Last year was the year of the great stone walleye deception. I’ll not bore you with the details. You can read about it in the archives (“A New Faith is Born!”). Suffice it to say, this year’s annual Octogenarian fishing trip to Elsie Lake, Ontario as guests of the Litman family was essentially uneventful. Whereas last year, in addition to the stone walleye caper, our group experienced an unexpected evening in a motel in Ignace, this year was sedate, contemplative, and involved moments of fishing frenzy followed by hours of searching for fish on the choppy cold waters of a Canadian wilderness lake. I drove my blue Pacifica into Duluth to pick up my father Harry, George Millard, and Walter “Frtiz” Mondale. George and Fritz were staying at the Willard Munger Inn. After trying out all of the ritzy roosts in town over the twenty or more years of this annual fishing sojourn, a couple of years back the two old friends settled on staying at the Willard, a motel my uncle built back in the 1950s and now run by his grandson, Jeff. After picking up George and Fritz (and nearly forgetting George’s suitcase in the process!), we headed towards UMD’s Heaney Hall. The fact that my passengers were staying in a motel named after a DFL politician and in an apartment complex named after one of the founding fathers of the DFL Party should not be lost on the reader. These men are unabashed Liberals with a capital “L”. And oh the stories and the banter between Duluth and Grand Marais, where we stopped for breakfast at the Blue Water Cafe and where Sammy Perrella and his son, Tony waited for us! The collective history and wisdom in the Pacifica was something to behold and left me, as the youngest buck in the herd, in awe of the accomplishments of the men I was ferrying to Ontario. Over breakfast, Tony, a wide-eyed economics major at the University of St. Thomas (a school George once taught at) listened to the old men pontificate and philosophize. Sammy, who since our last excursion to Elsie, had suffered and survived a stroke, smiled, the residuals of his scare hidden by therapy and determination, as he watched his son engage with Fritz, a man who has held the second highest office in the land and served as our nation’s ambassador to Japan.
We crossed the border without incident and arrived at Ignace Airways a few hours later. We filled two float planes, a De Havilland Beaver and an Otter, with food, booze, fishing gear, suitcases, gasoline, and propane and, one after the other, the planes lumbered across the smooth surface of an Ontario lake before becoming airborne for the short flight to Elsie. The landings were smooth. The planes were quickly unloaded in turn and re-loaded with garbage, gear, and passengers for the return to Ignace. The departing crew had been at the Litman camp for a week getting the place ready for our party. Most of the heavy lifting had been done by the time we set foot on the wooden dock outside the cabin. After stowing gear and rolling out our sleeping bags on our bunks, the crew, which now included Ross and Jay Litman, and Doc Bob Donley, distinguished neurosurgeon and noted conservative (the foil for many of my father and Fritz Mondale’s kinky liberal ideals) headed out onto the lake. The walleye were biting, though, true to his serious nature when it comes to fishing, the Sheriff (Ross) deadpanned that “they’re just not biting like they should.”
I was given the task of guiding Sam and Tony. Now understand: I am not a great fisherman and I am certainly no expert on the whiles and whereabouts of Lake Elsie walleye. But, in the end, we found fish. Plenty of fish to keep our boat occupied until the sky darkened and it was time to head back to camp.
Saturday dawned and the place revealed a familiar routine. Jay would, for the most part when not spelled by Ross or Sam, cook our meals. Big, steaming lumberjack-style breakfasts welcomed sleepy fishermen each morning: eggs, pancakes, sausage, ham, bacon, and toast, all punctuated with coffee that, if Ross was the first one up, barely flowed out of the pot given its tarry consistency. Caffeine free? Hardly. The first meal of the day was followed by clean up, with George and I in charge of the dishes, and the others pitching in where needed. Then it was back into the boats for late morning and afternoon fishing, followed by naps, reading Helen Litman’s wide-ranging library of paperback novels, and steam baths in the camp’s wood-fired sauna. After one of the sauna baths, Doc Donley braved the frigid lake fully equipped with goggles and snorkel, patrolling the water off the dock in search of god-knows-what.
Sunday found me guiding George and Sammy. Again, I got lucky and, despite my lack of fishing prowess, found the walleye. We also netted the occasional lake trout and whitefish, along with a few small mouth bass, though the primary catch was walleye, fished shallow and with pink and white jigs tipped with minnows or worms and dragged slowly along the lake’s rocky bottom. Having purchased a conservation license, I didn’t keep any fish. Only walleye within the appropriate slot and were foul hooked, the barbs stuck deep in the fish, were kept by anyone for the frying pan. Ross’s classic outdoor fish fry, one of the highlights of these trips, loomed in the future but we had time, we all thought, to catch and keep what we’d need for the feast.
