It is indeed too damn nice. We’re stalking pheasants on the prairie outside Ashley, North Dakota and the sun is high, the air still, and the honking of geese, cranking of sandhills, and quacking of ducks in migration creates a cacophony of noise. I have come to North Dakota on my annual hunting trip with my 88 year old father Harry, my sons Matt, Chris, and Jack, and Matt’s high school friend, Reid Amborn, to escape the worries and troubles of the courtroom and my unproductivity as a real estate novelist. We’re here, occupying a house in downtown Ashley as our base of operations, for what I believe is my tenth year on the Great Plains chasing ringnecks. Matt did yeoman’s work reserving the house, creating a menu, and buying supplies. But because someone else had rented the house for the non-resident opener, we’re here a week later than usual. As a consequence, I packed winter clothing, knowing full well from past trips that winter can roar into Ashley with brutal surprise. Our Eagle Scout preparedness (Reid is also an Eagle) turns out to be mostly overreaction. The weather is more like May than November.
We have, for three years, settled into a routine of hunting CRP land; land set aside by private owners under various federal and state conservation programs to allow hunters access to native grassland, bottomland, treelines, and sloughs. But, like so many things in America today, the opportunity to hunt CRP is diminishing. Corn prices, escalated by the demand for ethanol, have turned many CRP plots into cornfields. You can’t blame farmers. If a landowner can make more money planting crops than leaving his or her land idle for public use, how is that his or her fault? As we start our our first day hunting (missing sunrise, our appointed starting time by a good hour), we walk familiar land, a large plot of CRP that’s harbored birds in the past. Matt’s rusty red Labrador, Lexie, and Jack’s little two-year old black Lab, Kena, work well together, weaving in and out of the tall prairie grass and brush. We flush a hen or two but no shootable roosters as we make our way towards open water where rafts of waterfowl, including several thousand snow geese, float. The geese are safe from us. We aren’t hunting waterfowl, only pheasants and partridge and grouse. As we work a section of lowland, cattails slapping our faces, the dogs pushing through chin high cover, pheasants, including a few roosters, scatter before us, catching us unaware. The shots we throw after the birds are ineffective. We push on, following the fleeing pheasants towards water’s edge.
“Rooster!” A big emerald and scarlet headed male jumps up. Shots echo. The bird flies on. Chris takes one last shot in desperation and the bird tumbles to the ground. The dogs bolt towards the downed bird and arrive simultaneously at the stricken rooster. “Kena!” Jack shouts, calling his dog off the bird. Lexie retrieves the pheasant and delivers it to Matt.
We stop for lunch, our shirts wringing wet, our long johns soaked, meeting up with my dad who’s been driving around in Chris’s Nissan Xterra scouting out
potential hunting spots. I sense my old man is frustrated by age and his inability to join us in the field. He has the gumption to do it all right. Just not the legs or endurance. I try to cut him some slack as he makes suggestions of places to hunt, places we’ve either scouted as a group and decided against or driven past and deemed unlikely prospects. Still, we humor him and, after lunch, try a couple of the places he’s viewed. We see few birds, mostly hens, and shoot none.
Days two and three in the field aren’t much better. Weary after tromping through swamp, brush, grass, and cattails eight hours a day, I’m pretty depressed, as is Chris, about the whole experience. “I don’t know that it’s worth it to come back to Ashley,” Chris laments. I tend to agree with the sentiment but, having tried my hand at finding other places in North Dakota to hunt and having failed at the task, I offer no ready remedies for our misery. At least, given Matt’s superior abilities as a quartermaster and chef, we eat well. After three days of hunting, we have two birds, both shot by Christian.
Day four. The weather changes. It’s cold, cloudy, and windy. The fog is so thick at sunrise, well, there isn’t one. The sky threatens rain, sleet, or snow.
I’ve fired four shots at fleeing roosters in three days. I’ve missed some easy ones. I even double-clutched once, missing a golden opportunity to bag a resplendent rooster that burst out of sawgrass just a few feet in front of me as we worked a big piece of CRP near Hague, a tiny hamlet forty miles east of Ashley. Kena was ahead of me, sniffling thick cover, her constant grunting a reminder of another Lab I once owned. Then, I lost sight of the dog. Only Kena’s rigid tail was visible. I should have known the dog was on point, that she had her nose up against the butt end of a pheasant that had decided, unlike most of the birds we encountered, to sit tight. When a big, beautiful rooster busted out of the cattails all I could do was marvel at the creature as it flew away. I didn’t shoot. I didn’t call out “Rooster” so someone else could take the bird. I simply stood silent, ineffective and stunned.
On Day four, words are exchanged between father and son concerning whether or not a location scouted by my old man is worthy of consideration. As Chris drives alongside a fence line scouting terrain rolling from hillside to marsh, we see birds, hens and roosters kicking out of the grass, gliding towards thicker cover. We stop and decide to try Grandpa’s spot. We are not disappointed.
As noted, Chris is the only hunter who’s hit birds up to this point in the story. Two birds in fact. His second rooster had dropped like a stone but started running when it hit the ground. Kena was on that bird and scooped it up before the rooster had a chance to hide. With the bird clawing and flapping in the young pup’s mouth, the young Lab danced her way back to me, rooster intact, her trainer proud that hours of training had paid off.
