Uprising A Novel by Dean Urdahl (2007. North Star Press. ISBN 978-0-87839-247-6)
I met Representative Urdahl at Hostfest in Minot this past fall. We manned tables across from each other in the Nordic festival’s bookstore as we hawked novels to strangers, and had many occasions to talk about kids, life, writing, and the travails of self-publishing. I found that Rep. Urdahl was an engaging man, whose prior career as a teacher and high school cross country coach was evidenced by the native patience displayed during our conversations. I’m normally very leery about trading copies of my novels with other self-published authors because I’m invariably disappointed. Not so this time. Here’s why.
First, the topic of Dean’s novel is of significant interest to me. My best selling books have all been historical fiction (The Legacy, Suomalaiset, and Sukulaiset). Back a decade or so ago, I too considered researching and writing a novel about the 1862 Dakota uprising. For those of you not steeped in Minnesota history, in 1862 the Sioux, who were confined on reservations near Mankato, rose in rebellion against their white neighbors. The cause of Little Crow’s War, as the conflict came to be known, was simple: Once again, the white man failed to abide by promises made in signed treaties, most importantly, the promise to pay the Indians an annual annuity that the Sioux depended upon to feed their families. Ultimately, I chose not to write a tale set against this tragedy and, given that Urdahl has done a credible job of bringing the story to life, I am glad I yielded this topic to him.
Secondly, my prose tends to be a hybrid of contemporary and literary styles that generally works to my advantage with readers. But if an author wants to reach the wider public, a more contemporary and less literary style sells books. Here, that’s exactly what Dean Urdahl has done. His writing, while crisp and fast paced, doesn’t hold any pretense of being literary and that, as I’ve said, is a sure fire way to engage the occasional reader. If one wants to educate the general public, the style chosen by Urdahl in Uprising hits the mark and makes for an easy, though accurate and thought provoking, read.
Urdahl handles the historical portions of the narrative with an even handed, genteel approach. Yes, the Sioux were mistreated and the white traders who often cheated, lied, and mislead their Indian neighbors did stand by, their granaries full of wheat and corn, watching women and children and tribal elders perish of starvation when promised annuity payments did not arrive from the federal government. There’s no question that, once a wandering band of young Indian men encountered a farmer and his family while hunting and that confrontation ended in murder, the events that unfolded thereafter, to include the deaths of over 800 white civilians, many of whom were helpless women and children, were indeed tragic for both parties. Urdahl doesn’t excuse the conduct of the beleaguered Sioux; he explains it and provides key historical details that bring the terror of the uprising to life:
The trap door to the cellar was open and, baby and all, she slipped and fell down the stairs, stifling her cries of fear and terror and pain. Meredith gripped her child tightly and tried to shield him from the fall as she rolled down the stairs and onto the packed earthen floor .
My major criticism of the book is that the author relies upon an invented subplot involving a fictional character, Rebel soldier Nathan Thomas (aka, Nathan Cates) to carry the story arc. In Urdahl’s fictional retelling of the tale, Thomas is sent by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to Minnesota as an undercover agent to rile up the Sioux in hopes of opening up a distraction while General Lee invades Maryland. At first, this addition of a fictional plot and a created character infuriated me to the point where I wasn’t going to continue reading. But, because the author’s prose was compelling and the history was of interest, I soldiered on (pun intended). I’m glad I did. While the ending seemed a bit abrupt, and the eventual “outing” of Thomas and its attendant consequences were a tad implausible, overall, the story was well crafted, the dialogue believable, and the novel, one that I would recommend to anyone interested in this unique piece of Minnesota history.
4 stars out of 5. Not the great American novel but worth a read.
CRP is trying a new approach and we want readers to be part of the experiment. So here’s the deal: Mark’s latest novel, Boomtown, a legal thriller set in Ely and Grand Marais, is ready for a professional edit. To get there, CRP is asking that readers pre-order copies of the book. Pre-orders will be shipped on 08/01/2016 but Boomtown will not be released in trade paperback format to bookstores and online retailers until after 09/01/2016. So, if you want to help get this project to the finish line, simply click on “Buy Books Direct” and order your copy or copies today. You can request that the book or books be signed or personalized when ordering. You will be billed automatically and your order archived for fulfillment beginning 08/01/2016.
Here’s a bit about the book:
An explosion rocks the site of a new copper/nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. Two young workers are dead. The Lindahl family turns to trial attorney Dee Dee Hernesman for justice. A shadowy eco-terroist lurks in the background as Hernesman and Sheriff Deb Slater investigate the tragedy. Are the deaths the result of accident or murder? Equal parts legal thriller and literary fiction, this novel reprises many characters from Munger’s prior novels. A page turner of a tale.
Munger writes so well, not only because of his imagination and literary skill, but because he knows who and what he is talking about. Richard Pemberton, trial lawyer and former President MSBA.
You can read the first chapter of the book here:
Questions? Email Mark at: email@example.com
And thanks for reading!
