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.
The sky was overcast and the air cool as my three sons, Matt, Chris, and Jack walked a natural grass field bordering a small lake near Ashley, North Dakota. Reid Amborn, a friend of Matt’s and a fellow IT nerd, walked with the Munger clan as well. I was on the far western edge of the line of five hunters and two dogs searching the tall prairie grass, hoping to pop a rooster pheasant or two out of concealment. It happened sparingly on this, my eighth or ninth trip (I’m turning 60 this week and forget such details) to hunt pheasants in North Dakota. In two hours of walking, we jump three or four shootable roosters and hit one. I missed an easy shot and cursed my ineptitude. The big, brilliant bird glided merrily across the water of an adjacent pothole, cackling in delight as the steel shot of my round fell into the green water. Chris correctly gauged the speed and ascent of a male pheasant and brought the bird to earth. Kena, Jack’s year-old black Labador, and Lexie, Matt’s matronly seven year old red Labrador, found the downed bird but didn’t do what their labels boast they should do. Instead of retrieving the bird, they stood over it imperiously but refused to pick up the dead rooster and return it to the shooter. Chris tucked the dead bird in the pouch of his hunting vest and we moved on.
My old man, Harry, turns 87 years old this week. His birthday is a day before mine. I will be turning, as the young folk like to say pejoratively, “the big Six-Oh”. Dad lives in Florida now. He finally got a Florida driver’s license after selling the familial home in the Piedmont Heights neighborhood of Duluth. He’s lived in Florida for the majority of each year for the past five years or so, but, until he sold the house, he resisted becoming a resident of the Sunshine State. Now he can vote for former Republican-turned-Democrat, Charlie Crist for governor. That, despite the loss of the house, brings a smile to the old Democrat’s face.
This trip was conceived by Harry and his hunting buddy, Bruce Meyer, several decades ago. When the men were in their late 60’s, they started making annual treks to South Dakota to hunt ducks and pheasants. They grew weary of the scarcity of land to hunt, the constant rejection at the hands of local ranchers who wanted to charge $50-$100 per day, per hunter, to hunt what are supposedly wild birds owned by the people of the State of South Dakota. So the two old men migrated a bit north, renting a motel room at the Ma and Pa motel in Ashley, North Dakota, the tiny county seat of McIntosh County. Later, they befriended local farmers and rented trailers or cabins or old farmhouses as lodging. By the time my old man got around to asking Matt and I to join the trip, these connections with farmers were near an end: The same monetary demons that had made hunting in South Dakota so expensive had crept north. We began renting houses in the town of Ashley for the trip and searching for public or non-posted farm land to hunt rather than arrange to hunt on specific farms. It’s not the best arrangement for filling a hunting vest with dead birds but it serves our purposes. We work hard, walking the land, looking for opportunities to hunt, and enjoy an environment uniquely different from the rolling hills, lakes, swamps, and forested closure of our native Minnesota. Even last year, when the bird count was dismal in southern North Dakota due to the brutal winter of 2012-2013, the five of us (with Harry scouting out new spots from the car while we worked the land) had a good, if not productive, hunt. This year, prior to heading out, we toyed with the idea of hunting public land in nearby South Dakota. The conservation lands (plots where farmer and ranchers leave natural cover for wildlife production and allow public hunting in return for a government subsidy) in the Ashley area, and throughout all of North Dakota, are rapidly disappearing as more and more prairie is converted back to agricultural production. But, in the end, we chose to hunt what we knew.
Over four days, we walked tree lines, sloughs, shoreline, and native grasslands in search of gorgeously hued roosters. One morning, a morning where Chris and I both downed birds, we saw more than twenty female (hen) pheasants (can’t shoot ‘em) but only three males. That was pretty much the story of our four days in Ashley. That and chasing the occasional corn fed, very fat and very robust white tail bucks and does out of their hiding places, the sound of a two hundred pound deer getting up from rushes three feet away enough to cause your heart to race. And seeing raft upon raft of floating ducks on prairie ponds. And watching a big, bushy tailed coyote, its coat splendid and thick against the noonday sun as it eyed us from atop a hill, the land barren of trees; the sun hot and summer-like. And the flights of white trumpeter swans and Canada geese and sandhill cranes and mallards and bluebills headed south towards the Platte, dotting the blue sky.