The tract Harry suggests turns out to be loaded with pheasants. A big rooster gets up in front of Reid. He fires and misses. But instead of heading over the hill, the bird beats a path into the gauntlet. Matt fires. A miss. Jack fires. A miss. Chris unloads. The bird flies on. By the time the rooster passes me, it’s a forty yards out. I fire once. The rooster doesn’t crumple but glides headfirst into the side of a distant hill. There’s something about the landing that makes me think I got lucky.
“I think that bird’s hit.”
“We can check for it on the way back,” Chris replies with lack of enthusiasm. “We’ll work that hillside into the wind.”
Another rooster gets up. Again, it’s a long shot. Again my 12 gauge barks. Twice. The first shot misses. The second one doesn’t. Lexie is on the bird and retrieves it. The bird is stone dead. I let out a whoop. I’m unable to control my joy after three and half days of being snake bitten. Jack takes exception to my display. Words are said. Tempers flare. Jack is ready to join Grandpa Harry in the car. Things get smoothed over and we walk on.
“What the hell?” Chris says as Kena shoves her nose into thick grass right beneath Chris’s feet.
The dog pulls out the rooster I’d hit from across the valley. It’s stone dead, likely due to a single lucky pellet to the head that caused it to glide on pheasant auto-pilot.
“Good girl,” Chris says, admiring the bird as Kena holds the rooster in her mouth. Chris puts the bird in my game pouch.
We cover the shoreline of the big lake Harry thought would hold birds. I hit another rooster rising out of thick cattails. After ten minutes of Kena chasing the wounded bird through impassable cover, I’m ready to give up when she trots back to me with a wing shot rooster in her mouth. I wring the bird’s neck. I have my limit. I am redeemed.
Reid, Matt, and Jack all hit birds. We lose a couple of roosters that appeared to be dead in flight. The pheasants hit the ground running and disappear in cover. Lexie limps along, her heart in the game but her body saying, “Put me in the kennel.” Matt does just that. Kena bounds on. The discord between Grandpa and me and Jack and me has settled. Jack and I are teased when we engage in what Jack calls a “bro hug”. As dusk approaches, Reid sets his phone to sound an alarm at sunset. We find a beautiful piece of land; a big marsh at the bottom of a steep hill surrounded by harvested cropland. We walk a fence line. Hens erupt. We see no roosters. Kena retrieves a dead rooser that another hunting party shot. The Lab is unwilling to slow down. She locks up on a clump of grass surrounded by dry mud. The patch of grass is no bigger than a loaf of bread. Kena holds point, one leg in the air in the classic pose, her tail straight and rigid.
The dog bounds forward. A hen busts out of hiding.
“Good girl, Kena.”
As the clock inches towards 5:13, Harry turns on the headlights of Chris’s SUV. He clearly believes we’re hunting illegally. We’re not. Reid’s watch will tell us when it’s time to stop. A big rooster explodes next to Jack. The bird flies over an oily puddle of marsh water. It’s a good sixty yards out when Jack shoots. The rooster tumbles and starts to run.
“Get the bird!” Jack yells.
Kena is following a rooster Chris missed but darts back towards Jack when she hears the command.
“Where’d it go down?” I ask.
“To your right,” Jack says.
I walk into ugly scum up to my shins. My newly waterproofed hunting boots stay dry but my long johns wick water. Kena can’t find the bird.
“Straight ahead,” Jack calls out.
“”5:13,” Reid announces. Hunters unload guns. I’m knee deep in quagmire. Kena snuffles. With daylight waning, I finally spy the bird: only its head and beak protrude from the cesspool I’m walking through. The rooster blinks as we make eye contact.
“Get the bird!”
The Lab shoves her head into the water and emerges with a ringneck. I take the rooster from the dog and hold it aloft.
“Better thank dad,” Matt says to Jack. “He saved your bird.”
“Thanks,” Jack says flatly as I tuck the rooster into his game pouch.
In the end, we down ten birds over our four days. Not a great hunt but one, because it marks Kena’s coronation as a diligent hunter and retriever, that’s memorable nonetheless.
“I think we need to reconsider giving up on Ashley,” I say to Chris as we drive back to the little frame house in town.
“Maybe,” is his only reply.
Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke (2014. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4767-1079-2.
I read Burke once before. It was so long ago, my review of his novel set in Montana, Bitterroot, isn’t archived on this blog but on Amazon.com under that title. I gave the book two stars out of five. Maybe a bit harsh, in retrospect. Maybe not. So when I saw this title and Burke’s work profiled in Poets and Writers magazine, I wasn’t immediately given to charity. I mean, Burke is a well established, flourishing icon of American letters. He doesn’t really need me to buy a book to fund his writing. But then, remembering back to my lack of enthusiasm for that earlier effort, I thought the guy deserved a second chance. So I ordered the book online (sorry Fitger’s) and, when it arrived via the mail a few days later, I placed it dutifully on my “to read” stack in my writing studio. Enough history. On to the words.
