Marrow, Muscle, Flight by Gary Boelhower (2011. Wildwood River Press. ISBN 9780984377749)
Disclosure: I have written poetry, mostly as an adjunct to courting my wife 37-plus years ago, but I am not a poet and know little, if anything, about the niceties of constructing verse or prose poems. As a novelist, book reviewer, and essayist, I tend to read fiction and disregard poetry. But lately, I’ve been intrigued by the patterns and lyrical quality of poems and so, I’ve been reading a few slim volumes of verse acquired from local writers. Marrow, Muscle, Flight is one of those collections. I bought the book at a recent arts and crafts fair held at Peace Church in Duluth where the book’s author and I were selling our wares. It took a while for me to retrieve the book from my reading stack but I’m glad that I did.
Boelhower is a tremendously gifted storyteller. His poems run the gamut from detailing his youth and family, to personal relationships, to his son’s military service. The author is at his best when he doesn’t hold his punches, as in this terrific bit of writing:
Neither the father nor the son asks
the question that burns behind their eyes.
What do you do after you fight a war,
pull the trigger, see the blood run, feel
bits of shrapnel bite into your face a fraction
from your eyes, tighten a tourniquet around
your dying friend’s stumps of legs?
(“Asking the Question” (c) Gary Boelhower)
I’ll be candid. It’s not easy for a heterosexual male (me) to dive into love poems reflecting homosexual love ( there are some in this collection). I’m pretty outspoken about my support for gay marriage and equality regardless of orientation, but, like straight women who feel uncomfortable with cinematic depictions of lesbian coupling, I have to admit I began reading the poet’s revelations of physical love between two men with some trepidation. But part-way through this collection, it hit me: Love is love. Gender, in the expression of the emotion, doesn’t matter. Content and heart do. Boelhower captures these truths with a keen eye and pen:
did you know then
how the river would carry us
how the light would fall
on the pink peonies in the garden
how we would drink wine on the deck
and watch their satin gowns
tremor in the breeze
(“Did You Know” (c) Gary Boelhower)
Now, I’m not sure that the above passage directly reflects the poet’s orientation. I have no idea if the poem depicts a same-sex or opposite-sex scene from the author’s life. But that’s just the point: Boelhower crafts his words into universally fine pieces of art that stand up to scrutiny as works of poetry, not political commentary. Even old fiction writers like me need to learn a lesson or two about the lives led by our friends, family, and neighbors who have a different outlook, a different experience, than our own. This fine collection is a gentle and consistently astute teacher in this regard, using subtle situational narratives to invoke universal emotions and reactions from a reader’s basic humanity.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015. St. Martin’s Press/MacMillan Audio. ISBN 9781427212672)
I am deadly serious. By the time I was on the final disc of this terrific audio novel, I was crying so hard, I had a difficult time keeping my blue Pacifica on I94 coming back from a ski trip to Montana. This is a deeply loving, touching, tragic, and heroic story that, well, is just too damn emotional to listen to while trying to drive.
Stripped to the barest of plot essence, this novel is the story of two sisters, the staid, married, stable Vianne (Vee-en) and her younger, impetuous, beautiful sibling, Isabelle (Iso-bell) during the Nazi invasion of France during WW II. Both girls have grown to womanhood without the loving touch of their mother. Their father, Julian, slipped into a coma of alcohol and despondency after the death of their mother, and, in hopes of curbing Isabelle’s emotional instability, sent her off to a series of convents, boarding schools, and finishing schools, all of which she ran from in search of freedom and her own path. By the dawn of the story arc, Isabelle has run again: this time, to join the French Resistance (the partisans) in Paris, where she falls in love with Gaton, a lanky, brooding, older compatriot who takes her under his protection and teaches her the rules of insurgency. Vianne’s husband leaves for the war, is captured when France falls swiftly to the Nazi onslaught, while Vianne remains behind on her father’s farm, raising her daughter. The title of the story comes from the code name the Germans give to Isabelle’s clandestine efforts, through a partisan network she forms, to save downed Allied airmen: Brits, and Yanks, and Canadians, who she escorts time and again across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and to freedom. Vianne is left to contend with the subtle danger of having German officers billet in her home. First, a well-mannered Wehrmacht (German Army) officer moves in and serves as her protector against the mounting brutality of the occupation. The army officer is replaced by an SS officer who, in stereotypical cruelty, degrades, abuses, and dismisses Vianne all the while denying that the Allies are making headway towards the liberation of France. With each concealed Allied triumph, Vianne faces greater and greater demands upon her mind and body from the SS officer, demands that make her question whether she or her younger sister has made the wiser choice in dealing with the Nazi occupation. But Vianne too has a secret, a secret that, while not as complex or involved as the work Isabelle is engaged in, places Vianne and her daughter in the gravest of danger as well.
I’ve never read anything by Ms. Hannah but as a reader who loves lush, character driven, historical fiction, I was sincerely impressed with not only the details of the dual lives Ms Hannah created in telling this dynamic tale of familial love, but also the depths of character and plot that she wove together in a seamless cloth of believability. There is nothing that rings false in this novel. No dissonant chords are struck over the 17 hours of audio (unabridged) that make up this fine, fine piece of work.