There were, as with all family hunting and fishing excursions (Reid now being, after two years of hunting with us, an honorary Munger) a couple of tense moments, a few words exchanged that we regretted, apologized for, and then moved on from. But really, given the fact all of us were dog tired and frustrated with the lack of roosters to shoot, the discord was minimal. There were no hasty words said that festered. As on any Munger outing, we debated and teased and challenged each other, with much commentary directed at Chris, whose evenings were cluttered with texts and emails back to Minnesota to a certain lady lawyer who is the main focus of his life.
Travel arrangements this year were a bit more complex what with Harry living in Florida. His Tahoe is in storage back in Duluth because he and his significant other, Pauline, rely upon her van for transportation when living in Florida. There’s no need for two folks over 80 to have separate cars in one place. A few years back, I convinced Dad that it was a better plan to fly back and forth between his two places of residence instead of trying to drive the 30 hour jaunt. That meant leaving the Tahoe in Duluth. To make this trip, Dad flew from Port Charolette to Fargo where Chris and I picked him up. The plane was on time. Harry was in good spirits and I had his shotgun and gear in tow, ready for his use.
Matt, Jack, and Reid drove separately in Matt’s Suburban, taking a more southerly route from Duluth through Fergus Falls and then on to Ashley. In all significant ways, this is now Matt’s trip: he rented the house we stayed at, he planned the menu, he shopped for the food, and he functioned as our camp cook. Chris is our bird cleaner, a job that hasn’t been too taxing the past two years. Reid makes the lunches we pack into the field and lends a hand doing dishes and cleaning the house. Jack and I shared most of the dish washing and kitchen clean up, my youngest son showing new-found maturity in never grousing or objecting to the tasks assigned.
There were few occasions on this trip for us to be energized by clouds of pheasants rising into the climbing or setting sun. We tried to hunt smarter, to be more contemplative in our journeys across the land in search of birds. But there were few opportunities this year to shoot roosters. Time and time again, Lexie stopped dead in the grass, her nose twitching, or, in Kena’s case, the young Lab bounded through the waist high sedge and thistle, ears flapping in the warm breeze, nose vertical to the scent of a bird, only to kick up a dusky colored hen. Off limits. But still exciting, if somewhat disappointing. Our luck changed in the last hour of the last day. Chris’s plan was to move slowly through a waterfowl production area we were hunting at the cusp of sunset, the end of shooting time, pushing birds against a road and a fence line. After a long walk with nothing to show for our efforts, we ascended the last hill of the trip. Birds erupted everywhere. Jack and Matt, both birdless to that point, each knocked a cackling North Dakota rooster to the ground. Reid did the same. Chris shot and missed. My gun remained silent. And yet, it was a magnificent end to a fine, fine trip.
Final Edition. Radio Superior. Countless radio documentaries, including a series on the impact of HIV/AIDS on rural Wisconsinites that garnered him an Edward R. Morrow Award in 1997 and a National Public Broadcasting Director’s Award for his coverage of the 1992 benzene spill in Douglas County, Wisconsin. A booming voice reminiscent of William Conrad (radio persona and star of the television detective series “Cannon”). A loving husband. A good son and brother. A loyal friend. A tough task master. A great teacher. One hell of a radio journalist.
These are the bits and pieces of Mike Simonson’s life that doubtlessly were emphasized at his memorial service last Saturday at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in West Duluth. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, though I did make the wake the evening before. I wasn’t a close personal friend of Mike’s, having been two years ahead of him at Denfeld (a classmate of Mike’s older brother Mark), but my interactions with Mike, from those glory days until his all-too-sudden passing, were always positive. In junior high and high school, Mike was Mark’s little brother; a round bundle of energy in contrast to his older sibling’s more deliberate and sedate style who knew more about baseball than any Denfeld alum except Fred Friedman. Mike could recall statistics concerning players from the near and distant past with ease. He also, as I recall, may have had a hand in plotting the greatest caper conceived and perpetrated by Denfeld Hunters: the raising of a Volkswagen Bug onto the roof of Central High School as a Maroon and Gold Day prank. I wasn’t there to witness Mike’s participation in the scheme: My wife, Rene’ Privette Munger, a classmate of Mike’s, swears she witnessed the planning and plotting behind the incident. Behind the serious journalist, then, lurked the heart of a guy who enjoyed life, his family, his friends, and a good laugh.
As a Denfeld alum, I followed Mike’s career in radio from his early days in AM newsrooms around the Twin Ports, through his apprenticeship far from home, to his triumphant return as the first Northern Reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio (and News Director of KUWS) and marveled at his dedication to task. I too learned my craft at the knees of such great teachers as Jean Endrizzi, Judy Infelise Bonovetz, and Goldie Cohen (who was also the adviser to the school newspaper, The Criterion) over my years at Lincoln Junior High and Denfeld, the schools where Mike cut his journalistic teeth. But unlike Mike, my early fascination with reportage turned sour after a single year at UMD: I ended up ditching my love of writing to become a trial attorney; giving up my avocation for a vocation. Mike, on the other hand, knew what he wanted to do for his life’s work and stayed the course, garnering, as set forth above, more accolades and awards than any other Twin Ports reporter in history.