The past twelve months have been hard. Good friends lost battles with insidious diseases or were struck down in the prime of life through no fault of their own. Another close friend slipped further into dementia. Two family dogs passed on. For the first time in my 17 years as a judge, the job, the day-to-day grind, is wearing me down. Rene’ went through foot surgery and then, after devoting 16 years to helping kids as a mental health therapist in the public schools, after 12 years working in Proctor, saw her position with Bayview Elementary eliminated with not so much as a “thank you.” I found out my left knee is bone on bone, requiring at the very least, a partial knee replacement. I discovered black mold behind the walls of our garage. Water from the garage also leaked into the house and damaged drywall in the basement. The hot tub sprang a leak and, once the leak was repaired, the motor died. OK. I’ll grant you that last item doesn’t really deserve to be on the list. But the cumulative effect of it all is what’s so hard to wrangle, to come to grips with. I’ve told Rene’ that, after inventoring the woes of the past twelve months, this year has been absent joy. But that’s not entirely true.
There have been glorious moments I’ve experienced over the past year. Like the birth of Avery, our second grandchild, Jack’s graduation from Army basic training, Rene’ being hired as a Guardian ad Litem by the State of Minnesota, time spent with my boys hunting and fishing, holidays and other occasions spent with good friends and extended family, dates with my sweetie, trips to Montana and Florida and North Dakota and South Carolina, and the announcement of another grandchild on the way. However, behind the good times and moments of expressive joy, there still lurks a foreboding, a darkness that, well, for the first time in my life, I have felt incapable of overcoming. I know the funk I’m experiencing is what everyone who lives to my age encounters: a feeling of being “in between” the past (for those of us whose parents, thankfully, remain in good health), the present (as manifested by our children), and the future (as engendered in our grandchildren). I get it. I get that things change and I must endeavor to change as well. The first step, I think, is to vow, bad knee or not, to engage in physical activity, to set the pulse a racing, the breathing a gasping, and the muscles to aching. When I’m active, while the black clouds don’t disappear, they do seem far distant and not nearly as ominous as when I sit moping in my easy chair, staring out a window. And so, with our young Labrador Kena leading the way, I’ve made the conscious effort to get off my tired old duff, dress for the below zero days we’re experiencing, wax up my skis, and lose myself in forest.
“Kena is a good girl”. That’s a phrase my son Chris invokes when talking about our dogs. Chris is spot on when it comes to our energetic two-year old pup. Oh, she’s not perfect. Yesterday, she managed to get hold of Rene’s stocking cap and destroy the tassel. But such incidents are few and far between. And Kena loves the trail, loves romping ahead of her human companion as we make our way through the aspen, maple, balsam, birch, and pine woods surrounding our house. This time of year, with the sun bright, the mercury below zero, and the air as still as a deep freeze, there’s not much wildlife to see. But on one of our recent treks, a ruffed grouse, concealed beneath snow, burst into the sunshine as we passed its hiding place. Kena, who has a pretty good nose, didn’t have a clue. The explosion of wings set my heart to racing but barely garnered a glance from the Lab. Also, despite an abundance of whitetails around our place, I rarely see deer out and about in such cold and, on our most recent below-zero ski, even their tracks proved scarce.
There’s a flock of Goldeneyes that, like clockwork, arrives on the Cloquet River in front of our house every November. The ducks time their descent from Canada to coincide with the expiration of waterfowl hunting. I have no idea how Manitoba ducks know when the season ends, but they do! Sometimes, as Kena and I make our way onto the stretch of ski trail that hugs the east bank of the river, twenty or so Goldeneyes will rise as one, whistling as they depart. Then too, a resident pair of bald eagles will often soar above the river, searching diligently for fish, their feathered majesties unaffected by cold. But on these January treks, it’s usually just Kena and me. And it’s while poling and gliding and huffing and puffing over new snow that I catalog the losses and the gains of the past year, my OCD mind creating a ledger of the good and the bad, an internal balance sheet that, in the end, favors the positive.
What do folks who live in town do when the weight of life, the passing of time and friends and family, and creeping despondency invade their spirits? I’m not certain. But I hope they have some place, like the trails behind my house on the Cloquet, where they can find renewal. Maybe its a city park or a local skating rink or a state ski trail or the slopes of Spirit Mountain or Mont du Lac or Lutsen or their church or mosque or synagogue or the public library that allows them to rekindle the flame. One thing is for certain: Life doesn’t get easier. Winter in Minnesota and the attendant seasonal malaise don’t help. But despite it all, there’s a chance for all of us to start anew, to forge ahead, putting one foot ahead of the other. I’m working on it. I hope you are too.
Simon’s Night (including Simon’s Night Journal) by Jon Hassler, edited by Joseph Plut. (2013. Nodin Press. ISBN 978-1-9356666-53-0)
Jon Hassler. My wife’s favorite author. A Minnesota original. I’ve met and spoken to Hassler’s friend and former colleague, Joseph Plut, and reviewed Plut’s extensive conversational memoir, Conversations with Jon Hassler, over the years. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time chatting with the owner of Nodin Press, the publisher of this edition of an early Hassler novel. So, there’s both a familial and a personal interest behind my reading Simon’s Night, which, at 256 pages, is not one of this author’s longer or more involved works. Putting aside my ties to the Fredenberg Chapter of the Jon Hassler Fan Club (membership: one, my wife), and my personal relationship (meager at best) with the book’s publisher and editor, I have come to the conclusion that this unique combination of novel and authorial journal/memoir is a winner.