What is also striking is that, having not compared notes with Ms. Hannah before writing my own story of war and the Holocaust, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, there are many, many parallels between the two novels: Sisters seeking reunion against a backdrop of conflict; traumatic assaults on fleeing civilians by enemy aircraft; depictions of inexplicable cruelty by conquering forces; and the like. Both novels have scenes drawn from the horrific confusion and abuse heaped upon the civilians of Europe during WW II. And yet, the books are, in the end, different stories told in different styles, each worthy of a read in their own way.
This is one of my favorite novels of the past decade. I can’t express enough my support of the concisely drawn plot, the historically accurate detail, and the wonderfully complex characters that the author has gifted us with. A stellar read.
5 stars out of 5.
The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali by Yahya Frederickson (2014. Lost Horse Press. 9780991146529)
A chance meeting with the author of this volume of English language poems set in Yemen led me to buy a signed copy of The Gold Shop. Dr. Frederickson and I were situated next to each other at a local authors gathering at the Duluth Public Library. We didn’t exchange books; we actually paid over hard-earned cash to each other (though a trade would have made more economic sense!). Not usually a devotee of poetry, my purchase sat on my bedside table for a bit. Needing a “read” for lunchtime at work, I brought The Gold Shop to the courthouse where it again waited its turn. I picked the book up earlier this week and found I couldn’t put it down.
Frederickson, a professor at Minnesota State-Moorhead, has spent considerable time in the Middle East, first in Yemen and then later, in Syria and Saudi Arabia. This slender volume depicts the turmoil, grit, atmosphere, and Islamic faith of Yemen in subtle, and, at times, direct ways. There is a mystical quality to Frederickson’s writing that is both touchingly sentimental and hardened by the reality of eternal war and conflict. Here’s a sample from “Revolution Day”:
On the roof of Bayat Abu-Talib, I’m eating grapes
and reading the explosions over Tahrir Square.
Liars, they proclaim, this is yours. But there is something
about their sounds, so distant, so muffled.
A few floors below, my friends light a candle
in the blackout, whisper the latest gossip
into the lapping light…
(2014 (c). Yahya Fredrickson)
This is just one example of the power and brilliance of Yahya’s minimalist approach to evoking a region of the world, a culture, and a religion that few Westerners understand with any sort of depth or appreciation. I was so enthralled with the lyrical quality of these poems that I immediately went to the Bookstore at Fitger’s and purchased a translation of the Koran so I could begin to understand the point of religious view and culture expressed in these fine, fine vignettes.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
It’s a long haul from Duluth to the Keweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan. My blue Pacifica is loaded with copies of Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh and Sukulaiaset: The Kindred. As always, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll sell every copy of my books I’m bringing with. That, of course, has never happened. Still, as a semi-famous self-published author of historical novels about the Finns headed towards the heart of Finnishness in America, I’m eternally hopeful.
The Pacifica’s tires slap blacktop as I wind my way from Duluth to Ashland. It’s a cold wintery day, below zero. I stop to fill up the car at a Holiday statio and as I stand in the brisk air, listening to the gurgle of fuel entering the gas tank, I look around and smile.
I wrote about Ashland once, in Esther’s Race, as the place where Esther DuMont’s grandmother lived. Esther’s dad, Dr. DuMont, worked at the hospital here. Didn’t sell many copies of that book. Still, it’s a good place to set a yarn…
The snow pack increases near the Michigan line. My neck of the woods, north of Duluth on the banks of the Cloquet River, is a virtual winter desert: the ground is nearly devoid of snow. Entering the South Shore’s snow belt, I see trailers of snowmobiles being pulled by pickups and SUVs, their owners heading east in search of snow. I enter Michigan, turn north at Bruce Crossing, but see no wildlife; no deer or grouse or rabbits or any wild critter as the tires of the Pacifica hum.
“I’m watching you back into my neighbor’s driveway,” my host for the weekend, Jim Kurtti, says when I call him from my cell phone. “It’s the big red house next door.”
Jim, who is both the editor of the Finnish American Reporter and the director of the Finnish American Heritage Center housed at Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan greets me at the front door. I haul my suitcase into the parlor of an immaculate Victorian, the hardwood floors gleaming beneath antique light fixtures aglow against the dusk.
“You guys have a lot more snow than we do,” I say, offering my hand to Jim.
He shows me to a lovely bedroom on the second floor, the space that’ll be my home for the next two nights.
This place could easily be a B&B.
Jim’s wife Debbie returns home from work with a pizza from a local eatery. Jim and I are already settled in, drinking sweet Italian wine, and talking writing, books, politics, Keweenaw history, and religion when Debbie arrives. A neighbor lady joins us as we scarf very good pizza at the kitchen table. Afterwards, Jim and I take sauna and the talk continues. It’s the second time we’ve saunaed together, having met in the sauna bath at Sampo Beach north of Duluth some years back when Jim was in town to profile a group of local Finns who were reading Suomalaist for their Finnish American book club.
Saturday. By the time I wake up, shower, shave, and dress, the Kurttis are gone, already at Heikinpaiva, the winter festival at Finlandia University that I am participating in. I’m scheduled to be at North Wind Books, the campus bookstore, from 10-4, with a break at 2 to give a talk at the Finnish American Institute. On my way into town, I grab breakfast at McDonald’s. I arrive at the bookstore on time. Alana, the store manager, greets me with a smile. “Did you bring more copies of Sukulaiset with you? These two are the only copies I have.”
“I did. I’ll bring some in.”