Others have said it better than I can. When Mike was on a story, whether supervising his young student reporters at KUWS, interviewing a subject himself, or sitting in as a panelist on “Final Edition”, a program dedicated to highlighting the news of the week through the eyes of local journalists and reporters, he was determined to get to the truth. He didn’t countenance the slight of hand responses and sound bites that we so often hear on the air and read in print as “answers” from public officials and politicians. He did not suffer fools lightly. His dogged dedication to the craft of truth-telling made him a throw-back to the golden age of radio journalism. His career mimicked, in this regard, the timeless characters portrayed on the nostalgic radio drama he created and shared with other Northland radio greats, Lou Martin, Ray Paulson, and Jack McKenna.
I had the pleasure of appearing on Mike’s news program a number of times to talk about my books. Mike was also present in the studio as a producer when I appeared on Duke Skorich’s show and on Henry Banks’s “People of Color”. The coverage he gave my books was invaluable to my success as a regional author. During these broadcasts, there were plenty of jokes and smiles to be had despite the serious nature of the work.
I always wondered about Mike’s health but I was not a close enough friend or acquaintance to pose questions about his life choices. Five years or so ago, I remember climbing the stairs with Mike in the Holden Fine Arts building as he led me towards the KUWS studio for an interview. I noted the physical struggle Mike had with a simple set of stairs and the experience concerned me so much that, when I got home that night, I mentioned Mike’s difficulty in negotiating the stairs to my wife. That he was, despite the obvious discomfort of the effort, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, was, we concluded a positive. In the end, it apparently wasn’t enough.
Here’s how far reaching Mike’s influence really was. A month ago, while out promoting my new novel, I found myself in Park Rapids, Minnesota where I bumped into a friend, Heidi Holtan, program manager of KAXE radio. Heidi invited me into the city armory where she and a crew were making ready for the Great Northern Radio Show, KAXE’s equivalent of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Inside the vaulted room, Heidi introduced me to Hibbing writer and blogger, Aaron Brown. I’d corresponded with Aaron about his book, Overburden, but never met him. Within minutes, the two of us were talking about his teacher and my fellow Denfeld alum, Mike Simonson. The impact Mike’s hard nosed instruction and consistent mentoring had on Aaron cannot be understated: Brown held Mike Simonson up as the exemplar of a journalist.
A few days after Mike’s passing, I read the Duluth News Tribune’s endorsement of Stewart Mills for the 8th District (Minnesota) Congressional seat. Something about the endorsement didn’t ring true. There, on the printed page, was a disclaimer of sorts, a small box that (paraphrasing) indicated the endorsement was made by “newspaper management” rather than by the paper’s editorial board. So, in essence, rather than having the two candidates appear, as all other candidates were requested to do, in front of the local editors of the paper, folks living, working, and writing in the district at issue, the Fargo, North Dakota owners of the paper made the endorsement, as we lawyers would say, suis sponte, on their own. That’s the sort of journalistic slight-of-hand that would have driven Mike Simonson to don his fedora, grab his pencil and note pad, and head for the door. He would not have let the paper hide behind their disclaimer. He would have gotten the story and made sure everyone within earshot knew the truth. That’s the man, the reporter, the legend that Duluth-Superior will sorely miss.
God bless you, Mike, from your students, your listeners, your family, and the folks who loved your work.
My wife’s Nissan floats on asphalt. A machine gun sky spits rain on the windshield as we drive east on Highway 13. We stop to use the restrooms at the convenience store in Port Wing. I can’t resist buying a slab of smoked salmon sitting in the freezer case. Back on the road, we share a bag of Cracker Jack. I sip lukewarm coffee from a steel travel mug and negotiate curves in the road.
“There’s the new Red Cliff Clinic I was reading about,” I remark as we pass the brand new health care facility that had been recently profiled in the Duluth News Tribune.
We slow for the town of Red Cliff, the heart of Ojibwe country on the South Shore, and pass a new casino hugging the lake.
“I don’t remember seeing that…”
“It’s been there a few years. You must have seen it before,” Rene’ replies.