First, the novel itself.
Simon Shea is an old man, a college professor, who is suffering memory lapses and decides, without medical confirmation, that he’s in the throes of dementia and in urgent need of round-the-clock care. He rents a room in a local boarding house for oldsters after he nearly burns down his riverside cottage outside mythical Ithaca Mills, Minnesota; the sort of stereotypical town in the western hills and river country of Minnesota that Hassler knew like the back of his hand. Simon’s time at Norman House, where he encounters an assemblage of old folks not unlike the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (featuring, coincidentally, a big Indian bent upon shooting one last goose for dinner) includes memorable dialogue, comedic scenes, an engaging backstory, and ample ruminations by Simon Shea on his marriage to his wife, Barbara. Barbara. Maybe the only real difficulty I had with the book’s plot is the notion that, despite thirty years of separation from each other, Simon and Barbara remain married. They live separate lives; Shea in Minnesota, Barbara in Texas, have only sporadic contact, and yet, due to Shea’s Catholic roots, never divorce. There is the obligatory affair; Simon beds a twenty-something former student in Ireland where both end up on vacation; but, despite time, distance, age, and this indiscretion, Simon and Barbara’s connection to each other perseveres. I wasn’t completely sold as to this aspect of the plot, though I will concede it’s possible. Plausible? I’ll leave that determination for the reader.
Like all Hassler novels, there are humorous twists and scenes, religious digressions, and a slow, meandering story arc that eventually finds conclusion. If you’re looking for things blowing up, nubile vixens being bedded, or international intrigue, this book won’t do it for you. But if you enjoy methodical, richly constructed prose with a bit of Irish wit, Simon’s Night won’t disappoint.
Perhaps more valuable to me as an author is Simon’s Night Journal. Editor Plut has assembled over 100 pages of letters written by Hassler to Dick Brook, one of Hassler’s lifelong friends, all of which have direct ties to Hassler’s writing of Simon’s Night. Just as the title of this review suggests, the author’s letters to Brook (along with a few other notes scribbled to friends, his agent, and former students) allow readers into the inner sanctum, indeed, into the author’s mind, as he works on the book from early gestation to publication. We are privileged to listen in as the author reveals his struggles with writer’s block, character delineation, and the writing process. We, the readers, are along for the ride: from the lows, as when Hassler believes he may need to trash the entire project, to the highs, when he has not one but two novels-including Simon’s Night-being selected for publication in the same year. Plut has done a fine job editing out the extraneous and preserving the intimate. I was enthralled by the exposition of Hassler’s deepest fears and ambitions as a writer and would highly recommend that this volume, novel included, be utilized in college writing courses. An excellent combination full of teachable moments.
Novel: 4 stars out of 5. Journal: 4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A notable and well-conceived idea!
Waverly’s Universe by Jim Trainor (2012. Up North Press. ISBN 9780615709215)
Sorry, Rev. Trainor, but this is the weakest of the three books of yours I’ve read. There. That’s as plain as I can make it.
My friend Vicky gave me Trainor’s books as gifts a few years back. I previously read and reviewed Grasp, a nonfiction book examining faith and science (4 stars) and The Sand People, a contemporary Christian relationship novel (3 and 1/2 stars). It was clear to me after reviewing those books, and it’s clear to me now, that Trainor, who is both a scientist and an Episcopal priest, is a man of deep thought and spiritual belief. He is also a fair narrator when it comes to critically examining present-day issues and a decent nonfiction writer. But he is extremely limited as a storyteller. These observational points were reinforced in Waverly.
Josh Waverly, a physicist who works for a corporate laboratory in New Mexico, is a shallow imitation of his father, a world famous scientist whose expertise was parallel universes. Through a fairly incredible set of circumstances, the single and nerdy Josh is thrown together with an exotic and beautiful young Hispanic woman, Evangelina Gomez, who, we learn, has two very bad men after her. The bad guys (I’ll use a term that fits the level of the author’s plot and character development here) end up trying to kill not only Evangelina, but Josh, and Evangelina’s young daughter as Trainor tries his hand at a unique genre: the Christian action thriller. Reverend Trainor writes confidently and with purpose when he examines the inner lives, feelings, and motivations of the book’s protagonists but he is far less adept at dialogue, action, and plot. In a nutshell, had the author worked the story of the star-crossed lovers into a contemporary Christian novel akin to The Sand People, perhaps this effort would be more compelling. But this book was printed a year before The Sand People and presumably written before that work, meaning that Waverly evinces less polish and literary merit than its successor.
In the end, I think Reverend Trainor has much to say about science, faith, and human relationships. I’m just not certain that his vehicle for expression should be fiction. Jim Trainor did a fine job conveying a message in Grasp. Nonfiction seems to be his strength and I’d recommend that he continue to explore that medium and leave fiction to less linear writers.
3 stars out of 5. Readable but not compelling.