For the next four hours, I chat with Alana and the student/clerk working the store. I meet customers and sell books to strangers. I am pleasantly surprised when Dave and Peggy Radovich, formerly of Hermantown and friends, make good on their Facebook promise to visit me. “I thought you were Croatian,” I say to Dave as Peggy buys a copy of Suomalaiset. “A quarter. Three-quarters Finn.” Dave is originally from the UP and the retired educator has returned to his roots. Except the former principal was asked by Bessemer to fill a superintendency, which means he is, I guess, unretired.
To stretch my legs, I go outside and watch the Heikinpaiva parade working its way past the Heritage Center.
Two o’clock comes quickly. The crowd at the lecture is a bit thin. I’d hoped for a full house but that’s not what transpires. Still, as I read passages from my books, talk a bit about my writing process and the impetus behind a non-Finn’s fascination with Finnish history, and answer questions, I’m engaged with my slender audience. Alana sells some books, I sign some books, and then it’s back to the bookstore for another hour of sitting and selling. I meet a German immigrant woman who’s interested in my take on the relationship between Mannerheim and Hitler. She buys a copy of Sukulaiset. Alana has me bring in a few more copies of my books. I sign them for the store.
“I’ll just email you an invoice,” I say as I head out the door, our business conducted casually, as if by handshake. “Thanks for having me.”
I stop outside the bookstore to admire an obelisk erected in memory of a local legend, a giant Finn who once lived in the Keweenaw. With time to kill (Jim and Deb are tied up with festival duties and I don’t know anyone else in town)
I decide to visit Calumet, a few miles north of Hancock. One of my former law clerks, Heidi Murtonen, is from Calumet. That fact and the rumors I’ve heard about a gorgeous old theater, still active and in use, located in the little town
prompt me to put the Pacifica in gear and climb the hill behind Finlandia. I end up in Calumet where I drive up and down the snowy, quaint downtown marveling at what the town must have been like in its heyday.
I take the long way back to the Kurttis’ and find myself only a block from their palatial home and smack dab in the ruins of an old copper mine. I stop the car and stand in the omnipresent lake effect snow that is waltzing down from the leaden sky to
snap photos of a life long passed.
I mull over getting something to eat. On a whim, I decide to attend the Heikinpaiva dance scheduled for the
Heritage Center that evening. I drive back into Hancock, snow drifting over the lighted valley as I cross the lift bridge between Houghton and Hancock, park the Pacifica, and eye a well-lighted eatery across the street.
Italian sounds good.
I climb the steps to the social hall of the Finnish American Heritage Center, a deconsecrated Catholic church renovated to a new purpose, and find out that the dance includes a meal and libations, all for the very reasonable fee of ten bucks.
I buy a ticket, hang up my coat, and enter the hall. I find Jim and Debbie and soon I’m immersed in the sounds of Finnish folk music and watching adults and children dance across the luminously polished hardwood floor.
I snap a few pictures of the dancers and post them on line. My wife texts me and asks me where I am. I tell her I’m at a dance at the Heritage Center.
“Just don’t be dancing with any Finnish girls,” she writes. “There’s a French girl waiting for you at home!”
I promise to behave. I eat heartily of the Finnish foods and desserts that cover the buffet table. I sip a local beer and meet new friends. Tired after a day of selling and talking and observing, I say my goodnights and drive back to the Kurttis’ home.
Sunday morning, I take a hot shower and pack. The Kurttis are already at church. I write a short note of thanks, load my car, and head on back down the road, happy to have spent a few days immersed in another place, another culture.
Atlas Shrugged: Part III 2014. 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
“Who is John Galt?” For those of you who have never attempted the not-so-modest-feat of reading conservative icon Ayn Rand’s mammoth philosophical novel, Atlas Shrugged, or read it decades back in college as some sort of political science requirement towards course completion, you know the answer to that question. But for the general public, whose only knowledge of Ayn Rand’s personal philosophy, “Objectivism” (in essence the idea that men and women should be entirely free of governmental interference in their commercial and daily pursuits so as each to reach his or her maximum personal potential) is the distilled and diluted version of the brand served up by Fox News and right wing advocates such as Paul Ryan, it’s doubtful if viewers lacking the backdrop of the novel will understand who the hell John Galt is.
Here’s my take on this film (as an entirety and Part III in particular): Ayn Rand deserves better. The final installment of this sacred tome of the Right is the worst of the lot in terms of editing, story, message, and pace. It is essentially a series of excerpted speeches, with little to no action, from the last third of the novel, making for dull cinema and duller philosophy. It’s also confusing that we are now on actor and actress number three for the two seminal roles of the film, John Galt (here, Chris Polaha) and Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan), the previous two incarnations of those characters no longer viable either due to monetary constraints or artistic differences, which makes trying to watch all three portions of this story in one sitting schizophrenic at best. That having been said, both Polaha and Regan are fine in their parts. Not exceptional but fine. There are a few recognizable faces, including character actor Joaquim de Almeida (portraying copper magnet Francisco d’Anconia) but most of the actors and actresses filling the various key roles in Rand’s story are unrecognizable by viewers; a collection of third and fourth tier performers who are, by and large, utterly forgettable in their roles. But back to my main premise. The book is held by many on the Right to be a Bible (though of course Rand was an atheist who despised religion of all stripes making Atlas a curious reference for the Evangelical Christians now commanding the GOP) of human political, sociological, and philosophical aspirations: the triumph of individual talent and will over the collective power of society. There’s little question that the backers of this effort sought to have an influence on the past three national elections by the timing of the releases of Parts I, II, and III. Though Part I came out too late to influence the 2010 campaign season; Part II was released in 2012 in advance of the Presidential election. Part III was issued in limited release in 2014, just ahead of the congressional elections that returned the GOP to power. With such high minded influence as its goal, one would have thought that the backers of this mess of a franchise would have sought top-notch talent in the acting, directing, and scriptwriting departments so as to ensure gracing Rand’s time-honored prose with the movie she so clearly deserves. But the Koch Brothers apparently weren’t on board and their wallets did not fund this effort. Too bad. Love Rand’s message or hate it, she deserved a movie equal in power to her words.