I calculate the span of time since I was last in Bayfield. I haven’t been in the small tourist town, a quintessential Maine fishing village transplanted into the interior of the country, since I stopped selling books at the Bayfield Apple Festival four years ago. As we stop at the bottom of the hill leading into town to make the turn towards the school, where we’ll pay to park on an abandoned tennis court five blocks to the west of the Rittenhouse Inn, the brief moment of nostalgia and lament caused by not participating as a vendor is replaced by the realization that, for the most part, the time I spent trying to sell books to strangers was an exercise in diminishing returns. First, the economy tanked, meaning less sales because folks stopped spending their discretionary income because, well, they didn’t have any discretionary income. Then there was the weather. Increasingly, rain and snow and fog and cold ruined at least one, if not two, days of the three-day festival. And finally, the organizers of the event grew greedy. Booth prices for the rental of a 10’x10′ piece of asphalt went through the roof. Even with three days’ of pristine skies and huge crowds, I could never make enough money to justify paying the soaring rates for space at the festival. And so, along with the Blueberry and Harvest Moon Festivals in Ely, the Fall Fest in Duluth’s Chester Park, and Land of the Loon in Virginia, I stopped doing outdoor events. I put away my EZ-Up tent, anchors, and tarp, and walked away from such art and craft festivals forever.
Selling paper in the rain. How stupid.
I keep my thoughts to myself as Rene’ and I step into the milling crowd. She heads towards a clothing and gift store. I wander off to the funky used bookstore that once invited me to do a book signing during the middle of Apple Festival. After finding a used copy of Pigs in the novel section, and a few new copies of my other books for sale in the regional authors section of the bustling little store, I head back up the hill to find my wife. That’s when I noticed a new bookstore, Apostle Islands Booksellers, right on Rittenhouse. Given the steady decline and closure of independent bookstores across the country, the victim of Amazon’s convenience and instant gratification, I am surprised to find a well-stocked, packed-the-rafters-with patrons retail bookseller in a town of less than 500 people. And yet, there it is. I open the door and come in out of the cold, greeted by odors of fresh ink, coffee, and a mixture of colognes, perfumes, and humanity. I consider approaching the clerk manning the till and handing her one of my Cloquet River Press business cards.
No, we’re here as tourists.
As I mill about the store, I learn through the grapevine that internet service to the entire village is down, that all purchases in every store must be either by cash or check, the sort of old fashioned commerce that Amazon’s website would not recognize or understand.
Outside, I search for my wife. I can’t find her. So I meander through the thick crowd towards ManyPenny, where my booth stood for nearly a decade. I stand in the hesitant rain and stare at a sweatshirt vendor’s space, his tent occupying terrain that was once the annual, temporary home, of Cloquet River Press. As I lament the fact that cheap, imported clothing has replaced my words, I note the absence of music.
Pat and Donna aren’t here.
I befriended Ely singer/songwriter Pat Surface and his wife Donna the first year I was a vendor at Apple Fest. Every year I participated in the event I had the pleasure of listening to Pat’s wonderful tenor accompanied by his guitar and other musicians playing fiddle, mandolin, and bass. The silence is upsetting in that it signifies a finality of sorts. But it’s comforting to know that my choice, to pull away from the festival, mirrors another’s thinking: There’s satisfaction in knowing that I’m not the only one who threw in the towel.
I circle back and find Rene’. Of course, like any good lady shopper, she’s carrying a bag full of purchases. We decide on Gruenke’s, a funky old inn, tavern, and restaurant, for lunch. The internet remains inaccessible. It’s a good thing my wife tucked a check into her purse since my cash supply is limited and the ATMs strategically placed throughout the town have been rendered useless by the web’s failure.
Gruenke’s empties out despite the throng of hungry tourists searching for a good meal. Judith, the owner, closes the place for an hour to give her staff time to catch its collective breath and recharge for the dinner rush. We step outside to a cool but dry day, the sky puffy with rain but seemingly hesitant to spoil the festival. We watch members of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe compete in the Apple Dance. Partners hold an apple between their chins and follow the instructions of the caller. Native drums and singing fills the air. Two teenaged girls are declared the winners, having kept their apple in place throughout the ordeal.
Back on Rittenhouse, I listen to the Blue Canvas Orchestra play covers and original tunes with enthusiasm. A bride-to-be and one of her girfriends dance in front of the crowd, their courage likely fueled by beer and hard cider.
Rene’ shops a bit more and then, just before we leave, I fall victim to my obsessive nature.
“Let’s stop by the bookstore on our way out,” I suggest. “I’d like to leave my card, just in case they have a slot open for a signing when I’m coming through, when I have to go to Hancock later in the winter.”