Weldon Holland’s beginnings on the dusty plains of Texas, raised by his mother and his Texas Ranger grandfather, are as colorful as a Western sunset. The running imagery of young Weldon shooting at Bonnie and Clyde’s getaway car with his grandfather’s .44 Colt as the 1932 Chevrolet Confederate roars off the Holland ranch, weaves its way through the tale, linking Weldon’s past with his future. We follow the young Texan into the Battle of the Bulge where he meets an antisemitic soldier and future business partner, Hershel Pine. Hershel seems ill suited to partner up with the educated, morally upright Weldon. But the pair find a survivor of a Nazi death camp as they stumble their way back to Allied lines, a young Spanish woman, Rosita Lowenstein, a Jew, whose appearance in the story changes Pine’s opinion of Jews, and whose beauty infatuates Holland. Back in the States, having survived combat and all its terror and deprivations, Holland and Pine go into the oil pipeline business only to find that their wartime service to their country doesn’t add up to a thimbleful of spit to the men and women who hold the reigns of power in the Lonestar state. There is much intrigue, most of it believable and well written, with a few obligatory nipples and climaxes thrown in along the way; but, for the most part, Burke’s storytelling and writing are spot on. I found myself reading the last 100 pages at 4:00am one weekday morning, compelled to complete Weldon and Rosita’s frantic journey as evil closes in, as all hope seems lost.
This is literary fiction for men. That’s the sum and substance of Burke’s writing style and, given so few men read fiction, let alone literary fiction, it’s a good thing American letters has an author as talented as James Burke to set pen to paper:
I have always believed that the American West, like Hollywood, is a magical place and the biggest stage on earth. I also believe it haunted by the spirits of Indians, outlaws, Jesuit missionaries, drovers, gunmen, conquistadors, bindle stiffs (hobos), Chinese and Irish gandy dancers (railroaders), whiskey traders, temperance leaguers, gold panners, buffalo hunters, fur trappers, prostitutes, and insane people of every stripe, maybe all of them living out their lives simultaneously in our midst.
My only real criticism is that the Bonnie and Clyde connection, including a surprise revelation about that Chevy Confederate towards the tale’s conclusion, seems a bit forced and unbelievable in the context of the larger plot. But the ending is masterful and well worth the gritty, harrowing, testosterone driven trip.
4 and 1/2 stars. Read this instead of Bitterroot!
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015. Harper. ISBN 9780062409850)
A confession. I didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird as a teenager, as part of my sophomore English class like so many white American kids did. I didn’t dissect Lee’s monumentally successful and universally beloved first novel in my college English courses. And, up until I started teaching Paralegalism and Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Superior a few years back, well into my late 50’s, I hadn’t watched the Academy Award winning film (Winner of Best Actor: Gregory Peck; Best Adapted Screenplay; and Best Art Direction; Nominated but did not win for Best Picture, Best Actress (Mary Badham as Scout), Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Score). It wasn’t until I was at a friend’s cabin, enjoying the summer sun in a hammock strung between two oaks next to a Minnesota lake that I read the book. That’s not true. I devoured the novel in one day! It was one of those stories that grips your gut and twists you in knots, compelling you to race through the pages so as to relieve the anxiety of not knowing how it ends. The movie, of course, is so true, so accurate to the characters and world Lee created with her prose, it is one of the greatest lawyer-driven films of all time, if not simply one of the greatest films of all time. So, as a latecomer to Lee’s original masterpiece (and of course, like everyone else, curious as to just how much Truman Capote’s hand is on its pages), when I heard that another manuscript written by Lee, an earlier rendition of Atticus and Jean Louise Finch and the town of Maycomb had been discovered hidden away in some nook or cranny, well, like a teenage boy drawn to a Playboy centerfold, I just had to get a copy and read Go Set a Watchman.
Let me be perfectly clear. There is so much wrong with this book, in terms of consistency of character, plausibility, dangling plot architecture, and dialogue that, if it didn’t have Miss Lee’s name on the cover, it would have never seen the light of day. This is not to say that Miss Lee doesn’t understand the mechanics of writing. She is certainly able to string words into sentences into paragraphs into pages into chapters. But the sum total of the work the author expended to transpose her thoughts to words on paper should have remained under lock and key regardless of its impact upon her authorial legacy. Replace the name “Harper Lee”, embossed across the cover of this book with the name “Mark Munger” and the writer of this critique would be hard pressed to sell ten copies of this long-winded diatribe about racial relations in the Deep South on the heels of the United States Supreme Court’s iconic desegregation decision in Brown v. The Board of Education. The fact is nothing much, other than dialogue between Jean Louis (formerly known as Scout) and a small cast of characters, really happens in this book. Oh, there’s the inkling of a plot: A black man accidentally runs over and kills a white man with a car. Atticus, the prototype American idealist and defender of the downtrodden in To Kill a Mockingbird is retained to represent the defendant. The fact that Atticus takes on the defense not, as in the original Lee effort, to ensure that a black man has a decent lawyer handling his case in a search for truth and justice, but merely to claim, after the driver is invariably convicted of manslaughter, that justice was served because a black man had a fair trial, is disquieting. The fact that the manslaughter subplot disappears after being introduced and nary another word is said about the case, the defendant, or the end result is a major defect in storytelling.