2 stars out of 5. If you want to watch a movie that replicates the intricacies of Rand’s ideas and also entertains, pick up a DVD copy of The Fountainhead strarring Gary Cooper. You can read my review of that film, along with Atlas Shrugged Parts I and II, in the archives section of this blog under the “Reviews” tab on the website dashboard above.
It’s 4:58 am on Friday morning. I’m sitting in my writing studio, a three-season porch that, given it’s -17ºF outside, requires me to wear wool socks and a thick bathrobe as I type this piece. The porch I‘m working in wasn’t designed for writing in the dead of winter. But here I am, just like I am virtually every morning, trying to craft truth from memories, thoughts, inklings, and visions that dance inside my sixty year old head. It’s a curious thing, this compulsion, this obsession to write. Folks I meet at libraries, or bookstores, or at writers’ conferences often ask “why”, “Why, Judge Munger, do you write?” That’s a good question. I’ll try to answer it.
I was born an incurable romantic. As a small child, I loved creating imaginary scenes of drama and daring-ado. I once built a blanket fort in Grandma Munger’s parlor. Inside my makeshift tent, I was a wounded soldier of the Great War being cared for by a beautiful nurse. So the first building block of my writerly obsession is simply this: I have a vivid imagination.
As a child, my mother read to me every night. Experts say that, to be a writer, you must be a reader. My mother’s love of books was gifted to me. I became a voracious reader, and, in due course, a writer. By first grade, I was hard at it. Somewhere in one of my scrapbooks my first attempt at writing, “The Piretas and the Two Man” (sic), an illustrated thriller involving cannibals and ships and pirates, is preserved. My spelling hasn’t improved. I keep an unabridged dictionary close at hand whenever I write. Spellcheck is a poor substitute for Webster’s when you are as phonetically challenged as I am.
At age ten, I discovered my Grandma Marie’s notebooks. Her journals were filled with her handwritten verse. I took to crafting poetry by scrawling couplets on the empty pages of those journals. The fact that my long-dead grandmother preserved her emotions by writing poetry, and was able to live on through her words after she died, made an impression on me.
Teachers encouraged me. Miss Infelise, my 8th grade English teacher, challenged me to “write over summer vacation”. I did more than merely write a sentence or two. I still have the picture book, “Emery Whipple Goes to Sea”, that was my response to a teacher’s challenge. I recently read that story to my great nephew Ryan. He liked “Emery” but, like many adult fans, thought the book a bit long.
High school found me working as an editor on the Denfeld Criterion under the watchful eye of Miss Goldie Cohen. Miss Cohen taught me to be succinct. Despite an occasional dustup with Miss Cohen over an article that was too racy or too personal or too heaped in controversy for a high school newspaper, Goldie encouraged me to keep at it, to write what I thought was true.
Most of you know that my vocation in life has been as lawyer and judge. There was a period of time where, because of school and starting a family and beginning my career, I didn’t write. But my wife René knew that, deep down, I’d always wanted to try my hand at fiction. When I faced a lengthy leave from work due to back surgery, René suggested that I begin working on a novel. René’s encouragement caused the writer in me to reemerge. My insatiable need to tell a story, a story, as Hemingway once said, that is true, burst to the surface when I began writing the The Legacy, a historical novel and thriller that received positive reviews and became a regional bestseller. Over the decades since my wife’s fortuitous suggestion, my desire to tell stories has urged my fingers to the keyboard of nearly every morning of nearly every intervening day.
Nine books later, I know this: as a writer, I simply must write. I cannot not write. I am, at my core, a teller of stories and those stories, regardless of fame, or readership, or monetary reward, must be shared.
An edited version of this essay first appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.
We lost our dog Daisy a week ago. She was nearly fourteen and had to be put down. Cancer had invaded her mouth and shoulder. That’s the extent of what we knew after the vet took some x-rays and did some blood tests. Then there was what we suspected: Daisy was likely full of the dreaded disease. To spare her further pain and humiliation, and to preserve her dignity, we put Daisy down. Never an easy decision. But something that needed doing. Today, New Year’s Day 2015, the first New Year’s Day in over a decade that Daisy isn’t with us, I dress for winter, let Jimi Hendrix, our miniature Dachshund out the door, call for Kramer, Daisy’s one-time garage mate and aging chocolate Labrador, and release Kena, our energetic black Lab from her plastic crate. The dogs and I follow our ice covered driveway from the house to the nearest woodland trail, a path I cut years ago, and begin a winter walk in celebration of the new year.
The woods are empty. We flush no grouse, chase no deer from their beds, and encounter no chickadees on our quiet walk through meager snow. It’s utterly quiet. Even the icy surface of Fish Lake, unseen behind a mile of aspen, pine, balsam, and scrub to the south of our land, lacks the usual hubbub of snowmobilers and ice fisherman racing across its frozen surface on their noisy machines. Jimi, always on the hunt for squirrels and rabbits (prey that Daisy was always keen to track as well) scurries hither and yon but never raises his voice, never catches the scent of a varmint to excite his pea-sized brain. Kramer is content, in his old age and on infirm hips, to waddle behind me. Kena bounds ahead,nose to the ground snuffling for partridge but finds nothing of interest. She is abundantly gleeful, obviously happy to be out of her plastic crate and on the move even if there are no birds to flush.