My wife doesn’t complain. We enter the store. I chat with the owner. She says she knows my work and would love to have me come for an event at the store. I leave her my card. Whatever unsettled business I have with Bayfield dissipates as we exit the little bookstore. We head back up the hill intent on buying a bag of fresh apples to lug back to the car.
Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richard (2012. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292719644)
Before my now-departed law clerk, Rachel Bell, a bright young lawyer who graduated from the University of Texas Law School, gave me this biography of the last Democrat elected governor in the state of Texas, I had a vague recollection of Richards’s importance to the national political scene. Sadly, after plowing through this 440 page tome written by Texan and freelance journalist, Jan Reid, my understanding of Richards’s place in the history of national Liberal politics isn’t much more defined or focused. Beyond recounting tidbits of the late governor’s close relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton and a few other notable politicos of national stature (late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan for one), much of the storyline of this book concerns Texas political gossip and history; hardly the sort of knowledge I’d hoped to gain when Rachel handed me the biography a few months’ back.
That having been said, the strongest and most compelling feature of the book is that Reid takes us back to Ann’s wild and wooly days in Austin as a feminist Liberal, when Richards (along with her activist lawyer husband) occupied the far left edge of Democratic politics in the Lone Star State. Reid’s reportage of the early years, particularly Richards’s angst and internal turmoil over her place in America as a mother of small children seeking political advancement while battling alcoholism, is spot on. There’s no question that Reid has the chops to pull off a concise, compelling, and complete telling of Richards’s “activist housewife to national politician” story. But he doesn’t quite make the mark. Too often the author resorts to insider baseball, dropping personal asides from his own interactions with the governor or her staff or her family, or vignettes from long-past political encounters, into the narrative. These diversions rarely move the story forward.
Most troubling to me as an author of political biography (Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story) is the author’s insertion of “me” and “I” into what should be a cleanly wrought third-person exposition of the governor’s life and times. I took particular care to exclude myself from Rep. Willard Munger’s life story so as to preserve editorial and authorial distance from the subject matter despite my close personal ties with my uncle. Mr. Reid’s insistence on inserting his (and his wife’s) personal encounters with the governor into the greater story of Richards’s career was distracting and, quite frankly, reduced the credibility of the reporting for me.
This is not to say that the book doesn’t have its moments of clarity, humor, and relevance. The chronicling of Governor Ann Richards’s rise serves as a reminder that once, long before George W. Bush and Rick Perry, the people of Texas elected a smart, Liberal, forward-thinking, pro-choice woman as their leader. What is missing from the book, at the end of the day, are political observations from folks like President Clinton, Senator Clinton, Jim Hightower (and others who knew Ann and championed her causes and her career) is whether the Lone Star State’s changing demographic (soon to be a state where the majority of potential voters are of Hispanic descent) can sustain a state-wide victory for another Democratic candidate.
Overall, the book is a valuable resource for political junkies, Texas Democrats, and the folks who loved the governor’s feisty personality. But Reid’s insistence on inserting himself into the story and his emphasis of Richards’s importance to Texas politics (as opposed to her prominence in national Liberal circles) reduces the book’s scope and impact.
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
The Road Back to Sweetgrass by Linda LeGarde Grover (2014. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816692699)
Normally I’m up by 5:00am writing or managing my little press. This morning, images from Linda Grover’s latest novel bouncing around in my head like so many Indian legends and folk tales, I’m up at 4:00am. Way too early on a work day. But there it is. The power of great prose, or, as in the case of Grover’s previous book, The Dance Boots, and that of another Northland icon, Louis Jenkins, the power of poetry as prose, creates patterns and drumbeats whose echoes do not fade. The soft shuffle of deerskin against sand, the wind chattering through wild rice, the smell of frybread bubbling in lard, the angst of removal and betrayal, and the loss and the redemptive power of familial and romantic love are all here in this very slender novel centered around two endearing and universally appealing characters, Margie Robineau and Joseph (‘Zho’) Washington, and their able supporting cast. Written in a style and cadence that, for this waabishkiiwed (white man) replicates Native oral storytelling; sly and humor-filled, ironic and poignant, and non-linear as to time, in a manner that exchanges the first and third person without transition, excuse, or warning, Sweetgrass is a very different sort of prose from the equally powerful but much more straight forward style of Jim Northrup, another Ojibwe storyteller living in the Arrowhead Region of northeastern Minnesota. How well does Grover’s language translate from campfire to printed page? In this short excerpt, the author’s depiction of the sensuality exuded by Margie’s friend, Theresa, while cooking frybread, the reader is treated to a glimpse of Grover’s power as an elder relating an imagined familial history:
Theresa’s face was flushed and shiny with heat from the woodstove and from cooking; she had unbuttoned the top button of her blouse while she worked, and from the space between her breasts an almost invisible steam of Emeraude and perspiration mingled with the sweet Juicy Fruit scent of her breath and the warm, enticing scent of frybread to rise and float over the table.