One could go on and on about the nonsensical hypothesis advanced by this tale: the complete change of the leopard’s (Atticus’s) spots. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee presents the world with an honest lawyer, a man of integrity, a defender of what is right in the face of massively unfair prejudice. With the wave of her magical pen, Lee reveals that Atticus Finch was never the hero we all supposed, but is instead, a card carrying member of the Klan and that, due to the Brown decision, Finch’s native racism and disdain for those of dark skin compels him to join a citizen’s committee hell bent on keeping the racial status quo in bucolic Maycomb. In short, Lee trashes an icon of American literature without any plausibility in the story or character development. I should be kinder: I understand that Miss Lee isn’t of sound mind, or at least, of agile mind at the advanced age of 89. There is much dispute as to whether she ever intended this piece of journalist scribbling to see the printing press. (See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harper_Lee ). I tend to believe that Miss Lee, if this indeed is the forerunner to her seminal novel, would have preferred this story to have remained in her drawer with her delicates and stockings!
I so wanted to write a review that concluded that this supposedly earlier look (in terms of when it was written) at Atticus and Scout, while a bit rough around the edges, was a worthwhile read for lovers of Lee’s masterpiece if only to explore the writerly process of an well respected writer. But there’s so much wrong with this book, so much in this tale that is at odds with what To Kill a Mockingbird has become in American cultural history, I would highly recommend that others not waste their time on Go Set a Watchman as I have. Hold on to the Atticus Finch you know and love. He’s a better man than that jerk portrayed in this novel.
2 stars out of 5. Save your money!
Hillsider: Snapshots of a Curious Political Journey by Don Ness (2015. Hillside Publishing. ISBN 9780692490129)
Political memoir can be a tricky thing to pull off. Oft times, the author, who also happens to be the subject of the writing, lets his or her ego skew the accuracy of the reportage. I’ve dipped my pen in the ink of memoir on occasion (my collection of essays Black Water is essentially memoir) but I don’t claim to be an expert in the genre. Still, as an avid reader of just about every sort of fiction and non-fiction tome that comes along, I think I have enough readerly expertise to comment on autobiographical work. Here’s what I have to say about this coffee table sized collection: It rocks. From page 1 to page 279, the out going mayor of Duluth, my hometown, has written a quirky, engaging, prose poem to the city on the lake and has managed to, in words, poetry, cartoons, and stunning photography, convey his personal and political vision of where Duluth was and where it might be headed.
For those of you unfamiliar with Duluth’s recent past, at the time Don Ness was learning to walk, the city, a once proud industrial, shipping, and railroad powerhouse, began a precipitous and calamitous decline. Projected at the beginning of the 20th century to rival Chicago as a manufacturing capital and clearing house for commodities such as grain and iron ore, and often called the San Francisco of the Midwest due to the city’s steep hills, nervously poised buildings, and spectacular views, by the early 1970s, my town, Mayor Ness’s town, had succumbed to plant closings and layoffs (U.S. Steel, Atlas Cement, American Hoist, Clyde Iron, the U.S. Air Force, to name a few entities that left town) which reduced the city’s population from 106,000 to less than 87,000 souls. There followed, during my high school and college and early professional career and Mayor Ness’s youth and adolescence, a continuum of city political leaders who tried to undo the damage by luring large corporations to town through lucrative governmental enticements or through the cutting of taxes. Nothing worked. Even the few success stories in this regard (the Northwest Airlines maintenance facility is one that comes to mind) eventually failed. The city was filled with depressed, backward thinking folks longing for the “good old days” of solid blue collar wages and a long-lost economy.
Beginning with his naive and youthful campaign for city council, Don Ness entered the political arena with a different philosophy than “us against them”, the residual fear and loathing of the outsider that had permeated Duluth’s political and commercial thinking for the better part of three decades. Rather than put public money on the roulette wheel to tempt outside interests into believing in Duluth and investing in Duluth, Ness, at the outset and throughout his career, has looked to the natural beauty of the city, the strong minds and backs of its citizens, and the wisdom of native city fathers and mothers to raise Duluthians from the rust and dust of decline. This book, the most beautifully produced vision of this new approach, this new city on the hill, that I’ve come across isn’t simply an elegy to Ness’s work and ethic. It’s a collection of the “best of” our city has to offer, from the poetry of Louis Jenkins, to the photographs of Dennis O’Hara, to the essays (some prophetic, some quirky) by the mayor, to the cartoons of Chris Monroe chronically Duluth’s renaissance as a vibrant, relevant, happening, productive place. For a town of this size to have produced both Low and Trampled by Turtles, two internationally known bands that still call Duluth’s rocky hillside home, while also cultivating the incubation of the new Cirrus Vision jet and Maurice’s world headquarters, such success, given where we were twenty years ago, is simply remarkable. Would Outside Magazine or Google have looked Duluth’s way if the town was still trying to bring in a steel mill to replace the dinosaur that was shuttered in 1972? Or has the town been in the national news and in the national public eye because it’s developing a new ethic, a new version of itself that includes the revitalization of Old Downtown, reopening the NorShor, the creation of biking and hiking trails, and the renovation of the city’s public schools? To be clear, Mayor Ness didn’t accomplish this makeover on his own. Groundwork was laid by his political predecessors and by civic leaders, educators, and deep thinkers. But the story of bringing a town, steeped in depressing failure after failure when economic home run after economic home run became routine fly balls, into the 21st century is due largely to Ness’s collaboration with other young progressives. On the slick and well designed pages of this unusual book, the mayor is clear to thank those who showed him missteps, worked hard to help him correct his mistakes, and tried to guide the mayor’s vision of a new Duluth in ways that were positive and productive. Hillary’s “It takes a village” is apparent throughout the narrative.
