That’s right, folks. Next week (9/30-10/3) I will be at the largest gathering of Scandinavians in North America, Hostfest in Minot, ND. I’ll be one of the featured authors in the festival’s bookstore. You’ll be able to chat with the author, buy signed copies, and enjoy North Dakota’s biggest party. Details can be found at: http://hostfest.com/experience/authors-corner/. Friday, 10/2, I’ll be reading from and discussing both my Finnish historical novels with festival participants. So stop in, talk to your friendly neighborhood author, and buy some books!
We flew out of Duluth on a Tuesday morning. Earlier in his junior year, our 17-year-old son, Jack Bridger Munger had mulled over joining the military. He considered enlisting in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Then, as he researched his options, in a very mature and thoughtful way, showing contemplative skills not often apparent in a teenager, Jack made appointments for us to sit down with Army Reserve and Minnesota Army National Guard recruiters. In the end, Jack enlisted in the Army Guard. He began drilling with his unit in Duluth while still a junior at Hermantown High School anticipating a summer, not of hot blonds and beaches and youthful angst, but spent at basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC. His was not an impetuous or flirtatious decision, but one grounded upon thorough discussion, reason, and discourse between a child and his parents. Were we nervous that our fourth son, our youngest progeny, was selecting a career, even a part-time one, in the military? Given the state of the world, the answer is “yes”. Did we try to dissuade him from his chosen course? The answer is a definite “no”.
Rene’ and I have never been to South Carolina. I had a relative, a cousin, who once lived there. But beyond that tangential connection and the fact that the Civil War started there (at Fort Sumter) and that recent events in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in historic Charleston were tragic (and based upon one man’s hate and residual racism, a disgust for folks different from him only in the pigmentation of their skin; his evil disdain manifested through his deification of the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia (for the flag universally believed to be the “official” flag of the CSA is indeed, not that at all, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flags_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America)), I had little understanding of the place Jack had spent ten hot, humid weeks. To say that I was ready to be underwhelmed by Columbia, the state’s capital and the largest city in the Palmetto State is an understatement. I came to South Carolina carrying a large measure of northernistic chauvinism. I left with a quite different impression, my visions of squalor and poverty and turmoil and oppressively humid heat replaced by the simple notion that folks in Columbia, like folks in Duluth, for the most part, are trying to do the right thing, trying to get along. The old saying that “one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch” might be true in terms of one’s perception of a place and a people but it is decidedly unfair to paint an entire city or state or region with the brush of one man’s evil. In short, Columbia turned out to be a lovely place, set in a lovely natural setting. I may not understand the dynamics of race in South Carolina, or be able to comprehend why it took a Republican legislator, with familial roots set deep in the Confederacy (Rep. Jenny Horne), along with an immigrant daughter of India (Governor Niki Halley) to convince a recalcitrant state legislature to do the right thing and remove the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia from the pole in front of the capitol. But I can say this: Columbia and South Carolina are places I enjoyed visiting.
We spent our first hot, tortuously wet evening walking from our hotel to the capitol building to see what all the commotion had been about. The battle flag, adopted years ago by the veterans of the Confederate Army as their standard then lost to the mists of time as the veterans died off only to be reclaimed by various groups, some overtly racist, some less obviously so, as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights Movement during the late 1940s and early 1950s, as well as the flags standard, its concrete base, the lawn surrounding it, and the wrought iron fence are gone. The statue (see picture at right) honoring the Confederate war dead remains. But so too does a more subtle, more tender memorial tucked away in the palmettos and pines of the capitol grounds. I stood, as the sun was setting behind me, amongst flags honoring my son’s decision and similar decisions made by countless other sons and daughters over the course of American history, considering the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform. Tears formed. My heavy heart, a heart filled with preconceived notions about a place and a people that I’d never personally experienced, lifted.
The next day was family day at Ft. Jackson and, for the first time in over two months, we saw Jack. I couldn’t pick him out of the 1,300 soldiers marching out of the smoke at the far end of the parade deck. I wasn’t able to find him standing in his platoon when parents and other loved ones in the stands were released to seek out their soldiers. But when he tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a bear hug, I felt it. My son has changed. Don’t get me wrong. I am not one to expect miracles. What had transpired was that the fortitude and grit and personal integrity omnipresent in our son (but masked by adolescence) had been revealed as layers of youthful resistance were stripped away by lack of sleep, angry drill sergeants, and constant hustle. I experienced a similar transformation when I went to Ft. Dix as a relatively old twenty-six year old grunt and, in that first embrace from Jack on that steamy morning at Fort Jackson, I knew he had too.
Jack spent Family Day showing us around Jackson. We shared a picnic lunch by a little lake, spent some time watching small mouth bass leap in the torridly hot air at a park tucked into the gleaming broad leaf and southern pine forest on the far northern edge of the fort, toured a museum, and ate dinner together at the NCO Club. As dusk claimed the day, we said goodnight, fully appreciative that tomorrow, graduation day, would be a very tearful and joyous occasion. Jack returned to his quarters. Rene’ and I drove back to our hotel.