It’s mild. Not really warm, not really cold. It’s an afternoon walk, one of life’s simple pleasures enhanced not by wildlife or the thrill of skis against new snow or eagles soaring overhead, but by sun and still air and quiet and solitude. At the junction of the trail I’m on and the black waters of the Cloquet River, at the intersection where I will turn towards home, I stop and watch water on its inexorable path towards the sea. Most times, when I come upon this scene, there are white and black Whistlers, Canadian ducks who overwinter on the Cloquet, bobbing in the slow moving current. There are no ducks on the water today and none take flight against the cloudless winter sky.
I make a detour to check on our neighbors’ cabins. These are not the palatial mansions one sees in magazines celebrating “lake living” and the joys of Minnesota but one-room shacks hugging the banks of the river. The structures are old, in various states of disrepair, rarely used, susceptible to flooding, and targets for kids with bad intentions. Every now and again, when I am out and about on one of my strolls, I’ll swing by the cabins just to ensure that no mischief is at hand. Nothing is amiss and I cross a short passage of trees, where I have yet to cut a trail, before emerging on our hayfield. Across the silent field, a pasture that once nurtured some long dead farmer’s cows, our home, as white as the surrounding snow, looms against the azure sky of late afternoon. Orange reflects from the westward facing windows of the house, the image of the sun setting behind me replicated by glass. The four of us walk towards the house. There is no wind, no sound, save the snuffle of dog noses and the crunch of boots against snow, as we make our way towards warmth.
The dogs and I do nothing exceptional, and encounter nothing remarkable during our short walk. But I am refreshed. A new year has begun. I am looking forward to seeing what it brings.
Rescue dogs. I have a natural disinclination to taking on other people’s problems when it comes to pets. My wife says I’m a canine snob, that the only dog I’ll ever respect, love, and care for is a purebred Labrador. Though I’ll admit to a bias towards AKC Labs, I think history has proven my wife wrong. Take for example, my connection to Daisy, a dog that wandered into the hearts of the Munger clan over a decade ago. I loved Daisy despite her mysteriously clouded bloodlines. I say loved because this week my wife and I, our four of sons, had to make that difficult decision that eventually confronts all pet owners: Should we go the heroic route or let our beloved companion drift away in peace? So Daisy is no more, at least in this realm. Whether dogs have their own version of heaven, complete with endless fire hydrants, meaty bones, cool streams to wade, and abundant red squirrels and bunnies to chase, I can’t say. But I hope that’s the case. Daisy was the sort of dog, despite her pedigree, who deserves such respite.
She came to us as an eight month-old pup, already spayed, house-broken, and able to sit on command.Matt, my eldest son, was working in an adult group home, taking care of young folks who needed assistance with the activities of daily living. One of the residents received Daisy as a gift but, due to a prohibition against having pets in the group home, Daisy needed a place to live. Matt was attending UWS at the time, spending week nights and some weekends sleeping at work but occasionally making it back home for a night or two of video gaming and bonding with his three younger brothers. He showed up one evening, Daisy in tow, and suggested we could take care of her “on approval”. We fell in love with her smile, her thunderous tail wag, and the fact that she loved to “talk” to you when she wanted to be fed or let outside to do her business. She looked every inch a black Labrador. She took to swimming in the Cloquet River in all seasons, including winter, without fear; a sure sign she had a Lab’s thick-headed genes embedded in her DNA. But soon, Daisy began to display other quirks that led me to believe she was not a purebred, not an AKC genetically pure specimen of Lab-dom. For example, when snow fell, she preferred sleeping in a drift to being inside the house or the garage. She had no affinity for grouse or ducks but she had a huge appetite for chasing rabbits and squirrels. Daisy often teamed up with my wife’s Dachshund, Jimi, whose high-pitched wail I originally thought meant he was caught in a bear trap or had been mortally wounded, to hunt bunnies. Turns out, Jimi’s cry was an alert that he was on the trail of a furry critter. It was that cry that would move Daisy to action. Out of a dead sleep, she’d tear off the covered front porch of our farmhouse to answer Jimi’s call.
Daisy loved belly scratches and horseplay but she didn’t retrieve a lick and had no interest in feathered prey of any kind. She did, however, torment our youngest son, Jack, by once eating his pet bunny, Doc. Doc was grazing in our backyard confined by a plastic fence. Matt improvidently let Daisy out of her kennel when he came home from work. Jack and I arrived home to find bunny pieces, including Doc’s severed head, strewn around the lawn. It was not Daisy’s finest hour. But, given the nature of dogs, it wasn’t her fault.
I spent many an hour walking, skiing, or snowshoeing trails on our land with Daisy, Jimi, Kramer (another rescue dog), and, more recently, our Lab pup, Kena. Jimi would drop his little nose to the ground, sniff for the faintest trace of bunny or squirrel, and once he latched onto a critter’s scent, scurry off in hot pursuit, his tell-tale call alerting the world to his quest. Daisy would join the hunt by taking a different tact, one that would cut off the prey’s escape. Smart dog, that one. Many a day I found remnants of bunnies deposited on our front porch, Daisy’s version of notifying the master of the house that she was “on the job.”