Christianity: Endangered or Extinct? by Rodger Cragun and Thomas Kessler (2014. Outskirts Press. ISBN 978-1-4787-2082-9)
Just as he did in his solo effort, The Ultimate Heresy, theologian Cragun takes on modern Christianity with a fervor and resolve in this new work, written in collaboration with former Franciscan monk Kessler, that invokes the passion of Christ. Whereas, Heresy shares the philosophical and spiritual complexity of this new volume in terms of scholarship, being formed around a simple idea or truth, that The Word referenced in New Testament scripture is the person of Jesus Christ, not the words written in Biblical passages, here Cragun and Kessler attempt to chart the history of early Christianity with an eye towards debunking much of what we know and believe to be the tenets of the faith.
Beginning with an examination of early church leaders like Marcion, the Gnostics, Tertullian, and the Montantist women (Quintilla and Priscilla), the authors chart a course of discourse that strips away the Greek and Roman philosophy grafted onto Christ’s truths by early, institutionally oriented clerics. The problem, according to the authors, is that the humble origins of one of the world’s great faiths became integrated into the secular fabric of empire, specifically the Roman Empire. It is this usurping of Jesus’ core values (followed to a large extent by the Montanists who were labeled heretics by Rome) that Cragun and Kessler argue has been the downfall of a true and complete understanding of Christ’s teachings and message. And they lay blame for the loss of Jesus’ original intent squarely at the feet of Rome.
This is not an easy book to read. And, truth be told, the historical documentation relied upon as scholarly support for the authors’ main premise is based upon bits and pieces of letters, diary entries, lost scripture, third and fourth hand accounts, and the like; slender evidence to be sure as proof of such a bold and brazen argument. There is much here that will likely cause devote Roman Catholics and mainstream Protestants to toss the book across the room. And yet, there is a ring of truth to what the authors postulate.
My main criticisms of Endangered is that the authors are attempting to simplify complex, historical and religious perspectives for consumption by non-theologians. Cragun and Kessler are only partly successful in doing so. The language and reasoning of Endangered doesn’t quite level the playing field so that ordinary, non-Seminary trained eyes and minds can always understand the points being raised. That’s criticism number one: the prose never quite becomes basic enough for a lay reader to easily grasp the gist of the authorial argument. Addtionally, the last section of the book, in which the authors attempt to link the the Roman Catholic Church’s present day sexual scandal to the branding of Marcion and other early church leaders as heretics, feels forced. The contention that the early stifling of dissent within Christianity somehow caused the present, systemic sexual dysfunction within the Catholic Church, coming late in the book and seemingly out of nowhere, doesn’t really add to the reader’s understanding of the authors’ main point: That the institutionalization of Christianity is a far cry from the egalitarian words and intentions of Jesus.
This is a worthy read for anyone interested in learning something about the early Christian faith as reconstructed by the authors. Projected as the first in a series of the People’s History of Christianity, I will indeed read the next installment despite the book’s shortcomings.
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
It is indeed too damn nice. We’re stalking pheasants on the prairie outside Ashley, North Dakota and the sun is high, the air still, and the honking of geese, cranking of sandhills, and quacking of ducks in migration creates a cacophony of noise. I have come to North Dakota on my annual hunting trip with my 88 year old father Harry, my sons Matt, Chris, and Jack, and Matt’s high school friend, Reid Amborn, to escape the worries and troubles of the courtroom and my unproductivity as a real estate novelist. We’re here, occupying a house in downtown Ashley as our base of operations, for what I believe is my tenth year on the Great Plains chasing ringnecks. Matt did yeoman’s work reserving the house, creating a menu, and buying supplies. But because someone else had rented the house for the non-resident opener, we’re here a week later than usual. As a consequence, I packed winter clothing, knowing full well from past trips that winter can roar into Ashley with brutal surprise. Our Eagle Scout preparedness (Reid is also an Eagle) turns out to be mostly overreaction. The weather is more like May than November.
We have, for three years, settled into a routine of hunting CRP land; land set aside by private owners under various federal and state conservation programs to allow hunters access to native grassland, bottomland, treelines, and sloughs. But, like so many things in America today, the opportunity to hunt CRP is diminishing. Corn prices, escalated by the demand for ethanol, have turned many CRP plots into cornfields. You can’t blame farmers. If a landowner can make more money planting crops than leaving his or her land idle for public use, how is that his or her fault? As we start our our first day hunting (missing sunrise, our appointed starting time by a good hour), we walk familiar land, a large plot of CRP that’s harbored birds in the past. Matt’s rusty red Labrador, Lexie, and Jack’s little two-year old black Lab, Kena, work well together, weaving in and out of the tall prairie grass and brush. We flush a hen or two but no shootable roosters as we make our way towards open water where rafts of waterfowl, including several thousand snow geese, float. The geese are safe from us. We aren’t hunting waterfowl, only pheasants and partridge and grouse. As we work a section of lowland, cattails slapping our faces, the dogs pushing through chin high cover, pheasants, including a few roosters, scatter before us, catching us unaware. The shots we throw after the birds are ineffective. We push on, following the fleeing pheasants towards water’s edge.