Woven throughout the volume are pieces of writing from the mayor, his wife, and others. But this is mainly Don Ness’s effort. The book is filled with Ness’s sweat and blood and tears. Here’s a snippet from one of the best pieces in Hillsider wherein the author describes winter in Duluth:
Even the hum and thrum of the city sounds can’t get through it. The city feels paused. On nights like this, I cherish the silent expanse between snowflakes that allows me to sit, breathe, think slowly, and disappear into my chair, then into hushed totality, and finally into the city itself.
Poetic, energetic, visionary. But flawed, like all the rest of us, Mayor Ness has done a remarkable job of chronicling his role as a city leader for the past sixteen years in this effort.To be sure, some of the sillier pieces left me puzzled as to why an essay or story was included. But overall, the writing is crisp, the opinions honest, and the personal and professional history as framed by the author, warts and all, accurate.
Unfortunately for Duluth, Don Ness is leaving office. He has chosen not to seek re-election. His legacy is up for grabs. In a few weeks, Duluthians will decide whether the portrayal of Duluth’s resurgence in this book merits continued support or whether there needs to be a return to the “more of the same” politics and problem solving that left the town dying by the pricks of a thousand needles.
4 stars out of 5 for the content; 5 stars out of 5 for the design and layout.
Somewhere along the way, I got the crazy idea to sell Finnish historical fiction to Norwegians. Dumb idea. right? I mean, the Norsk don’t really give a shit about the countries to their east, especially Finland. And yet, after I stumbled onto the Norsk Hostfest website (http://hostfest.com), I felt reassured: the festival wasn’t just for Norwegians, but for all Nordic peoples including the Finns. So I sent out an email, got myself accepted to the Author’s Corner as a vendor, reserved a tenting spot at the Roughrider’s Campground just west of downtown Minot, and pondered how I’d break it to my wife that I’d be camping out, trying to sell books to Scandinavians, for the better part of a week.
Understand, I’ve tried just about everything under the sun to sell books. I’ve queried agents. I’ve entered contests. I’ve pitched an EZ-Up tent at outdoor art and craft fairs (until the Great Recession of successive rainy summers made me rethink that strategy!). I’ve done readings, signings, lectures, and workshops in bookstores, museums, libraries, and assorted venues from Calgary, Alberta to Youngstown, Ohio. And yet, there I was, applying for yet another event I’d never tried in another desperate attempt to get my work noticed. When I broke the news to Rene’, she didn’t protest. She didn’t remonstrate. She simply said: “Have a nice time.”
When I arrived at the North Dakota State Fairgrounds in Minot to set up my table in the Author’s Corner, I had no idea how large the festival venue was. I parked on the wrong end of the complex but found a succession of kind souls to lead me deeper and deeper into the cavernous warren of the fair until I finally found my space. The table provided to display my work was more than large enough to handle the two titles I was going to display: I’d been advised not to bring books that weren’t Scandinavian in theme, which cut out most of my inventory. After moving the Pacifica to a more convenient entry point, I set up my display while dreaming of sales rivaling Finn Fest or the Ely Blueberry Festival, places I’ve sold a ton of my novels Suomalaiset and Sukulaiset. Ready for the opening of the festival on Wednesday morning, I drove to the campground where I’d reserved my tenting spot, checked in, found a level spot isolated from the hub-bub of other campers, and erected my temporary home. The weather was grand and the forecast was for mostly clear skies, with high temps in the low sixties during the day, the high forties at night; very doable for a guy who has slept outdoors in below zero weather.
My unpaid business consultant and former accountant, Bruce, has Cloquet River Press on a strict austerity program. Hence the tent and the six dollar McDonald’s breakfasts. “It’s about the bottom line, Mark,” was what I heard over and over in my mind as I waited for customers. Internationally known crime fiction author Vidar Sundstol (https://scandinaviancrimefiction.wordpress.com/tag/vidar-sundstol) was set up nearby and I expected that, when he took the stage to talk about his writing, he’d have a standing room only crowd. But the stage was hidden behind a screen wall. My books and several other authors were set up in front of that wall, preventing passersby from seeing the stage. Despite being on the cusp of having his Minnesota Trilogy picked up for television, Vidar had two fans in attendance that first day. This doesn’t bode well for me reading on Friday night, I thought as the very tall and very disappointed Norwegian author left the stage. My sales that first day were lower than my expectations but, on the plus side of the ledger, I had the chance to chat with a smattering of readers who stopped by and bought books and meet some of the other writers hawking their words.