The UPS guy regularly stops by our place to deliver books. Daisy and Kramer were always there to greet the driver. Daisy’s fur on her neck and spine would raise in confrontation when the delivery van pulled up to the house. She’d bark until the driver showed her a dog biscuit. Then she’d lower her guard, take the treat, and wag her tail. She never bit anyone despite her sometimes defensive posturing but she always let folks know whose house this was.
A story to illustrate Daisy’s fortitude (sisu). A few summers back, before arthritis slowed her down, before cancer started to manifest, I was sitting in my rocking chair on our home’s covered front porch with Ben Guck. We were talking baseball between sips of cold beer. Dusk was beginning to slide across the pasture. Daisy and Kramer were fast asleep on the front lawn. All of a sudden, Kramer, a gangly chocolate Lab with hip issues, rose from slumber and started trotting towards trees defining the far edge of our hayfield. The thin-withered dog loped into the forest, only to re-emerge at a dead run, a pair of brush wolves (coyotes) hot on his trail. Earlier in the evening, Ben and I ‘d been listening to the yips of coyote pups from a nearby den before Kramer was spurned to action. It was pretty clear that the parents of those pups were not happy with Kramer’s inquisitive nature. The adult coyotes were gaining on the old dog as he labored uphill. Then I saw Daisy. She was creeping towards the field, her body crouched low like a lioness on the stalk. She was concealed from the wolves by high grass, her hackles up and her eyes glued to the scene unfolding below her.
“Watch this,” I said to Ben, tipping my beer bottle towards the impending skirmish. “Daisy is about to welcome the wolves.”
When the coyotes were within a stride of Kramer, Daisy launched herself from concealment like an ebony missile. Like cartoon characters in a Loony Tunes short, the wolves put on their brakes and tumbled to the ground before regaining their footing and heading for the trees. Daisy didn’t stop her pursuit at the treeline. I was worried that she might not come back, that the wolves would turn on her in the forest. But the coyotes knew who they were dealing with. After a few tense moments, Daisy emerged triumphant from the woods and rejoined Kramer on the front lawn.
Daisy’s health has been failing. Over the past year, her black fur turned brown and patchy. Normally a gal who loved a good swim in the river, Daisy refused to clamber down the riverbank and join me in the Cloquet. Other signs of decline manifested. At nearly thirteen years old, I guessed cancer. I was hoping Daisy could make it through another winter. But watching her suffer became unbearable. I called the vet. I made an appointment. Rene’ agreed to sit with Daisy during the exam.
Carrying her frail, failing body to my blue Pacifica for Daisy’s last car ride wasn’t easy. She always trusted me to do the right thing. I hope I did.
Some of you have heard the story. But for those who haven’t, I think it merits retelling here, in the last issue of the New World Finn.
Back in 2000, I ”discovered” the story of Olli Kinkkonen, a Finnish dockworker whose mysterious death was postulated to be a despondent suicide by the Duluth police but considered to be an unsolved murder by the Finnish immigrant population of my hometown. As someone who grew up surrounded by Finns, I saw enormous possibility in the story of Kinkkonen’s death. Originally, I’d intended to write a fictionalized account, a faux biography if you will, of the man and his times. Growing up in northeastern Minnesota, rubbing elbows with my Finnish pals, and with familial roots of my own on Minnesota’s Iron Range, I’d always been interested in immigrant history and Finnish immigrant history in particular. What prompted those crazy Finns to farm this godforsaken land? I’d grown up calling the descendents of the Finnish immigrants who built their sturdy log saunas, barns, and homes “Finnish rock farmers”; a pejorative grounded in the mounds of stones one finds on every forty acre Finnish farmstead in my neck of the woods. But as I explored the circumstances surrounding Olli Kinkkonen’s demise, I came to realize that, in exploring the man’s death, I was uncovering a bigger story, a story in which the unfortunate dockworker would play, in the end, only a minor role.
Understand: even after I decided to focus on fictional characters, relegating Olli to a peripheral stage in the grander story I envisioned, I went to work researching and writing the history of the Finns in North America with trepidation. I knew from my interactions with Finnish friends and their parents and grandparents that Finnish Americans are, by and large, circumspect of outsiders trying to define their history. I also knew that there was a retired Finnish American member of the Duluth Police Department researching Kinkkonen’s story with an eye towards writing a book. Both my ethnicity and time appeared to be against my creating a fictional re-telling of Olli Kinkkonen’s life that would be commercially viable. And yet, I couldn’t resist. I plunged ahead.
Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh emerged four years later. By the time my novel about Olli’s death, Finnish immigration, the Great War, the Cloquet Fire, and the Influenza outbreak of 1918 was published, I was exhausted and fearful: fearful that Finnish American and Finnish Canadian readers would pillory me at the dock of public scrutiny. Against this backdrop of paranoia, I set out to give interviews and explain Olli’s story to the world. It was as a guest on the Duke Skorich Radio Show on KUWS that I had my first encounter with the subject of this essay.
