appears to have been digitally printed through Create Space, an arm of Amazon.com. It’s a bit of hypocrisy, in my humble opinion, for the author’s critique of Jobs, Bezos, and Gates, to come to fruition through the very technology Lois Hudson decried.
3 stars out of 5. Editing out the repetitive passages in this work would have improved its readability a great deal. This book would be a useful adjunct to environmental science and law courses but not as a stand alone “read”.
Good Thunder, Blue Earth by Susan Stevens Chambers (2016. River Place Press. ISBN 9780990356363)
Here’s why I enjoyed this collection of poems set in America’s rural heartland:
No five a.m. eggs,
no fresh cinnamon rolls at ten.
Stay away from beef,
eat less at suppertime.
Let others do the chores.
You should think about moving to town.
(from “The Doctor’s Prescription”)
This after Grandpa Hank, the patriarch of the Carlson family farm suffers a heart attack while working the land that has sustained the Carlsons for generations. Ms. Chambers, who like me, is a judge in her vocation, clearly loves her avocation: writing strikingly poignant and succinct poetry centered around the experience of rural farming life in the present age. I am struck how this slender volume is an excellent companion to another book I am plowing through, novelist Lois Phillips Hudson’s Unrestorable Habitat: Microsoft is My Neighbor Now. The late Hudson, who taught at colleges in the Pacific Northwest but had roots on a family farm in North Dakota, left behind an assortment of essays that an organization I am affiliated with, the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y., (more at: http://rurallitrally.org/) has collected into Unrestorable Habitat. Reading Chambers’s poetry alongside Hudson’s lament for the loss of America’s rural heritage and love of nature (for more on Hudson, visit: http://www.loisphillipshudson.org/) is a compelling and intellectually invigorating exercise, made all the more enjoyable because Chambers, in addition to being an excellent poet, is also a fine narrator and storyteller. Her gift to the reader is the ability to take scenes, actions, and thoughts that might require dozens of paragraphs or pages to depict in prose, and render them sharply and crisply as stanzas of poetic lyricism. Loosely configured to follow seasonal life on a family farm, where joy and tragedy can be found in microcosmic equal measure, Chambers is a gifted wordsmith whose work should be read by all. Truly a stellar little gem of a book.
5 stars out of 5.
George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger (2013. Sentinel. ISBN 978-1-59523-103-1)
My friends Nancy and Ron don’t always see eye to eye with Rene’ and I when it comes to politics. Like so many Americans these days, we often refrain from discussing the major issues of the day because, well, our friends are Fox News sorts of folks and Rene’ and I are more attuned to MSNBC. Still, for the past twenty years or so, Ron and I have bought each other books for Christmas. And generally, though not always, we buy non-fiction biographies or histories that engage and enlighten. That’s how this book came into my hands: Ron wrapped it up in his traditional Christmas wrapping especially selected for his liberal friend (the silver foil of potato chip bags cleaned of crumbs and turned inside out) and handed it to me during Christmas 2014. It took me a year to work down my reading stack to this slender volume. Here’s what I have to report.
Despite the endorsements on the rear jacket (from literary luminaries ranging from Donald Rumsfeld to Donald Trump), this book doesn’t, as the blurb from Karl Rove states, come close to being a “rollicking read.” While the narrative contains some interesting excerpts from letters written by the Culper Spy Ring stationed in and around New York City to their commander-in-chief, General George Washington, and letters from Washington to the leader of the ring, Major Benjamin Talmadge, the authors’ collective choice to invent dialogue and thoughts attributable to Washington and his spies in what seems, at first blush, to be a non-fiction historical account of actual events, clouds the veracity and accuracy of the story. Better for Kilmeade and Yaeger to have made a choice, like Nathan Hale does early in the book, to serve only one master: Either write the story as a novel and include dialogue and emotional content that could be attributed to the stars of the story, or write a straight historical narrative that sticks to what is known about the Culper Ring. Trying to write, what in essence, is a print version of a docudrama, does the story of the brave men and the one woman who risked their lives for their ideals an injustice. I also found the descriptions of the events that lead to the “success” of the spies and the authors’ view of their importance to the Patriots’ ultimate victory at Yorktown overplayed and lacking historical support, at least as contained in this volume. There is cause, there is effect, but there is nothing linking the two by way of facts or information that seems compelling enough to sustain the premise that the Secret Six offered up anything of note that “saved” the Revolution.