“Rooster!” A big emerald and scarlet headed male jumps up. Shots echo. The bird flies on. Chris takes one last shot in desperation and the bird tumbles to the ground. The dogs bolt towards the downed bird and arrive simultaneously at the stricken rooster. “Kena!” Jack shouts, calling his dog off the bird. Lexie retrieves the pheasant and delivers it to Matt.
We stop for lunch, our shirts wringing wet, our long johns soaked, meeting up with my dad who’s been driving around in Chris’s Nissan Xterra scouting out
potential hunting spots. I sense my old man is frustrated by age and his inability to join us in the field. He has the gumption to do it all right. Just not the legs or endurance. I try to cut him some slack as he makes suggestions of places to hunt, places we’ve either scouted as a group and decided against or driven past and deemed unlikely prospects. Still, we humor him and, after lunch, try a couple of the places he’s viewed. We see few birds, mostly hens, and shoot none.
Days two and three in the field aren’t much better. Weary after tromping through swamp, brush, grass, and cattails eight hours a day, I’m pretty depressed, as is Chris, about the whole experience. “I don’t know that it’s worth it to come back to Ashley,” Chris laments. I tend to agree with the sentiment but, having tried my hand at finding other places in North Dakota to hunt and having failed at the task, I offer no ready remedies for our misery. At least, given Matt’s superior abilities as a quartermaster and chef, we eat well. After three days of hunting, we have two birds, both shot by Christian.
Day four. The weather changes. It’s cold, cloudy, and windy. The fog is so thick at sunrise, well, there isn’t one. The sky threatens rain, sleet, or snow.
I’ve fired four shots at fleeing roosters in three days. I’ve missed some easy ones. I even double-clutched once, missing a golden opportunity to bag a resplendent rooster that burst out of sawgrass just a few feet in front of me as we worked a big piece of CRP near Hague, a tiny hamlet forty miles east of Ashley. Kena was ahead of me, sniffling thick cover, her constant grunting a reminder of another Lab I once owned. Then, I lost sight of the dog. Only Kena’s rigid tail was visible. I should have known the dog was on point, that she had her nose up against the butt end of a pheasant that had decided, unlike most of the birds we encountered, to sit tight. When a big, beautiful rooster busted out of the cattails all I could do was marvel at the creature as it flew away. I didn’t shoot. I didn’t call out “Rooster” so someone else could take the bird. I simply stood silent, ineffective and stunned.
On Day four, words are exchanged between father and son concerning whether or not a location scouted by my old man is worthy of consideration. As Chris drives alongside a fence line scouting terrain rolling from hillside to marsh, we see birds, hens and roosters kicking out of the grass, gliding towards thicker cover. We stop and decide to try Grandpa’s spot. We are not disappointed.
As noted, Chris is the only hunter who’s hit birds up to this point in the story. Two birds in fact. His second rooster had dropped like a stone but started running when it hit the ground. Kena was on that bird and scooped it up before the rooster had a chance to hide. With the bird clawing and flapping in the young pup’s mouth, the young Lab danced her way back to me, rooster intact, her trainer proud that hours of training had paid off.
The tract Harry suggests turns out to be loaded with pheasants. A big rooster gets up in front of Reid. He fires and misses. But instead of heading over the hill, the bird beats a path into the gauntlet. Matt fires. A miss. Jack fires. A miss. Chris unloads. The bird flies on. By the time the rooster passes me, it’s a forty yards out. I fire once. The rooster doesn’t crumple but glides headfirst into the side of a distant hill. There’s something about the landing that makes me think I got lucky.
“I think that bird’s hit.”
“We can check for it on the way back,” Chris replies with lack of enthusiasm. “We’ll work that hillside into the wind.”
Another rooster gets up. Again, it’s a long shot. Again my 12 gauge barks. Twice. The first shot misses. The second one doesn’t. Lexie is on the bird and retrieves it. The bird is stone dead. I let out a whoop. I’m unable to control my joy after three and half days of being snake bitten. Jack takes exception to my display. Words are said. Tempers flare. Jack is ready to join Grandpa Harry in the car. Things get smoothed over and we walk on.
“What the hell?” Chris says as Kena shoves her nose into thick grass right beneath Chris’s feet.
The dog pulls out the rooster I’d hit from across the valley. It’s stone dead, likely due to a single lucky pellet to the head that caused it to glide on pheasant auto-pilot.
“Good girl,” Chris says, admiring the bird as Kena holds the rooster in her mouth. Chris puts the bird in my game pouch.
We cover the shoreline of the big lake Harry thought would hold birds. I hit another rooster rising out of thick cattails. After ten minutes of Kena chasing the wounded bird through impassable cover, I’m ready to give up when she trots back to me with a wing shot rooster in her mouth. I wring the bird’s neck. I have my limit. I am redeemed.