Thursday saw my table moved aside to open up the stage to passersby. I was allowed to keep the fabric wall behind me which held enlargements of the covers of my Finn books. Without those banners, I’m sure I would have sold even fewer copies than I did. The next time Vidar took the stage (the more prominent authors were on twice a day, all four days of the event), his audience quadrupled. Attendance for the readings continued to grow throughout the week as folks figured out what was happening on the stage. Several nationally known authors, including the Norwegian American family behind the New York Times’ bestselling children’s book, The Christmas Wish (the daughter and inspiration for the story is so darn cute and talented!) and Christian fiction author Laurine Snelling ended up with standing-room-only crowds once the wall concealing the stage was removed. That change can’t hurt my chances for drawing a few folks in for my reading on Friday.
Other local and regional authors who read and discussed their work included Eric Dregni (http://www.csp.edu/faculty/eric-dregni/) author of In Cod We Trust and other non-fiction books, Dean Urdahl (a state representative from Minnesota who writes historical fiction about the Sioux Uprising, Dr. Duane Lindberg (Lutheran pastor and professor) who wrote a lyrical history of the Norwegians, and a handful other writers with Scandinavian bloodlines or Nordic themed work. Some had a handful of folks sit down and listen when they took the stage; others, like Eric, drew respectable audiences. His use of PowerPoint probably didn’t hurt! But my sales that second day, even with the move, didn’t come close to expectations. They say Saturday is the day. Maybe I can make my target. If not, I’m not likely coming back.
Friday, I chatted with Jeff Vee, son of rock and roll legend, Bobby Vee, who I learned has Finnish roots in northeastern Minnesota. Jeff was at the festival performing with Ricky Nelson’s sons, Gunnar and Matthew, doing two shows a day as “Ricky Nelson Remembered.” Jeff promised he’d be back to buy a book, a promise that many make but few honor. I wasn’t holding my breath.
11 hours a day not meeting self-imposed expectations is hard on the ego, especially when I was situated across from Laurine as fistfuls of books vanished from her display like Halloween candy left unattended on a porch. I’ve never even heard of her, I thought. What does she even write about? Having an iPhone handy is a great thing when you aren’t selling books. I googled Laurine. I learned that, in the world of Christian fiction, Laurine Snelling is a rock star. Over two million books sold. Shit. And I’ve never even heard of her…
Frustrated after having read portions of my books and explained my writing to a crowd of two during my hour on the stage, I closed up shop. At the campground, the clouded sky drizzling cold rain, I crawled into my dome away from home, fired up my Kindle, and, with weather tapping nylon, read The Girl from Krakow (see review elsewhere on this blog) until my weary body descended into sleep.
Saturday, I dragged myself to the showers on the backside of the campground’s office. Despite the place being packed with 5th-wheelers and campers and motor homes (I was the only idiot staying in a tent), I met no one-not a soul-on the 5 mornings I made my short trek from shelter to shower. Things went pretty smooth at Roughrider, the only catch being that you I need to deposit 4 quarters to take a shower. Thankfully, I remembered to stockpile quarters in the ashtray of the Pacifica.
The traffic at the festival picked up on Saturday. Sales were better, though still not in line with projections (always the optimist, I’d likely set the bar too high), and my cousin Heather and her girls came over from their ranch to spend the day. Heather’s so damn nice, she offered to buy me lunch (I’d already made my way to the meatball and lutefisk stand by the time she offered) but ended up bringing me a strawberry ice cream cone instead. My son Dylan and his wife Shelly drove over from Williston with plans to see what could be seen and go to dinner with me once I’d packed up my booth. Having folks make an effort to see me rejuvenated my spirit. So did Jeff Vee making good on his promise. Jeff bought both Suomalaiset and Sukulaiaset. “I need to learn this history,” Jeff said as I signed the books and he laid down his cash. “I hope you like the stories,” was my hopeful, parting quip as the drummer made his way, Munger books under his arm, to the festival cashiers.
Dinner at Olive Garden with my son and daughter-in-law was a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of explaining my work to strangers. Musicians, like my friend Pat Surface from Ely, have it easy. Music is something a listener/customer either likes or doesn’t like instantly. There’s either an immediate appreciation for the art or there isn’t. With books, unless the person has read my stuff before, trying to hawk words to the uninitiated is much more difficult than selling a CD of songs. I mean, you can’t stand and shout passages from a novel to folks walking by your booth! That’s just not gonna work.
One thing I will say is, driving home on Highway 2, hours of asphalt ahead and behind, I rethought my inclination to decline an invitation to return for the 2016 Hostfest. I made some new friends, including John, the guy manning the booth next to mine. I expanded my readership. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I all that.
Still, I mused as the Pacifica’s worn out tires slapped pavement, I burned up four days of vacation and had to sleep in a tent on the prairie to reduce expenses. Was it worth it?
We shall see.
The Girl from Krakow by Alex Rosenberg (2015. Lake Union Publishing. ISBN 9781477830819)
I disagree with the reviewers of this new Holocaust novel who claim that Rosenberg’s story is bogged down by too many historical details, facts, and digressions. I agree with those reviewers who have written that they were disappointed that a man of Rosenberg’s education and intellect (professor of philosophy at Duke and author of numerous non-fiction books) allowed his passion for atheism, complex political theory, gratuitous sex, and endless speechifying disguised as dialogue to essentially ruin what should have been a monumentally satisfying story.