That night, I considered the family day ceremony I’d witnessed. Twenty foreign nations and cultures (including Canada) were represented in the young folks who had stood at attention before the overflowing bleachers. The immigrants had collectively raised their right hands and pledged an oath of citizenship to the United States of America. The newly christened were making a choice, a choice to serve their adopted country. They came in all shapes and sizes and shades of pigmentation. I couldn’t help but wonder what the shooter at the church in Charleston would make of it all, given his hatred for anything different from his warped, simplistic view of America. I went to sleep that evening with a smile on my face, confident in the knowledge that, as my own drill instructor repeatedly said during my own basic training, “The only color the Army knows is green.”
After graduation, we took Jack to the airport and waited with him until it was time for him to board his plane. After seeing our son off, Rene’ and I visited stately mansions and drove through leafy, lush southern pine forests. We walked around the edges of the University of South Carolina campus and had a great meal at a local Italian eatery, the restaurant’s sophistication meant, I am sure, to overcome the impressions of the south that northern tourists arrive here burdened with. The people of Columbia that we interacted with; black, white, Asian, and every color in between, were thoughtful, helpful, and well, Americans, just like us.
I came to South Carolina to see what my son had learned from his experience at Fort Jackson. In the end, it was the old man who learned something about himself. Someday, Rene’ and I will go back to Columbia and take in Ft. Sumter and Charleston and the rest that South Carolina has to offer in the way of history, culture, and scenery. The next time I visit the Palmetto State, I’ll remember to leave my own prejudices and preconceived notions at home.
Zenith City: Stories from Duluth by Michael Fedo (2014. University of Minnesota Press. 9780816691104)
I was looking for a linear memoir so I bought this book. Why? Like all writers of a certain age, I am thinking about what my life has been, what I’ve experienced, the choices I’ve made, and whether in all that confusion, upheaval, surprise, lust, loss, and love, there are pearls of wisdom and/or stories that might strike readers as worthy of repetition. I should’ve read the back jacket of this book before I ordered it from the Bookstore at Fitger’s. Or done a bit more research. While there are indeed elements of autobiographical history strewn throughout this slim book, the pieces are essentially stand-alone essays, not connected chapters of Mr. Fedo’s well-lived life. And in that difference lies my disappointment.
Not that there are not some very, very powerful, humorous, or evocative tales within this volume. Though a bit off-putting, the beginning piece, “This is Duluth”, has some fine, fine moments. It reminds me, quite frankly, of discussions I had back in my adolescence with my buddies, when, having found my father’s stash of Windsor and having polished off the quart, the three of us, in our newly-found intelligence, composed a letter to the editors of the Duluth News Tribune about what a shit hole of a place Duluth was in the 1970s. That, as Fedo later reflects, has changed a bit. His introductory story, though, was a reminder of the blue collar/rust belt city that formed my youth.
“Miss Wedel and the Rats”, the second piece in the collection, felt truncated and flat. I’m not certain where the story went, but it did. “The Hill”, on the other hand, had me grinning with my own recollections of trying to climb some of Duluth’s steeper slopes in the ice coated depths of winter. Probably my favorite essay in the book, which essentially has absolutely nothing to do with the author, and hence, is an unlikely piece to be found in something bearing the moniker (on the back cover description) “”Fedo’s memories” because, well, there is nothing in the story that comes from the author’s life or memory, is “Joe Dimaggio”. That essay is a recounting of the slugger’s infatuation and eventual marriage to Duluth girl, Dorothy Olson. It’s tightly written, well crafted, and worth reading as a stand-alone story. It is also interesting to note that the Dimaggio essay had not been previously published, at least as disclosed in the “Publishing History” section at the end of the book. I liked the story a great deal, but, as indicated, in my search for a well-crafted memoir about Duluth well, the essay didn’t fit the parameters of my quest. Maybe that’s my fault. Maybe not.
Of all the pieces in the book, “Cousin Jean” struck me as the most authentic, the most revelatory in terms of memoir or personal history. The sadness depicted in Fedo’s retelling of his relative’s brush with greatness and subsequent fall, and his interactions with Jean over the years, was touching.
In the end, Fedo is a solid writer but I am uncertain what this collection was trying to accomplish. There are tales from the author’s youth that fit well in a memoir. There are other pieces, such as “A Life Formed By Lynching”, that don’t. Fedo’s recounting of his work on the book that eventually became The Lynchings in Duluth, and his chronicling of the actual event and the book’s journey to publication is important as a study of self-publishing, small presses, and charlatans as well, of course, of the horrendous history behind the tale. The piece is so strong, I would have enjoyed an expanded version of the trials and tribulations Michael went through in creating that book, rather than spending time reading a story about pyloric stenosis.
After finishing the last of the essays in my tent in the BWCA, I came to the conclusion that, for the most part, the stories told in this volume have merit but I remain uncertain as to whether they make sense in a collected work.
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Symmetry: The Talking Stick Vol. 23 (2014. Jackpine Writer’s Bloc. ISBN 9781928690269)
Every year, I have a table at the Northwoods Arts Festival and Book Fair held in Hackensack, MN. Over the span of a decade, I’ve met many members of the local writers group, Jackpine Writer’s Bloc, and on one occasion I conducted a self-publishing workshop for those folks, trying to impart the little knowledge that I have about publishing, marketing, and the like. Great folks. Some fine writers. So, whenever I’m at the festival, I pick up a copy of the latest volume of The Talking Stick, Jackpine’s compendium of fiction, non-fiction prose, and poetry complied as a “best of” collective effort for the year. Because it is a volume featuring unknown writers (much like me), the included pieces are often uneven: gleaming gems cast amongst rougher, less polished stones. This year’s volume is no exception.