Duke’s show was an hour-long talkfest broadcast from a cramped little studio on the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus. Duke, his co-host, Patty McNulty, and the show’s producer, the late Mike Simonson, welcomed me and made me feel at home. Adding to my comfort level was the fact that the show’s format that day didn’t allow for listener calls. And yet, near the end of the hour, a listener did call in, wanting to quiz me about the research behind Suomalaiset. My immediate reaction was, “Oh, oh, a pissed off Finn is calling to tell me what I got wrong. Duke handed me the caller’s name and telephone number but spared me any on-air embarrassment. I said I’d call after the show. It was a lie. I never intended to return the call. But for some reason, on the drive home, I felt compelled to find a pay phone and dial the number Duke had written down. My decision to face the music that day was the best decision I’ve ever made as a writer. The man on the other end of that fateful conversation was Gerry Henkel. Turns out, Gerry was so intrigued by a non-Finn’s interest in Kinkkonen’s tragic story that he wanted a copy of Suomalaiset to review for the New World Finn, a newspaper he edited. I sent a review copy, Gerry read the book and became the most vocal proponent of my writing I’ve ever been blessed to know. He was better than his word: Not only was Suomalaiset given a glowing review in this newspaper, Gerry added a full-page author interview to accompany the review. He also put me in touch with the paper’s publisher, Ivy Nevala, who added Suomalaiset to the newspaper’s stock of literature available for purchase through the New World Finn.
Had I not returned that telephone call, Suomalaiset would likely have sold a few hundred copies. Instead, the novel became my best selling book and has been read, critiqued, and enjoyed by folks from Vancouver to Helsinki. But there’s more.
Gerry introduced me to members of the Finnish American, Finnish Canadian, and Finnish communities at ethnic festivals from Thunder Bay, to Duluth, to Marquette, and beyond. He was my proverbial “foot in the door” in terms of gaining respectability and authority as a non-Finn writing about the Finns. His connections took me to Turku where I gave a presentation at the Institute of Migration. We’ve become good friends, and, truth be told, he’s been a promoter of all my work, including books like Laman’s River, a murder mystery that has nothing to do with the Finns. And then there is this: When I was at a loss as to where to head next with my very eclectic and diverse fiction writing, Gerry suggested that a sequel lurked within the pages of Suomalaiset. Smitten with the character Elin Gustafson, a newspaper reporter and modern woman who is a central figure in Suomalaiset, Gerry convinced me that Elin had more to say. And so, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, my latest historical novel, was born.
Here’s the level of Gerry’s unselfishness, his drive to help others succeed in telling the story of the Finns. Just prior to a recent book launch of Sukulaiset at the Fitger’s Theater in Duluth, Gerry asked if his friend, internationally known musician, actress, and personality, Ulla Souko, could read passages from Sukulaiset during our conversation in front of the audience. Gerry also suggested that I ask Finnish American singer/songwriter, Diane Jarvi to provide music for the event. Those two women made October 9, 2014 the most memorable evening of any I’ve spent as an author.
After this issue is “put to bed”, the New World Finn will sleep for eternity. I’ll miss writing book reviews for this quirky little paper. I’ll miss reaching into my rural mailbox to withdraw each crisp, new copy of this unique publication. I’ll miss reading intelligent, probing, enlightening articles, essays, stories, poems, and reviews. But I am left with this: I’ll always cherish my friendship with Gerry Henkel, the man who started it all for me amongst the Finns.
The Pinacle: Peace Church, Saturday, December 6, 2014
It’s a fair winter morning as I shuffle my feet against melting snow, the burden of a box of books heavy, my frayed bathrobe snugged tight against cool air. I’m loading my blue Pacifica for another book selling event. I’m headed to the Get it Local arts and crafts fair at Peace Church on Duluth’s east hillside. That little fair has been good to me over the years. With minimal table fees, easy access, a short work day, I usually sell a few of my books to strangers, repeat customers, and acquaintances. As I load the back of the SUV with folding tables, table cloths, books, and accessories, I’m optimistic that the day will go well.
Given my age and my expanding belly, I avoid the temptation to stop at McDonald’s for an Egg White Delight on the way in. The car loaded, my shower completed, my attire suitably “dressed down” for a casual day of book selling at a craft show, I scarf Yoplait (strawberry/banana) followed by a coffee chaser. I fill a stainless steel travel mug with more coffee, leave a note for my seventeen-year-old son, and head out the door. The sky is blue and fringed with soft, uneventfully white clouds. Our resident bald eagle soars across the meager snow of the field leading from our house to the banks of the Cloquet River. He or she doesn’t glance at the Pacifica as it pulls away from the stark white home perched above the slowly churning black water. The eagle isn’t interested in art. He or she is art and is interested in finding a meal. I see no deer or other wildlife on the drive in as I listen to a tribute CD of songs written by Jackson Browne. The album features artists as diverse as Springsteen and Lovett and Colvin and Souther. I try to harmonize to the tunes and realize, yet again, that choosing writing over music was a good avocational decision. I may never break even, much less get rich, penning fiction but it’s unlikely I will injure anyone writing imaginary stories. I can’t make the same promise about my harmony.
“Hi, Wendy,” I say as I approach the promoter and organizer of the event. “Could I buy two extra feet from you? I brought two four foot tables and I don’t think six feet will be enough space.”
Wendy Grethen walks over to where my table space is, the six foot limit of my booth marked with blue tape on the vinyl floor of the congregational church’s social hall, and nods. “That’s doable.
“What do I owe you?”
“Another ten bucks.”
I fill out a check I brought with for the transaction and hand it to Wendy before setting up my book display. I’m happy Wendy is flexible. I erred in only renting a “mini” space given that I have nearly all my titles available for purchase.
I don’t know what the hell I was thinking ordering only a six foot space.