The writing was crisp and succinct but tended towards the elementary. It’s as if, in addition to being perplexed as to whether the book should be a novel or accurate history, the authors couldn’t decide whether the book was meant for adults or a juvenile audience. In sum, I learned a bit about the spies that aided Washington during the war that created our nation but, aside from the narratives about hero Nathan Hale and traitor Benedict Arnold, I found very little insightful or compelling in this read.
2 and 1/2 stars out of 5. Don’t waste your money: Watch “Turn: Washington’s Spies” on AMC for a more accurate and exciting retelling of this piece of American history. (More at: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/april-2014/the-revolution-takes-a-turn. Professor Eastman suggests Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (2006) by Alexander Rose as the source of the history behind the series; not the vague and sometimes confusing book that is the subject of this review. You can also find out more about the series at: http://www.amc.com/shows/turn.)
If you’re looking for a good book to read over spring break or vacation, check out the tab above, “Buy Books” direct. You’ll find everything from outdoor stories (Black Water) to biography (Mr. Environment) to murder mysteries (Laman’s River). Or, better yet, if you have a special someone who loves to read, go to Amazon.com, pick out a Munger book and receive that same book FREE for your Kindle or other Kindle-ready device. That’s right: Buy the physical book from Amazon and you receive the eBook delivered to your eReader absolutely FREE!
Or, if you just want the eVersion of the book, we’ve got you covered. All the books are now reduced $2.00 per title, which means all Munger books except Sukulaiset are now only $2.99 and you can pick up the Kindle version of Mark’s latest, Sukulaiset for the awesome eBook price of $7.99 (was $9.99). (Note: Mr. Environment is not available as an eBook. But you can get it here for the paltry price of $5.00 plus shipping and handling.)
So let’s make April Munger reading month and buy your books here, on Amazon, or, if you love our local bookstore and want a physical copy of the book, at The Bookstore at Fitger’s.
The CRP Marketing Team
This Friday (03/18/2016) at 7:00pm, join me at the Finnish American Cultural Activities event. I’ll be at the International Institute at 1694 Como Avenue in St. Paul reading from my two Finnish American novels and
discussing the books as well. The topic is: “Finnish American History as Fiction”. The event is free and open to the public, Finns and non-Finns alike! You can learn more at:
http://www.finnfaca.org/Mar16-speaker.pdf. Signed books will also be available for purchase at the event. See you Friday!
Someday, I’m gonna sit down, open my old files, and figure out how many book signings, library talks, book festivals, craft fairs, and book clubs I’ve attended over the twenty-five years I’ve been writing. In summary fashion, I can safely say that I’ve been as far west as Calgary, Alberta, as far east as Youngstown, Ohio, as far north as Winnipeg, Manitoba, and as far south as Council Bluffs, Iowa. I’d like to think that these bits and pieces of my writerly journey from considering writing a book to actually writing novels chronicles my progress as an author, but I’m not sure anyone would be interested.
I started writing seriously in 1990. My first novel took three years of sweat, blood, and tears to hammer into shape. After a decade of shopping that first effort (The Legacy) to agents and publishers, Savage Press accepted the book for publication. Mike Savage taught me the ropes of book publishing, marketing, and distribution and, in the end, after the book’s regional bestseller status began to wane, with no literary agents knocking down the door to represent my work (a necessity in attracting large, New York publishing houses—every author’s dream), and being impatient by nature, I chose to go it alone. I formed Cloquet River Press, found a printer, established a relationship with a distributor, and started churning out books. I find myself decades later with my tenth book—seventh novel—meandering towards birth having achieved little recognition for my effort.