First, the highlights. “Walking the Line”, a short story by Cheyenne Marco is a fine, fine piece of fiction. It’s not difficult to understand why Cheyenne’s tale was the winner in the fiction category:
She always walked the tracks when she needed to think. She mounted the rail, walking the thin line like a tightrope walker…Every time she did she saw the same thing: her clothes falling away. Zack’s sure hands on her hips, his lips against her neck…(S)he held onto these moments…calling them to memory with fondness and a flush she could feel all the way to her toes. Until the strip turned pink.
See what I mean? “Josephine” a short story by Paisley Kaufman is nearly as well-crafted and evocative. In the non-fiction category, though not adjudged a winner, my favorite essay of the lot is “Touching Wild” by Michael Forbes. I’m sure I enjoyed the imagery so much because, well, it’s familiar and something I wish I’d written:
I walked far upstream before entering the river. The evening was still too bright for the trout and too hot for me so I stood in the water, waiting. While my fly drifted in lazy S-curves below me, a summer-red doe parted the green curtain of grass…
Anyone who has fished for browns or brookies in Minnesota can relate. I certainly did.
Not being a poet, I hesitate to delve into critiquing verse. But “Tornado”, a poem by Lina Belar, a piece also not recognized by the judges, sang like a winner to me:
Here at the center there is nothing
undamaged, unturned, unskewed…
Unskewed. What a marvelous word choice!
Other selections are as equally powerful, though there are some, sadly, that do not reach the level of expertise or imagination established by the best of this collection. I won’t list the poems, essays, or short stories that fail to meet the mark, because, quite frankly, who am I to judge? But I will say this: After reading through this slender volume, I was struck that there was a sameness to many of the pieces, fictional or not, that reflected cancer, death, departure, loss and the like. Of course, in the end, those are universal themes that most writers rely upon as linchpins for their work. But I found this lack of variety in theme somewhat boring and repetitive. The book contains good work, for certain, by many of the Jackpine writers I know as friends and acquaintances. But I can only hope that next year’s judges seek out a larger variety of themes and topics to flesh out an otherwise noble endeavor.
3 1/2 stars out of 5
A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (2011. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226286969)
Known as a brilliant war correspondent who covered the Spanish Civil War with her lover and eventual husband, Ernest Hemingway, as well as the Winter War in Finland and many other conflicts up to and including Vietnam, Martha Gellhorn’s fiction reads, in this reviewer’s opinion, much differently than analytical reportage. A Stricken Field is, in many ways, Gellhorn’s apology to the Czech people.
Within the book’s structure, Gellhorn adopts the persona of American reporter Mary Douglas to tell the micro story of Hitler’s usurping of Czechoslovakian independence through Douglas’s eyes and those of Rita, a German communist who has had been expelled from Germany and expatriated to Prague only to await further degradation, torture, and eventually, the horrors of the concentration camps. The author explicitly avoids retelling the macro story of Hitler’s rise to power or the larger tensions between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia that fed Hitler’s paranoia and his need a land buffer between Germany and the U.S.S.R..The author’s choice in this regard is a good one: telling an individual tale of dread and sorrow and fear brings home the era of the slow, agonizing dismantlement of much of free and republican Europe by a madman in ways that, for example, my own novel of the war, Sukulaiaset, cannot. With only a small facet of the messy and complex war to cover, Gellhorn’s choice to narrow her focus is deliberate and smartly crafted.
The juxtaposition of the gaiety and fine dining and good wine enjoyed by Douglas and the other American, English, and French reporters covering the story of appeasement-by which England and France turned their collective backs on their treaties with Czechoslovakia, allowing Germany to gobble up the Sudetenland area of Czech soil, a German-speaking area of the Czech Republic Hitler alleged was being discriminated against by the Czechoslovakian government-and the degradation being experienced by Jewish and communist refugees who had fled Germany and the Sudetenland for Prague is well wrought.
This book should not be confused with a Heminway war novel. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Gellhorn’s attempt to place a feminine touch on Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls. While it seems apparent that Papa had an influence on his lover’s style (the curse, short, declarative patterns of Hemingway’s best writing can be detected throughout this novel), this is very much a cerebral story; a dark, foreboding, and somewhat incomplete rendering of what was happening to Rita and the others who had sought refuge from Hitler in a nation that would soon belong to Hitler. The fictional story displays, in the end, despair and resignation-likely emotions that were indeed prevalent and overarching during the slow, deliberate extinguishment of a free society and its people by evil. Gellhorn’s apology, then, is incomplete as she intended it to be. While we all, in reading such historical fiction tinged with memoir, hope and pray for a white knight, a savior such as Oscar Schindler, to stride onto center stage and save at least one of the protagonists populating this tale, that’ s not reality. Gellhorn as Douglas takes no magnificent or deliberate stand against the Gestapo. In the end, Gellhorn as Mary achieves a small victory of sorts-one that I will leave to readers of this fine novel to discover-but as history is clear, she is unable to save those who looked to her with pleading eyes as she flies to safety.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. I will read Gellhorn’s other books, including her war reporting and her short stories, based upon the strength of this novel.