Sunday night, the weather turned and rain pounded the lake. The storm scattered the walleye and exposed my guiding deficiencies. Monday, George and Sammy and I worked hard to find fish when we were finally able to get out but the walleye were few and far between.
The frenzy, the ease of the first two and a half days of fishing, was replaced by long, extended periods between walleye or trout or bass or whitefish. But the food. And the company. Ah. The meals; ribs and brisket, burgers and brats, Sammy’s pizza and pasta, and a host of other culinary delights; along with lively political, religious, philosophical, legal, medical, and sports discussions filled any void caused by the diminished appetites of the walleye. We didn’t solve the world’s problems or come up with concrete advice to send along to the new pope, but we did have spirited yet respectful debate on any number of worldly and heavenly topics, evincing that men or a certain age can, if they listen to each other, share views without name-calling or coming to blows. Through it all, Ross, the tireless worker bee, buzzed around camp, fixing and toting and moving and repairing so that each guest, each temporary resident of the Litman Camp, experienced a blissful, worry-free stay.
As always, despite the slow fishing the last two days of our trip, when Ross announced it was time to start packing up on Wednesday morning, after the last of the eggs were eaten and the last of the morning dishes was done, the sadness of leaving came over me. My job as a district court judge takes bits and pieces of my humanity; the day-to-day grind of court eats away at one’s optimism and faith in mankind as one deals with folks at their worst, at usually the lowest point in their lives. But a few days away from the Internet, Wi-Fi, cell phones, courtrooms, and legalese cannot be understated in terms of a fishing trip’s restorative powers. I’m hoping the Sheriff and his brother invite us back again. Maybe the fish will be more cooperative. Maybe they won’t. But five days at Lake Elsie in the company of three old men, a college kid, a pizza maker, a Sheriff, a carpenter, and a neurosurgeon, with or without walleye biting, beats most everything else I’ve tried as a vacation.
The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman (2013. Quercus. ISBN 9781623651312)
My friend Ron McVean, an avid reader and sometime pre-reader of my manuscripts, handed me his autographed copy of this Freeman thriller with the admonition, “I read it but didn’t get excited by it. Maybe you’ll like it.” Faint praise, eh? So with that lukewarm endorsement, I carried Ron’s hardcover version of the book with me on a recent fishing trip to Ontario. I had my own demons, my own biases to exorcise before I could give Freeman’s book a fair shake as a reviewer. To be frank, I’m not sure I was able to accomplish that task so I’ll disclose the worst of my prejudices here and you can, if you so choose, simply ignore this review.
Envy. Jealousy. Local boy reading a story written about his hometown by a stranger. They all add up to this: While I understand why authors who have no lasting connection with Duluth and the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota (Freeman, Krueger, and Sundstol) might want to choose Duluth or the Iron Range or the North Shore as a setting for a novel (it is, after all, God’s country!), I continue to be unimpressed by the depictions of my backyard by folks who are just passing through, taking notes, and penning novels based upon casual observations about where I live, where I grew up. That these same authors, strangers to the land I inhabit, receive accolades for genre fiction full of cutesy landscapes that bear only a superficial likeness to the Northland irks me. There. The disclosures have been made. Take them for what they’re worth. Read on or move on, your choice.
That having been said, I wanted to desperately like this book. I wanted to be compelled by Cat, the young prostitute’s back story of deprivation and neglect, by the investigator and chief protagonist’s, Jonathan Stride’s, inner struggles and past, and by the romantic possibilities of the juxtaposition of Stride with two former lovers (also cops) in the investigation of a string of suspicious deaths. But I couldn’t, as my friend Ron suggested, get past the implausibility of the plot, the confusion of some of the action sequences, or the lack of a main character, any character, that I could relate to or cherish. It’s not that the writing isn’t professional: it is certainly that. It isn’t that the dialogue is clunky or overwrought: Freeman can write a scene that seems credible as characters engage with each other. And it’s not that he got geographic landmarks wrong (i.e., Enger Tower doesn’t mysteriously migrate to Canal Park). It is, in my humble view, that after 420 pages of reading, I really didn’t care what happened to Cat or Jonathan or Maggie or Ken.
In addition, the various suspects in the story read like a list of stereotypes: Greedy used car salesman, devious cop, the older sister with a drug problem and a traumatic past. Additionally, there isn’t, in my view, much excitement or suspense, or suspension of disbelief at work in the arc of the story or in the character’s actions throughout the book. The book isn’t badly written; there are no major impossibilities that muck up the plot. There just wasn’t enough here to hold my interest, to compel me to stay up late into the night by the light of my headlamp at Elsie Lake Fishing Camp to finish the story.
Bookstore owners have repeatedly asked me, “Have you read Brian Freeman?” I used to answer, “No.” Now I can respond, “Yes.” And that’s about all I will say.
3 stars out of 5.