Reid, Matt, and Jack all hit birds. We lose a couple of roosters that appeared to be dead in flight. The pheasants hit the ground running and disappear in cover. Lexie limps along, her heart in the game but her body saying, “Put me in the kennel.” Matt does just that. Kena bounds on. The discord between Grandpa and me and Jack and me has settled. Jack and I are teased when we engage in what Jack calls a “bro hug”. As dusk approaches, Reid sets his phone to sound an alarm at sunset. We find a beautiful piece of land; a big marsh at the bottom of a steep hill surrounded by harvested cropland. We walk a fence line. Hens erupt. We see no roosters. Kena retrieves a dead rooser that another hunting party shot. The Lab is unwilling to slow down. She locks up on a clump of grass surrounded by dry mud. The patch of grass is no bigger than a loaf of bread. Kena holds point, one leg in the air in the classic pose, her tail straight and rigid.
The dog bounds forward. A hen busts out of hiding.
“Good girl, Kena.”
As the clock inches towards 5:13, Harry turns on the headlights of Chris’s SUV. He clearly believes we’re hunting illegally. We’re not. Reid’s watch will tell us when it’s time to stop. A big rooster explodes next to Jack. The bird flies over an oily puddle of marsh water. It’s a good sixty yards out when Jack shoots. The rooster tumbles and starts to run.
“Get the bird!” Jack yells.
Kena is following a rooster Chris missed but darts back towards Jack when she hears the command.
“Where’d it go down?” I ask.
“To your right,” Jack says.
I walk into ugly scum up to my shins. My newly waterproofed hunting boots stay dry but my long johns wick water. Kena can’t find the bird.
“Straight ahead,” Jack calls out.
“”5:13,” Reid announces. Hunters unload guns. I’m knee deep in quagmire. Kena snuffles. With daylight waning, I finally spy the bird: only its head and beak protrude from the cesspool I’m walking through. The rooster blinks as we make eye contact.
“Get the bird!”
The Lab shoves her head into the water and emerges with a ringneck. I take the rooster from the dog and hold it aloft.
“Better thank dad,” Matt says to Jack. “He saved your bird.”
“Thanks,” Jack says flatly as I tuck the rooster into his game pouch.
In the end, we down ten birds over our four days. Not a great hunt but one, because it marks Kena’s coronation as a diligent hunter and retriever, that’s memorable nonetheless.
“I think we need to reconsider giving up on Ashley,” I say to Chris as we drive back to the little frame house in town.
“Maybe,” is his only reply.
Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke (2014. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4767-1079-2.
I read Burke once before. It was so long ago, my review of his novel set in Montana, Bitterroot, isn’t archived on this blog but on Amazon.com under that title. I gave the book two stars out of five. Maybe a bit harsh, in retrospect. Maybe not. So when I saw this title and Burke’s work profiled in Poets and Writers magazine, I wasn’t immediately given to charity. I mean, Burke is a well established, flourishing icon of American letters. He doesn’t really need me to buy a book to fund his writing. But then, remembering back to my lack of enthusiasm for that earlier effort, I thought the guy deserved a second chance. So I ordered the book online (sorry Fitger’s) and, when it arrived via the mail a few days later, I placed it dutifully on my “to read” stack in my writing studio. Enough history. On to the words.
Weldon Holland’s beginnings on the dusty plains of Texas, raised by his mother and his Texas Ranger grandfather, are as colorful as a Western sunset. The running imagery of young Weldon shooting at Bonnie and Clyde’s getaway car with his grandfather’s .44 Colt as the 1932 Chevrolet Confederate roars off the Holland ranch, weaves its way through the tale, linking Weldon’s past with his future. We follow the young Texan into the Battle of the Bulge where he meets an antisemitic soldier and future business partner, Hershel Pine. Hershel seems ill suited to partner up with the educated, morally upright Weldon. But the pair find a survivor of a Nazi death camp as they stumble their way back to Allied lines, a young Spanish woman, Rosita Lowenstein, a Jew, whose appearance in the story changes Pine’s opinion of Jews, and whose beauty infatuates Holland. Back in the States, having survived combat and all its terror and deprivations, Holland and Pine go into the oil pipeline business only to find that their wartime service to their country doesn’t add up to a thimbleful of spit to the men and women who hold the reigns of power in the Lonestar state. There is much intrigue, most of it believable and well written, with a few obligatory nipples and climaxes thrown in along the way; but, for the most part, Burke’s storytelling and writing are spot on. I found myself reading the last 100 pages at 4:00am one weekday morning, compelled to complete Weldon and Rosita’s frantic journey as evil closes in, as all hope seems lost.
This is literary fiction for men. That’s the sum and substance of Burke’s writing style and, given so few men read fiction, let alone literary fiction, it’s a good thing American letters has an author as talented as James Burke to set pen to paper:
I have always believed that the American West, like Hollywood, is a magical place and the biggest stage on earth. I also believe it haunted by the spirits of Indians, outlaws, Jesuit missionaries, drovers, gunmen, conquistadors, bindle stiffs (hobos), Chinese and Irish gandy dancers (railroaders), whiskey traders, temperance leaguers, gold panners, buffalo hunters, fur trappers, prostitutes, and insane people of every stripe, maybe all of them living out their lives simultaneously in our midst.