Yes, that’s right, my Finnish fans. I’ll be at beloved Petrell Hall in Brimson, MN on 09/06/2015 to read from, discuss, and sell copies of my latest novel, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, a story of Karelian Fever set in Estonia, Finland, and Karelia against the backdrop of WW II and the Holocaust. The event is free and open to the public and a great way to spend Sunday of Labor Day weekend if you’re out and about. I’ll have plenty of copies of Sukulaiset as well as the first book in the series, Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh (along with my other books) for you to browse and purchase. So come on out to Brimson for a great event!
Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones (2013. Ballantine. ISBN 9780345526113)
It was a wonderful gift my son Dylan gave me last Christmas. My hardcover version of this massive chronicle of Henson’s life is inscribed “Here’s a book about another creative person…” That alone should have compelled me to dig into Jones’s work earlier than I did. But, with a constant stack of books in my “to be read” pile, each new treasure must wait its turn. Eventually, I get around to reading anything and everything I’ve bought or been gifted. But, I have to say, had I known how expertly this biography was written, and how much of Henson’s story I once knew but had forgotten, well, I would have moved this tome closer to the top of the pile!
Jim Henson, in a nutshell, comes across in this work as a creative, thoughtful, kind, peaceful, generous soul. Though not Buddhist (he was actually a non-practicing Christian Scientist) Henson is portrayed by the author as being infused with Zen-like patience and inscrutability. This depiction is consistent throughout the narrative; whether from business rivals, his estranged wife Jane (they were separated for decades but never divorced and remained a united force in raising their five children despite Jim’s infidelity and wandering eye), his children, or his co-workers at Henson Associates or its London affiliate, Jim’s eternal goodness shines through. If you are looking for demons and addictions (other than an addiction to love, not to be confused with an addiction to sex), you won’t find it within the pages of this biography.
What makes this book worth reading is its comprehensive examination of the creative process and the history of Sesame Street, Kermit, Miss Piggy, The Muppets, Fraggle Rock, and a litany of other Henson-inspired projects. I’d forgotten that the first season of Saturday Night Live included a mystical, Henson-imagined world as a running segment (short-lived to be sure, but memorable none-the-less.) I didn’t know that now Senator Al Franken from Minnesota had been one of the writers of that SNL experiment, or that Jim Belushi affectionately (as only a Samurai cook could) called the puppets and their human operators “those mucking Fuppets.”
We all likely recall how Henson’s life ended far too young at age 53. The author deals with that chapter in Jim Henson’s life deftly, pulling together eye witness accounts of the Muppeteer’s (Henson hated that term!) last days through interviews with Jane and other Henson family members. But the story of Jim Henson and his wildly imaginative creations isn’t about a sad ending. Ever seen a Muppet production that ends in tears? Not likely. At the conclusion of the book, we’re reminded of the blessings Jim Henson’s mind provided to us, some of which, we don’t even recognize or realize thirty years after the master puppeteer’s passing. Case in point: Last night, my three-year old grandson Adrien was over with his four-month old brother while his parents were on a date. As Adrien ate supper, I wandered up to our extra bedroom looking for a video to occupy the kid’s time. I pulled out one of my family’s favorite collections: Dinosaurs, a series that ran on HBO years ago. What I’d forgotten was that the force behind that show was Brian Henson, Jim’s son and the artistic heir to the Muppet empire. Additionally, as the opening credits for the first episode rolled, there it was: a salute to the genius who started it all back in the 1950s:
In Memory of Jim Henson.
4 and 1/2 star out of 5. An exceptionally thorough read.
The Pacifica labored. The Crestliner, trailer, and 60hp Mercury behind the Chrysler slowed the old van to a tepid 60mph and reduced gas mileage to 17mpg. Nylon ropes securing my new fishing kayak to the roof sang as we sped west along US Highway 2, towards North Dakota and the iconic reservoir, Lake Sakakawea, where our son, Dylan, and his wife, Shelly, would spend two nights with us tent camping at a state park on the eastern-most shoreline of the big lake. (Find out more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Sakakawea and http://www.parkrec.nd.gov/parks/lssp/lssp.html.) Rene’ had reserved two campsites. We were staying three nights; the kids two. We were supplying the boat, gasoline, camping equipment, the campsites, and bait. Shelly and Dylan were bringing the food.
As we chugged west, the sky open, the sun beating down, the temperature climbing above 90 degrees, Rene’ and I listened to The Girl on the Train on CD (read a review of the book on this website) and watched the forests of northern Minnesota disappear. We skirted Devil’s Lake, another big body of water in North Dakota, another fishing lake located where no fishing lake should be, stopped for lunch at a Pizza Hut in Rugby (but didn’t see any heavy-thighed Brits milling about!), before pulling into Riverdale, a tiny hamlet located just outside the state park, for gas and ice. After obtaining camping permits from the nice young lady working the entry booth, we found our campsites, parked the Pacifica, and commenced to building a temporary home surrounded by a vague and artificial sort of beauty. What do I mean?