There was a time when I submitted work I’d written, novels that had achieved acclaim from national and even international reviewers, to writing contests in hopes of winning at least an honorable mention; something, anything to set my work above the crowd of self-published authors. I know, I know. Seeking such vindication is akin to trying to win the Powerball. I understand that I should be satisfied that folks generally appreciate my work. I know this because they come back for another Munger “read” or send me kind emails praising my stories and characters. And to be fair, a couple of my short stories have won recognition in local writing contests. Such small, sweet victories raise my spirits and make me smile. For a few weeks. And then, it’s back to reality. I remain, despite serious and consistent effort at craft, virtually unknown as a writer in my own hometown. Rejection is something every writer, poet, musician, or artist must face and, having experienced such disdain by the public, ignore. I understand this delicate dance with ego. I’ve repeatedly submitted my work to the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award and the Minnesota Book Award only to watch folks, talented to be sure but having only the most tangential connections to my backyard, win year in and year out. I’ve talked to folks “in the know” and asked “why?” only to receive blank stares and the admonition to “try, try again”. Once, in answer to such an inquiry, a female judge in a local writing contest confided, “I was on the committee and thought your book (Suomalaiset) was the best of the lot.” And yet, that novel, a broad, sweeping historical look at the lynching of a Finnish dockworker in Duluth, didn’t make the cut. Despite such heartbreak, I continue to put my shoulder to the wheel of words. I cannot not write—even when my head hurts from decades of pounding it against the wall of anonymity.
Sometime this year, Boomtown, a legal thriller set in Ely and Grand Marais, will be released. I’m trying something new: I’m asking readers who’ve enjoyed my work to pre-order the novel to assist in funding its publication. I plan on releasing the book in September. So far, the response has been tepid even though Boomtown has a timely plot and reprises many characters from The Legacy, Pigs, and Laman’s River; books that have done well with readers. Resurrecting beloved characters is my way of saying “thank you” to folks who’ve read my work and told me to keep at it. But whether Boomtown is the end of my efforts to become an established author or a new beginning remains an unanswered question.
You can pre-order Boomtown at www.cloquetriverpress.com. Click on “Buy Books Direct” and scroll down to the book cover for Boomtown. Click on the book cover and follow the instructions. A version of this essay was first published on 03/06/2016 in the
Duluth News Tribune.
CRP is trying a new approach and we want readers to be part of the experiment. So here’s the deal: Mark’s latest novel, Boomtown, a legal thriller set in Ely and Grand Marais, is ready for a professional edit. To get there, CRP is asking that readers pre-order copies of the book. Pre-orders will be shipped on 08/01/2016 but Boomtown will not be released in trade paperback format to bookstores and online retailers until after 09/01/2016. So, if you want to help get this project to the finish line, simply click on “Buy Books Direct” and order your copy or copies today. You can request that the book or books be signed or personalized when ordering. You will be billed automatically and your order archived for fulfillment beginning 08/01/2016.
Here’s a bit about the book:
An explosion rocks the site of a new copper/nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. Two young workers are dead. The Lindahl family turns to trial attorney Dee Dee Hernesman for justice. A shadowy eco-terroist lurks in the background as Hernesman and Sheriff Deb Slater investigate the tragedy. Are the deaths the result of accident or murder? Equal parts legal thriller and literary fiction, this novel reprises many characters from Munger’s prior novels. A page turner of a tale.
Munger writes so well, not only because of his imagination and literary skill, but because he knows who and what he is talking about. Richard Pemberton, trial lawyer and former President MSBA.
You can read the first chapter of the book here:
Questions? Email Mark at: email@example.com
And thanks for reading!