I will be participating in Author Fest at Beagle and Wolf Books and Bindery in Park Rapids, MN on June 20, 2015 from 11-1:00. I’ll be signing copies of Sukulaiset: The Kindred as well as my other books. Other authors participating in the Festival include Margi Preus, Shawn Otto, William Kent Krueger, Lin Enger, and many others. The complete listing of authors attending may be found at: http://beagleandwolf.com/events.html. Folks in the area, on vacation, or just passin’ through are encourged to stop in at the Fest on 6/20 and buy a signed book from their favorite Minnesota writer. Every book sold will help ensure that a wonderful Indie bookstore remains open and accessible to Minnesotans!
I am not a saint. No man is, at least, none that I’ve met in recent memory. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of good men and women in our world, doing good work, folks that the Wizard of Oz would call “good deed doers.” But the perfect man or woman, unblemished and suited for deification? Maybe there was one such man. Perhaps he was the one who founded the religion I follow. Or maybe there were several, including a caring woman or two. Maybe they were folks who knew God intimately in their own way and time, perhaps in the deserts of the Middle East or the boiling waters of the Ganges or in the fiery flames of a pyre in war-torn medieval France. But my point is a simple one: I haven’t come across such personages lately. Oh, I know that somewhere in the billions of human beings inhabiting our Earth, there are some folks who are eligible for saintly consideration; I just haven’t had the pleasure of making their company.
Which brings me to today. Memorial Day, 2015. It’s a rainy, cold, dismal morning as I listen to Bob Dylan and the Band’s live album, Before the Flood, and try to string words into sentences that make some semblance of sense. Sometimes my writing does that, hits the mark, makes a point. Other times, it wanders a bit (as it is now) before the theme of a piece emerges and grabs hold of my creative effort. But it is indeed a horridly gray and dreary day outside, so if getting to the point takes a while, I’ll blame it on the weather.
Friday, a dozen or more Scouts from Boy Scout Troop 106 and its Venture Crew placed flags on the graves of the departed at Sunrise Memorial Park in Hermantown. It’s a ritual that our troop has been annually engaged in since my son Jack joined Scouting. Jack’s been a Scout for eleven years and, over that time span, he’s occasionally helped place flags on the graves of service men and women at Sunrise. I have not. Oh, I’ve spoken at the Proctor Memorial Day remembrance as a guest, attended a couple of other programs honoring the men and women who served our nation and are no longer with us, but I’ve never, until Friday, personally experienced placing flags on military graves. To be clear, the folks we were honoring at Sunrise were not saints. No Pope had said the pious, necessary incantations raising the departed to such illustrious status. No, the folks I honored on Friday were simple, ordinary people who, at some point in their lives (usually straight out of high school) chose to serve us in the military. Note that I didn’t write “serve their country”. To me, that time-worn phrase misses the point. Even in the deepest depths of World War and Vietnam, when the so-called universal draft was in place, not everyone called to serve did so. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the modern era: Back when President Lincoln proclaimed the necessity of the very first selective service call to save the Union, men of means were able to avoid the horrors of the battlefield by paying someone to do their duty. More recently, college deferments, elopement to Canada, proclamation of conscientious objector status, and a myriad of other exceptions have been used by young American men to avoid service during times of conflict. Simply put: Those who answered America’s call to service went in place of those who did not. Those who answered the call served in our stead. They served us. Perhaps they went because they loved their country. Perhaps they went because they didn’t like the consequences attended to not going. Perhaps they had a burning desire to be hungry, miserable, and in constant fear. Whatever the reasons, they went. For us.
And then there are those who’ve volunteered. They joined the active military, the reserves, the guard, the Coast Guard. And then, true to their oaths, they too did their duty by going to war or by serving in places that, while not torn apart by conflict, were foreign, dangerous, and a long way from northeastern Minnesota. The men and women who chose the military and the Coast Guard joined for us. By volunteering to be part of the defensive strength of our nation protecting our freedoms, our borders, our liberty and our lives, they have served us to an extent that affixing a few dozen flags to white crosses crafted by an Eagle Scout from Troop 106 can never repay or thank. They were not, these Americans who served us and came to final rest in the moist earth of Sunrise Memorial Park, saints. They were ordinary folks: our neighbors, our friends, our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, our sisters. But they served us. And for that, whether they were compelled to their service via the draft or chose to join of their own volition, we owe them more than a few moments reflection on Memorial Day.