Well, if you’ve camped at Bear Head State Park outside Ely or any of the Minnesota State Parks along the North Shore, you’ve had the good fortune to be immersed in near-wilderness. Not so at Lake Sakakawea. Though the lake, at 180 feet deep, two miles wide, and nearly 200 miles long is a marvel of human engineering, sitting in camp chairs in Sakakawea State Park, one doesn’t get the sense of nature in the same, completely indulgent way one does when camping in northeastern Minnesota. This is prairie country. Yes, there are trees and wildlife to be found (I nearly had a heart attack when a covey of fifty Hungarian partridge exploded from beneath the front tire of my mountain bike as I pedaled on a nearby trail). And the lake, formed from the ice cold, mountain fed, snow melt waters of the Missouri River to depths that cool salmon, is a wondrous fishery: a slash of silver, shimmering relief against the stalled heat and humidity of July on the Plains. The early morning cackling of rooster pheasants reminded me that we weren’t in Fredenberg, Minnesota and that we were camping alongside of waters very different and distant from my beloved Cloquet. So there was nature to be found along the shores of Sakakawea. But wilderness? Not so much.
Before Dylan and Shelly arrived, Rene’ and I towed the Crestliner down to the boat landing and launched it, intent upon doing some evening fishing. The launch was easily accomplished despite the number of campers in the park. And, thankfully, I didn’t repeat my recent error, one that nearly sank my new boat, my brother-in-law Allen, my nephew Alex, and me in Fish Lake. This time, I remembered to put the plug in the stern of the boat before it was launched. It only takes once…
After the kids arrived, I helped Dylan and Shelly set up a new screen tent that, though purchased as a haven against mosquitoes, was never utilized due to the complete absence of flying pests at the campground. As the sun sank in the west, a slight breeze cooling the parched land, we sipped bottled beer and talked, catching up on family gossip and news from Williston, the boomtown of North Dakota. Dylan and Shelly have good jobs in Williston, jobs related to the oil industry that haven’t been affected by the downturn in drilling. Fracking: We avoid any heavy discussions about the environmental impact of using fresh water filled with sand and chemicals injected into the earth to force oil to the surface. Or the wasteful flaring of natural gas. No need to provoke family discord while on vacation.
As tenters, we were in the distinct minority. Even after Dyl and Shelly arrived to raise their K-Mart special family tent (a dubious shelter against rain and wind) alongside my BWCA tested Eureka two-man dome, our tents were only two of about ten in a campground that boasted hundreds of fifth-wheelers, motor homes, and large pull behinds. The amount of money folks spend to get away from it all just so they can take it all with them!
We fished for two days in extreme heat, catching and releasing dozens of feisty white bass (fun to catch but supposedly horrible in the fry pan), a few large mouth bass, and the biggest fish of Shelly’s life (a one pound northern that she refused to touch!)
After fishing and loading the boat back on the trailer, Dylan and I dove headlong into the cool waters of Sakakawea, fulfilling one of my bucket list wishes: to swim in the same waters Lewis and Clark did. Once in the waist deep water, despite the 95 degree afternoon’s heat, Sakakawea was nearly as cold as Lake Superior.
Saturday evening. Rather than attempt dinner with a storm rolling in, the majority (I was a dissenter) voted to head to a restaurant. At the first eatery we entered, a Riverdale bar, a burly waitress took one look at my wife’s “Hillary in 2016” T-shirt and announced “We’re no longer serving food.” Happenstance or political fallout? You decide. From the looks of the crowd in that bar, I pretty much drew the conclusion that we were the only four Democrats in the house. Disappointed, we tried a few places in various little hamlets surrounding the park until we found a bar that was still serving food. We ate, and laughed, and told stories, sipping cold beer and telling tall tales before heading back to our tents. There was a brief storm Saturday night, a storm that the Eureka weathered but one that the K-Mart special and the screen tent were unable to withstand. Despite the failure of the kids’ shelter, they stayed dry.
Sunday dawned clear and bright, bringing with it the promise of another sweltering day. After Dylan cooked us a hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausage, juice, and coffee, we launched the boat for another day on the water. It was brutally hot out on the flat plain of Sakakawea. With no shade, no respite from the sun’s brilliance, I doubted we’d catch fish. But the white bass were still there, angry and wanting our nightcrawlers. After loading the boat back on the trailer, Dylan and Shelly packed up their gear, ready to head back to Williston.
“Mom, what made you pick this campground anyway?” Dylan asked before leaving. “I mean, there are state park campgrounds closer to Williston.” Rene’s answer was slyly non-commital: “Well. I thought since you said Williston was ‘by’ Sakakawea, this state park would be close to you guys.” Of course, my wife didn’t consult Google Maps to discover that, in fact, the state park we were at is about three hours from Dylan and Shelly’s home, or that there are two other state parks between where we ended up and Williston. But that was all forgiven. The park was pretty, easily accessible in terms of parking and launching the boat, and had a nice nature trail that, after concluding a final dip in the water and saying our goodbyes to our son and his wife, Rene’ and I hiked for the better part of an hour as a storm rolled in from the west.
“You better come in the van,” Rene’ admonished as the sky darkened, rumors of a vicious thunder storm scrolling across my wife’s iPhone as she studied the Weather Underground site.