Like many of the readers who negatively critiqued the book (see Amazon and Goodreads for such discussions), I devour historical fiction. So when given the chance to download this new novel of Jewish loss and Nazi oppression for free on my Kindle, I did so immediately. I’m a fan of little known historical tidbits being turned into sweeping tales of heroism, loss, and redemption (which some claim I managed to accomplish in my three historical novels, The Legacy, Suomalaiset, and Sukulaiset). As one of my loyal readers, Davis Helberg says (paraphrasing here) “fiction can put meat on the bones of history.” And so, seeking to learn something while being entertained, I began my journey with Rita, Roseberg’s Aryan looking Jewish protagonist, with much anticipation. Unfortunately, the story never reached the heights of a true epic or the emotional depths of sorrow a novel set in WW II Poland depicting the ghettofication of Poland’s Jews should attain in the hands of a veteran storyteller.
There are simply too many coincidences, too many didactic speeches from the characters (think John Gault and you’re on the right track), and too much unplanned coitus (where Rita, at turns, beds her physician, manipulates a gay male friend to satisfaction, and spends months entwined in a lesbian relationship with the elusive and amoral Dani). Sure, I get that war, especially a war where you are compelled to wear a bright yellow star on your lapel, may reduce ethical considerations to memory. Lust, as the antidote for terror, or at least, a temporary release from constant threat of death, is a plausible reaction to the events depicted in this tale. Handled by a master narrator, such slides of morality might become plausible, even believable. But that’s not the case with Rosenberg’s somewhat clinical and methodical depiction of the various liaisons Rita entwines herself in.
Then too, there is the ending that seems highly implausible. All of this having been said, I did not, as some other readers of this new twist to an old story, stop reading the book. There was enough here to pique my interest (though maybe only of the male prurient variety) for me to finish the tale while bedded down in my tent at Hostfest in Minot, ND.Whether due to the fact that God is completely absent from the story (understandable since it is written from the viewpoint of God’s people being herded onto rail cars and brought to their deaths), or the author’s decision to cram political discourse into everyday conversation, or too many coincidences interrupting my suspension of disbelief, this effort left me without empathy for or emotional investment in the folks who survived the atrocities depicted. And that, I argue, isn’t of much value in a world already over-populated with skeptics and cynics.
3 stars out of 5.
Custer: Lessons in Leadership by Duane Schultz (2010. Palgrave. ISBN 9780230617087)
General Wesley Clark provides the forward in this tightly written snapshot biography of the military career of General George Armstrong Custer. From the beginning, it’s clear that this volume isn’t a book dedicated to preserving the Custer legend (boy hero, gallant cavalry officer, loving husband) in that Schultz quickly unfurls the traits buried within the boy general (impetuousness, disdain for following orders, unreasonable decisiveness) that end up foretelling the bleached bones of Custer and his men on a hilly battlefield next to the Little Big Horn River. But Schultz is careful to balance the ending, a scene every male over the age of fifty knows by heart from movies, film, and past books on the topic (Son of the Morning Star being the best and most comprehensive that I’m acquainted with) knows by rote, with the sometimes diminished and shoved-to-the-back of the narrative tale of Custer the Civil War hero. Yes, hero. Schultz makes a good case that without George Armstrong Custer at General Phillip Sheridan’s side (or the side of Custer’s prior commanders during the war) battles that were Union victories or at the very least, not defeats, may have turned disastrous but for Custer’s famed charges into the heat of battle at the head of his galloping column.
Simplified, the author takes that imagery, the boy general astride his steed, long locks flowing, red scarf whipping in the hot air, saber raised, charging at either entrenched Rebel infantry or wheeling his horse soldiers headlong into Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen, and explains, in very ordinary and understandable terms how the brazen courage that stood Custer so well in a conventional war became his undoing when fighting the Sioux and the Cheyenne. Simply put, there was, at the Little Big Horn, in addition to ill conceived tactical decisions that split the 7th Cavalry and diminished Custer’s chances, a very strategic difference between attacking a defined enemy line and dealing with guerrilla fighters who’ve lived their entire lives on the back of horses.
I would have raised my appreciation of this modest effort to a 4 and 1/2 star rating if the author had spend more time comparing Custer’s end and his failure to recognize the changed circumstances of his foe with similar failures by the American military in Vietnam or the current situations confronting our military in Iraq and Afghanistan. More enlightenment and commentary in that regard would have been very welcome by this reader.
Still, in the end, Schultz’s effort, laying out the differences in the types of conflicts Custer found himself in, is well worth the effort this slim volume requires.
4 stars out of 5.
It was supposed to be a reunion of sorts. When my eldest son Matt asked me to set up a fishing trip to the BWCA, the telephone call coming in the depths of winter but the trip scheduled for late summer, Matt envisioned all four Munger boys and their old man canoeing down Hog Creek into Perent Lake in search of walleye. Didn’t work out that way. Chris wasn’t able to break free of a prior commitment. Dylan didn’t have the time off from his job in the Bakken. Jack was just back from Basic Training at Ft. Jackson. That left Matt and I.