Kids from a local elementary school arrive with supervising adults to warm soup for lunch. The proceeds from their sales will go towards environmental education efforts. As pots of pheasant and wild rice and tomato basil soup simmer, the food’s fragrance blends with the odor of fresh baked bread from Amazing Grace. In less than fifteen minutes, my table is set up. I move the Pacifica from the church parking lot and wait for customers. The crowd doesn’t disappoint.
I’ve been doing the arts and crafts circuit for over fourteen years. I know that each show, each season, each event has its own rhythm, its own cadence. The health of the economy drives whether or not people show up and whether or not they browse or purchase. I noted a few weeks’ back at the Festival of Trees, one of the larger holiday craft shows in the area, that folks were, after years of reluctance, opening their wallets. Today, as I read passages of Moberg’s The Emigrants between customers, I experience first-hand the resurgence of the American economy. Folks not only stop to talk; they buy books. After five hours of flurry, I run out of titles: Black Water, Esther’s Race, and Ordinary Lives all disappear. The big sellers, of course, are the Finn books: Suomalaiset and Sukulaiset.
The Square, I think as I swipe credit cards through the tiny plastic cube affixed to my iPhone, is a wonderful device.
The Square allows me to accept credit cards and have the funds electronically posted to my Cloquet River Press checking account without incurring fees from my bank. Before the Square, I was relegated to using an old fashioned mechanical credit card swiper, collecting the carbon copies of the transactions, and tediously entering all the data onto a website at home. No longer. The Square spares me time; a commodity, an asset, that’s limited for a guy with myriad interests and a grandson living next door.
Grandsons. When I get home, he’s there, at the house with his grandma, my wife, ready to greet me. We watch Stewart Little and Polar Express together. I carry our Christmas tree in from the covered front porch of the farmhouse and, with grandma’s help, secure it in a metal tree stand. We don’t decorate the Douglas fir but allow it the night to unfurl its branches and get accustomed to the house. I fill the metal pan of the tree stand with water. Grandma changes Adrien for bed and spends time reading next to him as the little guy settles in for the night. There’s no question that a day selling books and the a spent with a grandchild is about as good as it gets.
The Depths: Redbery Books, Cable, Wisconsin, Sunday, December 7, 2014
Maybe the date should have been a clue. Pearl Harbor Day. The day of infamy. Whatever. When I saw the announcement promoting a gathering of local authors at Redbery Books in Cable, Wisconsin, I was intrigued.
I’ve never been to the store, I thought as I considered the posting on the electronic calendar of Lake Superior Writers. It can’t hurt to try to expand my readership.
I sent an inquiry to Bev, the bookstore’s manager, indicating I was interested in participating. I received a acceptance email and an attachment advising me of my responsibilities as a participlant. Given that the bookstore is attached to a restaurant/bar, The Rivers Eatery, which, through my prior experience in doing readings and signings at independent bookstores located in tourist villages (a term that fits Cable given it’s notoriety as a cross-country skiing mecca and fishing destination), seemed to be a positive, an additional draw to the event, I was excited to join other local authors at Redbery.
I’d left the Pacifica loaded with books and supplies and, after watching Stewart Little II with my wife and my grandson, after turning the little guy over to his parents, and after filling my belly with oatmeal and orange juice, I climb into the cockpit of the book selling express and head south, towards the home of the Birkie. The day is overcast but warm. There’s no trace of snow in the sky as the Pacifica turns from US 53 onto county roads taking me east, into the lake country of northwestern Wisconsin. Rounding a bend, the pavement dry, the oak and pine forest hugging the shoulders of the constantly turning highway, I hit the brakes and stop on a dime.
That’s a lot of turkeys.
A gaggle of wild toms and jennies flutters across the asphalt, the big birds a scurry of feathers and indignation. Little do I realize that scene will be the highlight of an otherwise disappointing day.
I have high hopes when I arrive at the bookstore. Redbery is located in a refurbished dry goods store. As I walk through the door, I’m impressed. The shop is bright and airy, Banks of clean windows allow the meager light of the overcast day to bathe the store. A freshly painted tin ceiling and a restored plank floor complete the room. Hundreds of hardcover and paperback books are displayed on orderly shelves. Bev greets me and shows me to the restaurant/bar where other authors are already setting up their displays. I find my spot and glance around the cavernous, empty restaurant There are a half-dozen or so authors getting ready for customers. Some participants display one title. Others, like me, have multiple books on hand to sell. But as I take in the space we occupy, it dawns on me:
The restaurant isn’t open.
Indeed. The additional draw of an open eatery filled with patrons is not going to be part of my experience in Cable. Neither are customers. Of any sort. In two hours, I talk with one potential customer and he’s really only here to assist another author with loading that author’s car when the event is over. I sell no books and, truth be told, witness, I think, a total of three books sell in the time spent at the rear of the bookstore. Anytime you spend an afternoon surrounded by more authors than potential customers is a bad sign. At 3:00, I leave a check for my table rental at the bookstore counter and, without a word of farewell, load the Pacifica for the long ride home.
I don’t blame the bookstore for the lack of sales. Folks will buy what interests them. There’s very little one can do to change a customer’s interest or taste. And I understand the extreme pressures being exerted upon independent bookstores by the Internet, eBooks, and the Evil One: Amazon. Still, it’s pretty tough to sell even William Kent Krueger in a bookstore devoid of customers.
To make matters worse, the turkeys aren’t out and about to entertain me as I head home.