“I’ll be fine. If it gets too bad, I’ll join you in the Pacifica.”
“Your tent is under a tree. It’s starting to lightning. Do you really think that’s very smart?”
I didn’t reply. I buttoned up the Eureka against increasingly violent gusts. Jimi, my wife’s miniature dachshund, cuddled my wife in the Pacifica as I hunkered down in the tent to finish reading Joyce’s Ulysses, a project that had taken me over nine months of dogged, unpleasant study, to conquer. (See a review of the book elsewhere on this site.) As the storm hit, the tent leapt and crouched with the wind. Lightening lit up the sky. Rain pummeled nylon. But the stakes held fast, I stayed dry, and the weather cleared.
Monday morning, Rene’ and I strapped the kayak back to the van’s roof (it never touched the cool waters of Sakakawea despite my best intentions), secured our bikes in the Crestliner, covered the boat, loaded our camping gear into the Pacifica, and headed back to Minnesota. Would I come back? Yes, but I think we’ll try for a campsite closer to Williston next time ’round.
It was 5:30am on a Saturday morning in June. I was up and working on my tenth book, a novel set in Ely about a Lesbian trial lawyer, a long-in-the tooth female sheriff, an environmental terrorist, and the deaths of two innocent blue-collar workers. As I closed my iMac and padded my way upstairs to the bedroom I share with my wife of nearly thirty-seven years, I thought about the long, long road-the travels that I’ve made-trying to hawk my books and promote my stories. I remembered being at a Barnes and Noble store in Cleveland early on in my life as an author, where I sat in a store devoid of patrons trying to entice Ohioans to buy my first novel, The Legacy. That was 2001, the spring after The Legacy debuted to much critical acclaim and brisk regional sales. With endorsements from the likes of Senator Paul Wellstone, former Vice President Walter Mondale, noted writer and trial lawyer Barry Reed (The Verdict), and criminal prosecutor and author Vincent Bugliosi (Helter Skelter), and having sold out the first printing of the novel in less than six weeks, I was certain the world was my oyster. And yet the sudden, rapid, mercurial rise I’d envisioned for myself and my writing didn’t happen. Not then. Not now. So, as I climbed into the shower on that humid, sunny June morning, considering all my travels, I also considered my travails; the constant pounding of my head against the wall of silent agents, absent publishers, and hyper-critical contest judges, all of whom have declined to give my work a leg up, a helping hand. I’ve been writing seriously now for exactly twenty-five years. That’s a long, long time to try and make a name for oneself in any endeavor, much less one as ego draining as fiction writing. It was a tired man who clambered out of the shower stall, pulled on his boxers, shaved, brushed his teeth, arranged his graying hair, donned his favorite blue Hawaiian party shirt and blue jeans, and kissed his slumbering bride goodbye.
At least I wasn’t alone. My company for the long drive to and from Beagle Books and Bindery in Park Rapids was an author, a writer, who has managed to pique the interest of mainstream publishers, contest judges, and the like. Linda LeGarde Gover, whose two works of fiction set in Minnesota and filled with characters and imagery invoking Ojibwe traditions, climbed into the Blue Pacifica at the Super One parking lot in Pike Lake, a box of her latest book, The Road Back to Sweetgrass, under her arm. She put the novels in the van, sat in the passenger’s seat, and we were off. I like Linda. Love her writing. The fact that she, like me, is a graduate of Duluth Denfeld High School, and that I’ve known some of her siblings for decades (though I didn’t get acquainted with Linda until recently) and that she’s an author who was awarded the Flannaery O’Connor Award by the University of Georgia for her first book, a collection of linked short stories, The Dance Boots, gave us much to discuss as the Pacifica sped west. Despite the level of her success, having her first book an award winner and published by the University of Georgia Press, ultimately culminating in the collection being selected as the One Book read for Northeastern Minnesota for 2015, and The Road Back to Sweetgrass having been picked by an editor at the prestigious University of Minnesota Press for publication, Linda is down-to-earth and pragmatic. She could, of course, look down upon her fellow Hunter as one who is a tier or two below her success, what with all of my books either having been collaboratively published (The Legacy, with Savage Press) or self-published (all the rest) in comparison to her work being picked up by major academic presses and lauded by the critics (including me!). But she does not. We were, as we rode towards the Beagle Books Author Festival, kindred spirits. Of course, there was ugly envy lurking inside me. Writing is all about ego. Show me a writer, an author, who doesn’t lament the fact that his or her book wasn’t picked up by a publisher or didn’t win a contest or wasn’t selected for acclaim, and I’ll show you an author who is dead. Hemingway (my writing (though not lifestyle) mentor) cautioned writers about getting too wrapped up in their quest for notoriety. And yet, of course, Papa himself could not breathe, could not exist, when he himself became, at the twilight of his writing career, the subject of negative reviews.