My only real criticism is that the Bonnie and Clyde connection, including a surprise revelation about that Chevy Confederate towards the tale’s conclusion, seems a bit forced and unbelievable in the context of the larger plot. But the ending is masterful and well worth the gritty, harrowing, testosterone driven trip.
4 and 1/2 stars. Read this instead of Bitterroot!
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015. Harper. ISBN 9780062409850)
A confession. I didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird as a teenager, as part of my sophomore English class like so many white American kids did. I didn’t dissect Lee’s monumentally successful and universally beloved first novel in my college English courses. And, up until I started teaching Paralegalism and Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Superior a few years back, well into my late 50’s, I hadn’t watched the Academy Award winning film (Winner of Best Actor: Gregory Peck; Best Adapted Screenplay; and Best Art Direction; Nominated but did not win for Best Picture, Best Actress (Mary Badham as Scout), Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Score). It wasn’t until I was at a friend’s cabin, enjoying the summer sun in a hammock strung between two oaks next to a Minnesota lake that I read the book. That’s not true. I devoured the novel in one day! It was one of those stories that grips your gut and twists you in knots, compelling you to race through the pages so as to relieve the anxiety of not knowing how it ends. The movie, of course, is so true, so accurate to the characters and world Lee created with her prose, it is one of the greatest lawyer-driven films of all time, if not simply one of the greatest films of all time. So, as a latecomer to Lee’s original masterpiece (and of course, like everyone else, curious as to just how much Truman Capote’s hand is on its pages), when I heard that another manuscript written by Lee, an earlier rendition of Atticus and Jean Louise Finch and the town of Maycomb had been discovered hidden away in some nook or cranny, well, like a teenage boy drawn to a Playboy centerfold, I just had to get a copy and read Go Set a Watchman.
Let me be perfectly clear. There is so much wrong with this book, in terms of consistency of character, plausibility, dangling plot architecture, and dialogue that, if it didn’t have Miss Lee’s name on the cover, it would have never seen the light of day. This is not to say that Miss Lee doesn’t understand the mechanics of writing. She is certainly able to string words into sentences into paragraphs into pages into chapters. But the sum total of the work the author expended to transpose her thoughts to words on paper should have remained under lock and key regardless of its impact upon her authorial legacy. Replace the name “Harper Lee”, embossed across the cover of this book with the name “Mark Munger” and the writer of this critique would be hard pressed to sell ten copies of this long-winded diatribe about racial relations in the Deep South on the heels of the United States Supreme Court’s iconic desegregation decision in Brown v. The Board of Education. The fact is nothing much, other than dialogue between Jean Louis (formerly known as Scout) and a small cast of characters, really happens in this book. Oh, there’s the inkling of a plot: A black man accidentally runs over and kills a white man with a car. Atticus, the prototype American idealist and defender of the downtrodden in To Kill a Mockingbird is retained to represent the defendant. The fact that Atticus takes on the defense not, as in the original Lee effort, to ensure that a black man has a decent lawyer handling his case in a search for truth and justice, but merely to claim, after the driver is invariably convicted of manslaughter, that justice was served because a black man had a fair trial, is disquieting. The fact that the manslaughter subplot disappears after being introduced and nary another word is said about the case, the defendant, or the end result is a major defect in storytelling.
One could go on and on about the nonsensical hypothesis advanced by this tale: the complete change of the leopard’s (Atticus’s) spots. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee presents the world with an honest lawyer, a man of integrity, a defender of what is right in the face of massively unfair prejudice. With the wave of her magical pen, Lee reveals that Atticus Finch was never the hero we all supposed, but is instead, a card carrying member of the Klan and that, due to the Brown decision, Finch’s native racism and disdain for those of dark skin compels him to join a citizen’s committee hell bent on keeping the racial status quo in bucolic Maycomb. In short, Lee trashes an icon of American literature without any plausibility in the story or character development. I should be kinder: I understand that Miss Lee isn’t of sound mind, or at least, of agile mind at the advanced age of 89. There is much dispute as to whether she ever intended this piece of journalist scribbling to see the printing press. (See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harper_Lee ). I tend to believe that Miss Lee, if this indeed is the forerunner to her seminal novel, would have preferred this story to have remained in her drawer with her delicates and stockings!
I so wanted to write a review that concluded that this supposedly earlier look (in terms of when it was written) at Atticus and Scout, while a bit rough around the edges, was a worthwhile read for lovers of Lee’s masterpiece if only to explore the writerly process of an well respected writer. But there’s so much wrong with this book, so much in this tale that is at odds with what To Kill a Mockingbird has become in American cultural history, I would highly recommend that others not waste their time on Go Set a Watchman as I have. Hold on to the Atticus Finch you know and love. He’s a better man than the jerk portrayed in this novel.
2 stars out of 5. Save your money!