“Maybe I can bring Adrien along,” Matt said during one of our conversations after deciding, brothers or no brothers, the trip was on. “What do you think, Dad?”
“Chris was up there when he was about the same age,” I replied. Until we took my three year old grandson fishing on Fish Lake a few weeks before our scheduled trip to the BWCA, we considered bringing the kid with. But Adrien’s lack of patience for fishing became apparent after ten fishless minutes in my boat. Spending days tossing worms for walleyes out of a canoe clearly was a few years away for the little guy. In the end, it was only Matt and I who loaded up my Pacifica for the three plus hour drive to Isabella.
There are many fine campsites on Perent Lake, our destintation after a two hour canoe down the fetid, tannin colored waters of Hog Creek. Hog Creek twists and turns, doubling back on itself a number of times, before finally making an inauspicious entrance into one of my favorite spots in canoe country. I had an island in mind for our stay and I hoped, as we broke out into open water after the claustrophobic journey down the creek, that no one was already installed at the campsite.
As luck would have it, the spot I’d hoped to spend time at was open. After setting up our tent, unloading our gear, and spreading out our sleeping pads and bags, Matt and I set out in my battered old Coleman canoe to find fish.
Tossing nightcrawlers and spinners to the depths, we hooked a few walleye that first night but didn’t keep any fish. Vindicated as a guide, I set up our temporary kitchen at the campsite and made dinner over a single burner propane stove.
“This is pretty darn good,” Matt said, our headlamps illumining aluminum camp plates filled with flavored rice and re-hydrated stew-in-a-pouch.
I smiled, nodded, and slid a fork full of moist beef and rice into my mouth. “I bought the stew five years ago. Checked the bag before taking it with. The stuff’s good for another three years.”
After boiling water and doing dishes, I turned in. Matt stayed up, watching satellites course against the open, starry sky, considering his place in the vastness of the universe. I was dead to the world by the time he wandered into the tent.
Silence. That’s what I heard when I got up to do an old man’s business. Outside the tent, there was only utter quiet. No loon calls, no wolf voices, no throaty frog choruses greeted me as I stood beneath the glittering plethora of distant worlds to ease my bladder.
We fished hard over the next two days, napping after lunch to refresh ourselves for a second go at the fish. The five dozen dew worms I’d purchased at the Minnoette, our local bait store, went fast. We caught walleye (mostly between 12″-14″), rock bass, snaky pike, and the odd perch, accumulating enough walleye fillets for two great meals of freshly fried fish battered in Shorelunch and soy milk. Between meals, we ate well, munching on trail mix, jerkey, apples, and oranges for in-the-canoe snacks. Breakfast was either pan fried tortillas with melted cheese and bacon (the already cooked kind that doesn’t require refrigeration), hot coffee, Tang, and breakfast bars, or hot instant oatmeal and the same condiments.
Saturday morning, our second full day on the lake, we awoke to a front stalled over water. The cold air over the lake mixed with warm upper air to create a massive bank of fog. We considered the beauty of the blanketed land as we waited for the gray wall to lift.
Back on the water, the day warm and the sky open, we reveled in the steady tug of small but energetic walleye on the line. Catching and releasing fish, Matt and I slowly diminished our supply of nightcrawlers until we’d exhausted the five dozen I’d brought with.
“Should have bought another two dozen,” I lamented, tossing spoons and jigs and other artificials at the now non-cooperative fish. “I’ll know better next time.”
Matt ended up out fishing me on that final day, hauling in a couple of chunky walleye I filleted for supper. He also caught and released a fairly nice pike after a lengthy battle and some significant damage to our landing net.
Through Sunday morning, our day of departure, the weather held. A rain squall passed through Saturday night but my new tent kept us dry. Plans to hit a North Shore stream and catch a few brook trout to add to the mix fell through because we were out of worms and our stop at the Finland Cooperative for live bait turned up to be a non-starter. With no definite itinerary, we detoured to the Palisades overlook on our way down the North Shore to view the Big Lake.
“I’ve never been up here,” my eldest son remarked as we studied slate colored water from a vantage point high above Superior. “This is pretty cool.”
An hour later, we pulled into Superior Shores just outside of Two Harbors and clambered out of the Pacifica intent on a cold beer and a good lunch. We ate overlooking the same mass of blue water we’d left behind at Palisades and talked about the next trip, the next journey, into God’s wilderness.
I’ll be at a great little craft show on Park Point this Saturday (10/10/15) from 10-3. Join me at the Community Club for the Get to the Point show. I’ll have plenty of books to sign and sell and you’ll get to see a really, really cool old piece of Park Point history.
That’s right, folks. Next week (9/30-10/3) I will be at the largest gathering of Scandinavians in North America, Hostfest in Minot, ND. I’ll be one of the featured authors in the festival’s bookstore. You’ll be able to chat with the author, buy signed copies, and enjoy North Dakota’s biggest party. Details can be found at: http://hostfest.com/experience/authors-corner/. Friday, 10/2, I’ll be reading from and discussing both my Finnish historical novels with festival participants. So stop in, talk to your friendly neighborhood author, and buy some books!