Readers of this blog, and of my posts on Facebook, have long chastised me for being self-deprecating. “You’re a great writer,” readers say. “The Legacy (or one of my other novels) is a great read, a great book!” folks will add, urging me to forge ahead and spend another year or two or three or four writing a book. But then they will read one of my essays steeped in pity and self-loathing and angst and longing for greater recognition from “The Establishment” (critics, publishers, agents, news outlets) and my readers (friends, family, co-workers, and complete strangers) will decry my attitude. “Buck up,” they will tell me, “Just keep writing and self-publishing and things will turn out alright.” Of course, I didn’t share this with Linda as we discussed writing and publishing and bookstores and the demise of Border’s and the new age of digital publishing before I pulled into a parking space in front of Beagle Books. But in the back of my mind, I thought about the owner of the bookstore admonishing authors “not to bring any CreateSpace published books” to the event.
I understand the prohibition: CreateSpace is the printing arm of Amazon.com, the largest purveyor of books in the world. My older books have all been converted to digital platforms for sale through Kindle (Amazon’s eReader), Nook (the Barnes and Noble equivalent of Kindle) and Kobo (the independent bookstores attempt to have their own digital platform) and are now also exclusively printed by CreateSpace. Why? Why would an egalitarian soul like me choose to “feed the beast” and harm small, local independent bookstores by assisting Amazon? Money. Plain and simple. I cannot, as a small, one man enterprise afford to print my older books through conventional means. The demand for such titles is slight and I cannot afford, my wallet cannot countenance, stacks of books in my basement waiting for readers that may or may not materialize. CreateSpace is unlike traditional printers. Traditional printers charge per book based upon the volume printed in a print run: The more copies you print, the lower the price. CreateSpace starts with a discounted price for the first book and that price never wavers no matter how many copies of a title you order and the quality is good, equal to books produced by traditional printing houses.
But I get that the bookstore owner’s admonishment is rooted in economic survival. Independent bookstores (Indies) loath Amazon and CreateSpace. But if I want to keep my words in print, I can’t avoid feeding the beast. I voiced my concerns about this turn of events in the publishing world to Linda as we drove towards Park Rapids. I shared with Linda the fact that, before she reclaimed critical accolades for Vacationland, Sarah Stonich (These Granite Islands) worked with CreateSpace to bring her older works back into print. Being an award winning novelist, apparently, isn’t all glitter and gold as I’d imagined.
Linda and I went our separate ways when we arrived at Beagles. We both sold some books, talked to some folks, and then, our two hours at the festival completed, we headed next door for lunch. We talked about writing, publishing, life, politics, kids, stories, and just about everything under the sun over lunch and on our way home. I dropped Linda off at her truck in Pike Lake. I motored towards Fredenberg in my blue Pacifica, thinking about whether my tenth book, Boomtown, is something that the world really needs or wants.
Ego is a difficult demon to master. I’m not there yet: I am not yet able to reconcile contentment grounded in the kind words and nice things folks say about my stories with the fact that, outside my little niche in the world, no one knows who I am. It hurts like hell that I’ve never been found worthy enough, despite excellent critical reviews of my work, to earn even an honorable mention from any of the novel-writing contests I’ve entered, including the one sponsored by the college I attended.
This morning, I stare out across the misty, gray day that’s settled over the hayfield outside my writing space. I ponder whether I should, when my current project is completed, simply put all my eggs in one basket and issue Boomtown through Amazon, both in print and exclusively for Kindle. I sell very few copies of my work through Barnes and Noble. With the noted exception of the Bookstore at Fitger’s, Indies are nearly gone from my bottom line. Nook and Kobo are paltry second and third places behind Kindle when it comes to digital sales of my books. I listen to classical music on MPR and ponder the future of Mark the writer, of Cloquet River Press, of the novel and writing and fiction in general. I recognize that, before making decisions about my writing future, I must consider the past twenty-five years and all the readers I’ve connected with from Finland to Australia and all points in between before making any changes in how I publish new work. I also recognize that, when it comes to my writing, emotional balance isn’t my strong suit. Pride is a horrible beast to restrain.
I realize these truths about myself and my writing as I tap the keyboard to my iMac and try to figure out a succinct ending for this piece but the muse fails me in this regard.
Things will be what they are, is the best I can come up before turning back to Boomtown to begin another edit.
The Settlers by Vilhelm Moberg
(1978. Popular Library. ISBN 978-0873513210)
Not as much sex but lots of its aftermath. That’s a glib way of saying that The Settlers, Moberg’s third novel in this four-part series of Swedish immigration to Minnesota is rooted, in many ways, in the story of how Karl Oskar Nilsson and his wife, Kristina, and their five surviving children adjust to a life of desolation, poverty, hardship, and promise on the shores of Chisago Lake in Minnesota Territory’s St. Croix River Valley. Moberg’s emphasis here is on the domestic: on the day-to-day lives of the Nilssons as they carve a family farm from 160 acres of rock, timber, and brush along the lake’s shoreline and, ultimately, move from sod hut to log cabin and finally, into a proper two-story, timber framed farm home that dwarfs any expectations envious onlookers (or Kristina for that matter) believed possible.
Moberg’s writing style is crisp. The dialogue rings true. There are characters, fully developed and not cardboard cutouts, from heroes (Karl Oskar) to the slightly unsavory (Karl’s adventure and fortune seeking younger brother, Robert) that draw you into the story and keep the pages turning. Set during Minnesota’s tumultuous conversion from mere territory to state (1858), a time of intense political intrigue both nationally (the Civil War is only three years distant) and regionally (competing teams of Democratic and Republican territorial legislators are so at odds, they draft competing state constitutions!), Moberg places the struggles of an immigrant family in their proper historical context, a feature of the book much enjoyed by this history/political science major.