As in many of Grover’s essays for the Budgeteer News, food and the preparation of meals play a major part in many of the scenes in Sweetgrass. Such snippets of ordinary human activity, tasks engaged in by all peoples, tie the exotic and foreign world of Native culture to experiences and situations non-Native readers can relate to. Attributes of the northern Minnesota landscape, the sights, the smells, the noises, the temperatures of outdoor activities such as snaring rabbits and ricing, buttress the authenticity of the ebb and flow of Grover’s non-linear narrative by inserting nature as a subdued yet omnipresent character in its own right.
Do not let the diminutive size of The Road Back to Sweetgrass lull you into a false assumption that this novel lacks the heft and weight to explore major cultural and historic issues. Within the confines of less than 200 pages, and without a heavy hand, Grover tackles; tribal allotments, casino gambling’s economic impact on tribal members, forced assimilation of Indian children into white culture, and the loss of Indian children to adoption. This last topic, one that plays out in the book as part of Dale Ann’s first person description of her rape and subsequent pregnancy, is a topic close to my own heart. For years, images of my brother David as a shaggy haired toddler standing on gray dirt in front of a ramshackle house in rural Becker County, have danced inside my head. I was only six years old when my parents adopted David, changing his name from David Paul to David John in honor of my maternal grandfather. As to what David’s Ojibwe name might have been, I have no clue because, over the intervening forty years, my parents insisted Dave was “Norwegian, 100 percent.” Turns out, he’s got a good quantum of Indian blood flowing in his veins. Turns out his father was a legendary Becker County Native American athlete. Reading Dale Ann’s account of her time spent “assimilating” through sexual predation and its aftermath made me wonder about the circumstances of my own brother’s conception, birth, and removal:
In signing I gave permission for the Indian Health Service to pay for the fallopian tubal ligation that had been done while I was still under anesthetic, which saved the county money, time, and the unpleasantness of dealing with a conscious young woman who might have regretted wishing that the baby that belonged to some happy mother was dead. Or, God forbid, have ever decided that she might wish to have another baby, a child of her own. Sometimes I had wished I had seen my baby, no, the baby who was never mine, just once. Later on I found out that some girls were allowed to do that, but I didn’t know to ask. I overheard one of the nurses telling another that there was a woman waiting for my baby on the condition it looked white. If I made her so happy, it must have looked white.
Despite tackling such weighty and difficult issues, the overall “feel” of the stories Grover shares with us leaves the reader believing in redemption, hope, and healing. My only criticism of this gem of a novel is that the ending makes us long to know what has become of Margie, the daughter, mother, and grandmother we love as one of our own by the end of the book. But I understand that this talented storyteller may be working on correcting that omission by gifting us yet again with her art.
5 stars out of 5.
Friday night after work. A long, long week in the court system trying to use only a computer (no paper files) to do my job. Arraignment week, five days of constant sitting and dealing with criminal defendants, has left my neck and back in knots. Physically, arraignment week is akin to an endurance sport. Add trying to learn our court system’s computer program’s digital imaging protocols (we’re moving to a paperless eCourt model) to the mix and you’ve got the makings of a melt down. But I made it through in one piece, an old dog learning new tricks, and, my blue Pacifica loaded with copies of my Finnish tomes, Suomalaiset and Sukulaiset, a change of clothes, and a ton of optimism, I head north on US Highway 2 on a mini book tour of Itasca and Hubbard Counties.
I settle into my chair in the mezzanine of the mall in Grand Rapids, my table and chair set up in front of Village Books. I’ve done nearly a dozen book signings at Village, soon to be the last independent bookstore on the Iron Range (though Piragis, the outfitting store in Ely still has books for sale, it has always been,and remains primarily a clothing and outdoor equipment store) since becoming a published author. Mike, the owner, and now Meade, his daughter, are always welcoming to regional authors. Tonight is no exception. The young clerk in charge welcomes me, buys me the traditional writerly cup of coffee, and I go to work. There are folks milling about; most of them patrons of the Chinese buffet across the way or teenagers attending the Magic tournament down the hall. My friends, Randy and Kathy McCarty show up. They’re a couple who has, on occasion, opened up their lovely home on Lake Pokegema for this itinerant author to spend the night. I’m not staying with them on this trip as Kathy has girlfriends in for the weekend. Randy buys a copy of Esther’s Race, a book he’s already read but lost somewhere along the way. We make plans for dinner and my friends and Kathy’s girlfriends depart.