Hillsider: Snapshots of a Curious Political Journey by Don Ness (2015. Hillside Publishing. ISBN 9780692490129)
Political memoir can be a tricky thing to pull off. Oft times, the author, who also happens to be the subject of the writing, lets his or her ego skew the accuracy of the reportage. I’ve dipped my pen in the ink of memoir on occasion (my collection of essays Black Water is essentially memoir) but I don’t claim to be an expert in the genre. Still, as an avid reader of just about every sort of fiction and non-fiction tome that comes along, I think I have enough readerly expertise to comment on autobiographical work. Here’s what I have to say about this coffee table sized collection: It rocks. From page 1 to page 279, the out going mayor of Duluth, my hometown, has written a quirky, engaging, prose poem to the city on the lake and has managed to, in words, poetry, cartoons, and stunning photography, convey his personal and political vision of where Duluth was and where it might be headed.
For those of you unfamiliar with Duluth’s recent past, at the time Don Ness was learning to walk, the city, a once proud industrial, shipping, and railroad powerhouse, began a precipitous and calamitous decline. Projected at the beginning of the 20th century to rival Chicago as a manufacturing capital and clearing house for commodities such as grain and iron ore, and often called the San Francisco of the Midwest due to the city’s steep hills, nervously poised buildings, and spectacular views, by the early 1970s, my town, Mayor Ness’s town, had succumbed to plant closings and layoffs (U.S. Steel, Atlas Cement, American Hoist, Clyde Iron, the U.S. Air Force, to name a few entities that left town) which reduced the city’s population from 106,000 to less than 87,000 souls. There followed, during my high school and college and early professional career and Mayor Ness’s youth and adolescence, a continuum of city political leaders who tried to undo the damage by luring large corporations to town through lucrative governmental enticements or through the cutting of taxes. Nothing worked. Even the few success stories in this regard (the Northwest Airlines maintenance facility is one that comes to mind) eventually failed. The city was filled with depressed, backward thinking folks longing for the “good old days” of solid blue collar wages and a long-lost economy.
Beginning with his naive and youthful campaign for city council, Don Ness entered the political arena with a different philosophy than “us against them”, the residual fear and loathing of the outsider that had permeated Duluth’s political and commercial thinking for the better part of three decades. Rather than put public money on the roulette wheel to tempt outside interests into believing in Duluth and investing in Duluth, Ness, at the outset and throughout his career, has looked to the natural beauty of the city, the strong minds and backs of its citizens, and the wisdom of native city fathers and mothers to raise Duluthians from the rust and dust of decline. This book, the most beautifully produced vision of this new approach, this new city on the hill, that I’ve come across isn’t simply an elegy to Ness’s work and ethic. It’s a collection of the “best of” our city has to offer, from the poetry of Louis Jenkins, to the photographs of Dennis O’Hara, to the essays (some prophetic, some quirky) by the mayor, to the cartoons of Chris Monroe chronically Duluth’s renaissance as a vibrant, relevant, happening, productive place. For a town of this size to have produced both Low and Trampled by Turtles, two internationally known bands that still call Duluth’s rocky hillside home, while also cultivating the incubation of the new Cirrus Vision jet and Maurice’s world headquarters, such success, given where we were twenty years ago, is simply remarkable. Would Outside Magazine or Google have looked Duluth’s way if the town was still trying to bring in a steel mill to replace the dinosaur that was shuttered in 1972? Or has the town been in the national news and in the national public eye because it’s developing a new ethic, a new version of itself that includes the revitalization of Old Downtown, reopening the NorShor, the creation of biking and hiking trails, and the renovation of the city’s public schools? To be clear, Mayor Ness didn’t accomplish this makeover on his own. Groundwork was laid by his political predecessors and by civic leaders, educators, and deep thinkers. But the story of bringing a town, steeped in depressing failure after failure when economic home run after economic home run became routine fly balls, into the 21st century is due largely to Ness’s collaboration with other young progressives. On the slick and well designed pages of this unusual book, the mayor is clear to thank those who showed him missteps, worked hard to help him correct his mistakes, and tried to guide the mayor’s vision of a new Duluth in ways that were positive and productive. Hillary’s “It takes a village” is apparent throughout the narrative.
Woven throughout the volume are pieces of writing from the mayor, his wife, and others. But this is mainly Don Ness’s effort. The book is filled with Ness’s sweat and blood and tears. Here’s a snippet from one of the best pieces in Hillsider wherein the author describes winter in Duluth:
Even the hum and thrum of the city sounds can’t get through it. The city feels paused. On nights like this, I cherish the silent expanse between snowflakes that allows me to sit, breathe, think slowly, and disappear into my chair, then into hushed totality, and finally into the city itself.
Poetic, energetic, visionary. But flawed, like all the rest of us, Mayor Ness has done a remarkable job of chronicling his role as a city leader for the past sixteen years in this effort.To be sure, some of the sillier pieces left me puzzled as to why an essay or story was included. But overall, the writing is crisp, the opinions honest, and the personal and professional history as framed by the author, warts and all, accurate.
Unfortunately for Duluth, Don Ness is leaving office. He has chosen not to seek re-election. His legacy is up for grabs. In a few weeks, Duluthians will decide whether the portrayal of Duluth’s resurgence in this book merits continued support or whether there needs to be a return to the “more of the same” politics and problem solving that left the town dying by the pricks of a thousand needles.
4 stars out of 5 for the content; 5 stars out of 5 for the design and layout.