Religion, the fundamentalism of the Swedish Lutheran Church placed against the evangelical zeal of apostate Lutherans and other Protestant denominations (featuring my favorite character in the series, Ulrika, the former prostitute turned Baptist preacher’s wife), is explored here not as an afterthought or an adjunct to the main storyline, but as an integral aspect of early immigrant lives. The building of a local school and the first Swedish Lutheran church in the burgeoning community, all hewn from the hardwoods and rapidly dissipating pines of the wilderness being tamed by the industrious Swedes, is a highlight of narrative in the middle section of the book.
Moberg explores the details of Karl and Kristina’s marriage in a very realistic context: the fact that intimacy, at least for fertile women of childbearing age in the 1850s, invariably led to pregnancy and, if the infant survived the trauma of childbirth at home, another mouth to feed in times of hardship. His depiction of the conflict within a married woman’s mind of that era is realistic, detailed, and compelling as we witness Kristina struggle with how to deal with the inevitable aftermath of coupling with Karl. A brilliant scene, wherein Kristina studies her face in a mirror given to her by Ulrika, is a representative example of such introspection:
As a girl, Kristina had often been told that she was beautiful…But where was the girl who so many times blushed at the words, “You are beautiful!” Where now were her full cheeks with the soft little dimples of laughter? What had become of her nicely rounded chin? Where was her blossom-tinted color? Where the young girl’s quick and clear glance? What had become of her lips that were once full as wild strawberries? Every day she met this depressing sight. Was this she? She herself? These gaunt, wrinkled cheeks, this pale-gray color, this sharply etched chin, these tired, fading eyes without a glint, this caved-in mouth with teeth missing—this was herself, what was left of the once beautiful girl Kristina of Duvemala!
To be fair, there is a lengthy section where Robert’s wanderings towards California after his immigration clashes with the Karl/Kristina story, a section that I found to be overly long, sometimes confusing (due to the back and forth nature of the intersecting narratives), and diminished the flow of the novel. But not every aspect of this portion of the tale is troublesome. Robert’s agonizing demise due to tuberculosis is again, well wrought and imagined and the unresolved conflict between Robert’s dreamy wishfulness and Karl’s pragmatic industry adds another layer of complexity and nuance to the narrative.
In the end, Moberg got it mostly right and I am looking forward to reading the concluding book in this four-part saga of Swedes coming to my “neck of the woods”. 4 stars out of 5.
Last Letter Home by Swedish writer, Wilhelm Moberg (1978. Warner Books. ISBN 0446311316) is the final installment in Moberg’s four volume set depicting the emigration of Swedish settlers, the Nilssons (the Nelsons by the end of this concluding story) from Sweden to the St. Croix River Valley in east central Minnesota. The closing novel depicting the rugged, hardscrabble lives of Karl Oskar, his wife Kristina, and their children as they build a succession of homes in the Center City/Chisago Lakes area just across the border from Wisconsin is, to my way of thinking, the least satisfying of the four books. Here’s my take on Last Letter Home.
Moberg continues to explore the intimate, religious, economic, and political interactions of the Nilssons with their immigrant neighbors, chronicling in some depth the simmering desire between the long married patriarch and matriarch of the clan, mindfully calling the reader’s attention to the dangers of pregnancy for a woman of Katrina’s constitution and age in the hinterlands of rural America in the late 1850s, early 1860s. This theme, one that expands upon Nilssons’s writing of the amorous and sexual relationships between the immigrants he portrays, is well crafted and adds a bit of tension to the story. Moberg also does a masterful job of re-creating the 1862 Sioux uprising in southwestern Minnesota, though the extension of the Nilsson family saga to include the convenient migration of a neighboring family into the Mankato area just before war breaks out on the Plains seems a bit contrived and, while expertly narrated by Moberg, doesn’t really fit the rest of the story, a tale centered on the everyday struggles of farmers and shopkeepers and preachers trying to carve out new lives in a new land.
The author’s juxtaposition of the Civil War, likely the most significant piece of history of the era outside of the Indian uprising (Minnesotans of the day would argue that the pitched battles fought between the natives and Col. Henry Sibley’s forces in the Minnesota River Valley were more significant than rumors of war out East!), with the relatively calm, undisturbed lives that the Nilssons’s were experiencing during a time of rapid economic and geopolitical expansion makes for an interesting comparative analysis of what we learned from middle school American history texts and what the settlers encountered in their everyday lives.
But that having been said, after speeding through all 283 pages of my mass market paperback copy of Last Letter Home, while the plot and characters held my interest, I found the ending fairly predictable and the narrative to be artificially inflated. Yes, there is romance in this tale. Yes, there is tragedy. And yes, there is history, some of which I learned in school and some of which I learned from Moberg’s novel. But it seems to me, upon reflection, that what the author had to say, with the exception of about half of this final installment in the Emigrant series, could have been said in volume III, The Settlers. There just wasn’t enough left in Moberg’s envisioning of Swedish emigration to justify an entire fourth novel.
3 and ½ star of 5. Worth reading to finish the series but not as captivating or compelling as the first three volumes.