I return to reading an article by Jim HIghtower critiquing the labor and business practices of Amazon.com. I do a lot of business with the online octopus. Out of necessity and a sense of survival, my books are for sale there in print and Kindle formats. And, because of the costs of printing, shipping, and procurement in the book business are so high, my backlist (older) titles are now printed by Amazon’s digital printing service, Create Space (CS). It’s not a decision I entered into lightly, feeding the beast, the online predator that has gobbled up hundreds of independent bookstores and an entire bookstore chain (Border’s) over the past decade. But a writer wants his or her words to be available and frankly, in the current marketplace of ideas, it makes, as my accountant friend Burce would say, “business sense” to print through CS. As I read Hightower’s words and a companion piece by The Reader, where local business owners are interviewed about the impact of Amazon on main street America, I find my stomach churning and my resolve fading.
Maybe I shouldn’t be feeding the beast.
I say goodnight to the young lady manning the store and wander off to dinner. I have a lively time conversing with the McCarty’s and their friends. The ladies buy me dinner because, as one of them says, “you’re entertaining”. I leave Randy the Amazon piece because I know he and Kathy (who works for Village Books) are interested in the travails of the book publishing world.
“You shouldn’t use Expedia,” the clerk at the hotel says as I switch my $94 room, the one I lined up on Expedia, a room which turned out to be a smoking room (didn’t know they existed in mostly smoke-free Minnesota) for a $134 non-smoking suite. “They don’t always tell you whether a room is smoking or not. Better to book directly with us.”
I nod and head towards sleep, chastised for the second time that evening for using an online merchant to bypass main street America.
The photo isn’t as clear as I’d like but if you look closely at the picture, you can see the eagle’s nest that caused me to stop on Highway 2 just outside of Cass Lake. My blue Pacifica purrs and gurgles while pulp trucks, campers, and Harleys roar past. I stare at the empty nest and consider why I am alone, on a beautiful Saturday morning, headed to Park Rapids. The photos taken, my lament cured, I put the old van in drive and head to the next bookstore.
Jen, the young lady in charge of Beagle’s Books and Bindery, and her mother, Sally, greet me as I walk into the cheerful store crammed to the ceiling with new and used books.
“You’re a bit early,” Sally says. “I was just going to clear a table and get you set up.
I decide to take a walk. It’s nearly eighty degrees outside and the sky is full to the brim with sun. I follow a sidewalk. Downtown Park Rapids is alive. Cars are crammed into every parking space due to a variety of events. The commercial section of the county seat of Hubbard County is dominated by the spire of a restored movie theater anchoring a host of vibrant, locally owned shops and restaurants. I see a woman struggling with a box loaded with T shirts and hoodies trying to open the door to the town’s armory. I step in and hold the door for her.
“Mark, what are you doing here?”
The struggling young woman is Heidi Holtan, program manager of KAXE radio in Grand Rapids and former host of “Real Good Words”, a radio show that once featured interviews with writers known and unknown. Randy McCarty told me that Heidi was in Park Rapids to host the Great Northern Radio Show, a locally produced effort that mimics a Prairie Home Companion. I explain I’m in town signing books. Heidi invites me in to meet Aaron Brown, another Minnesota author (Overburden) who I’ve exchanged emails with but never met. Turns out Aaron, who is co-hosting the event with Heidi, went to college with my oldest son Matt. Small world. The pair invite me to stay for the show but as much as I’d love to stay, I explain my wife is waiting patiently for me back in Duluth.
Settled in behind a table stacked with copies of Sukulaiset, Jen and I discuss the Hightower article. I sense she isn’t too happy to hear that the author she is hosting is using CS to print his older titles.
Bad form to promote such thinking while a guest at an independent bookstore.
In the end we reach a place of mutual understanding if not consensus. I sell some books to Hubbard County residents and leave signed copies of Sukulaiset for Beagle’s shelves.
The ride home across a country filled with lakes large and small, and across the Father of Waters, is uneventful. I arrive home, empty the van of my duffle and my books and walk into the house to give me wife a well deserved kiss.
Fresh off the presses, the latest issue of the New World Finn newspaper has a review of my latest book, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, written by Finnish American, historian, and former director of the Seaway Port Authority, Davis Helberg. You can find the complete review in the October/November issue at p. 11. But here’s a sampling of what Davis thought of the book:
As he did in Suomalaiset, Munger not only provides illuminating historical background, he also brings us into the minds and hearts of the central characters. And that cast of characters is compelling, to say the least…(W)e also get page turning tension as the book’s protagonists endure incredible hardship or tangle with inner demons or fall in (or out of) love or discover their own surprising strengths and weaknesses…Munger, who is not of Finnish ancestry, does a masterful job of capturing the essence of the Finnish character. It is also quite clear that he invested prodigious research into Finnish and Estonian history…
A preeminent contemporary writer, E.L. Doctorow, might just as well have been describing Munger’s latest book when he said, “The historian can tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”
That’s what I was aiming to do, folks, try to tell you what the turmoil and tension of Karelian Fever and the horrific nightmare of WW II felt like to ordinary Finns and Estonians. At least one person thinks I succeeded.
OK. The title to this blog is a bit of a misnomer. When one thinks of endless summer visions of June’s greening, July’s shimmering, and August’s oppressive sweltering come to mind. Well, that’s not quite what this summer has been up here in the Northland. We had an intolerably wet spring and early summer, the June rains and lack of light making our vegetable garden a whisper of what it could have or should have been. And July and August? Hardly ideal for growing edible things. Our carrots, potatoes, onions, raspberries, Russian berries, green beans and now, the sweet corn have done tolerably well. But the cucumbers, squash and pumpkins? Puny to non-existent. But for some reason, the late start to the growing season and the continued moderation of summer here along the banks of the Cloquet River has been a boon, an absolute godsend, to my wife’s flower gardens.
Beyond wheeling away an occasional load of debris from my wife’s constant weeding and tinkering in her flowery realms, I don’t contribute much in the way of labor to her efforts to beautify our place. Early on I helped a bit by moving rocks and topsoil. And whenever Rene’ hauls pea rock or landscaping materials home in her car, I help her unload. But to say that I’ve assisted Rene’ with the flower gardens would be to stretch the truth: the gardens and their ponds are my wife’s love and her creation. I’ve been mostly a bystander and naysayer bemoaning the fact that Rene’s gardens grow larger over time.
“I thought you were going to downsize” is a phrase I’ve muttered more than once as my wife sat on her plastic garden stool, pulling offending weeds, piling vegetative debris on my cleanly mown lawn.
Two summers ago, I contributed some actual labor to my wife’s beautification effort. When we moved into the new house, there were no shrubs or bushes of any kind surrounding our place at the top of a small rise located smack dab in the middle of a hay field. Rene’ went to work adding the flower gardens, her ponds, various shade trees, and an extensive rose garden. Over the years, the roses grew out of control until they became an ugly, angry mass of stalks and thorns. At my wife’s behest, I spent the better part of a weekend dismantling the landscape stones surrounding the rose garden so a local contractor could come in with a bobcat and dig out the offending plants. Then, again at my wife’s urging, I helped revise the plot into a line of shrubs surrounded by the same landscape stones. But beyond this singular effort, I haven’t had much to do with the flower gardens that surround our home with color during the height of summer.
Last July, a Japanese lilac gracing our front yard attracted hundreds of swallowtails to its flowers. The branches of the tall bush were crowded with fluttering yellow butterflies bent on sucking nectar
from the plant’s blossoms. But, despite this year’s endless summer, the plethora of swallowtails didn’t return this year. Oh, I spotted the occasional stray yellow butterfly flying around the place
but the great invasion of 2013 was not repeated. Also noticeably absent have been our bluebirds. For the past fifteen years, two pair of these colorful members of the thrush family have called wooden bird houses affixed to fence posts surrounding our vegetable garden their home. The birds were here, along with tree swallows (who also help themselves to our bird houses) in May. But the weather did them in. When I rebuilt the fence surrounding the vegetable garden earlier this summer, I found a clutch of abandoned bluebird eggs inside one of the birdhouses. I haven’t seen a bluebird or a swallow around the place since June. I’m unsure if the presence of flowers in Rene’s gardens into September makes up for the loss of the birds.
It’s 5:00am on a Wednesday. I’m sitting at the family computer, staring at early morning’s inky blackness, listening to rain patter against the steel siding of our house, as I type this piece. Every so often the wind-driven rain thrashes the windows of my writing space. There’s an end-of-the-summer sound to the storm. Maybe it’s just my imagination but it feels as if Rene’s flowers are about to fade.