Our son Jack is one of these ordinary folks. Jack, a high school junior and seventeen years old, recently enlisted in the United States Army National Guard. Soon, he will be off to basic training. He will travel a long way from Fredenberg, Minnesota and join other young men and women who’ve chosen to serve us. While those of us in northeastern Minnesota enjoy a summer of fishing and kayaking and hiking and biking, Jack and his fellow enlistees will be enjoying the sultry heat and humidity of Fort Jackson, S.C. learning to be solidiers. I pray for him, as I prayed for the departed last Friday when I placed flags on crosses. I pray that we treasure their service to us and that we remember their sacrifices every day we enjoy our freedom and our liberty. Though those who have served and who are now serving are not saints, we owe them at least that much.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle version. ISBN 978-0312429980)
Let’s be honest. I will never write a book that makes it to No. 3 on the Amazon sales list. Hilary Mantel’s tome about the English politico and adviser (Thomas Cromwell) to Henry VIII during England’s split from the Vatican is there now and likely was No. 1 on the list at some point. That disclosure having been made, I am uncertain, other than the prurient interest such historical fiction engenders (what with all the beheadings and burnings-at-the-stake and rampant coupling), why the book is such a hit (it’s now a mini-series on PBS!). Not that the story, as gruesome and titillating as written, isn’t worthy of a read. It is. But, as other critics have noted, this series about Cromwell is more Mantel’s attempt, as a protestor against Roman Catholicism, to attack Thomas More’s (he of A Man for All Seasons fame) heroic legacy, a legacy that has left Cromwell, at least in popular fiction and the public eye, as a wretched, power hungry bundle of evil corruption, than to a retelling of the tragedies of Henry’s rule with objectivity. As with many historical figures of power, neither More nor Cromwell is all saint or all sinner, though Mantel’s attempt to soften the historic Cromwell is at least somewhat successful.
I found the author’s use of the third person subjective case (“He” instead of “Thomas” or “Cromwell”) throughout the tale an odd choice for the genre. Most historical fiction is written in the third person omniscient where the narrators are described by name, not pronoun. Not so in this work. It may seem a minor point but I found the author’s choice in this regard an odd one. In addition, the plot and action are confusing and difficult to follow, though the historic details are never in doubt, making this at times, a very difficult, though well described, tale to follow.
And, as I have said in past reviews of other novels that rely solely upon the basest of human experience to propel their plots forward (e.g., No Country for Old Men), a novel that completely avoids redemption and light for the sake of story, no matter how serious the subject matter, is half a story at best.
Still, like any witness to a train wreck (I knew what grisly ends awaited Sir Thomas, Queen Ann, and even the anti-hero, Mr. Cromwell but I kept on reading despite that insight) I had little difficulty finishing this book. It was not so badly written or constructed to the point where I stopped caring (the situation I find myself in having trudged through most of James Joyce’s Ulysses). Despite the above-noted critique, and some questions as to the author’s use of historical fiction as a platform to pontificate against the modern Roman Catholic Church, I will likely read the sequels. Even critics can’t avoid being curious when heads are about to be lopped off and maidens are being led to the stake…
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Unto a Good Land by Vilhelm Moberg (1954. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0873513203)
This second novel in the “Emigrant” series written by Swedish author, Carl Artur Vilhelm Moberg continues the story of a small band of Swedes who leave their native land for the United States in the early 1850s. Whereas the first novel in the series, The Emigrants, was entirely set either in rural Sweden or aboard the brig, the Charlotta that journeyed from Europe to North America with a cargo of pig iron and humanity aboard, Unto a Good Land is firmly set on the shores of the brash and newly constituted republic of the United States of America.
Moberg does a yeoman’s job of depicting the overland journey of Karl Oskar Nilsson, his wife Kristina, their children, and the divergent band of immigrants that accompany them from Manhattan to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, an isolated lumbering town located on the wild and scenic St. Croix River. The timeframe, as I’ve said, is the 1850-1851. Wisconsin, on the eastern banks of the St. Croix, has attained statehood (1848). Minnesota, which occupies the eastern banks of the river, is part of the Minnesota Territory, created in 1849 and destined for statehood in 1858.
The author makes the plodding, tedious, harrowing journey of the émigrés aboard river packet, canal barge, railroad car, paddle wheeled riverboat, and finally, on foot from Stillwater to Taylors Falls come to life, casting the iron-willed former prostitute, Ulrika of Vastergöhl as the foil to Kristina Nilsson’s motherly virtue for the majority of the trek. The cast of characters also includes Karl Oskar’s impetuous and truth-challenged younger brother, Robert, whose dreams of California gold fields make his dedication to aiding his older brother’s homesteading ambitions problematic. There’s trouble in the wind whenever Robert takes center stage in this familial drama but the tension between Karl and Robert isn’t overt: Moberg deftly creates his characters of whole cloth, giving them real-life motivations and actions, rather than instilling his creations with stereotypical feelings and emotions. This having been said, the tension between the brothers is palpable and real despite the cleverness of Moberg’s prose: you anticipate a break and indeed, it occurs.
The details that one would expect in a fine settlers’ accounting of felling trees, grubbing soil, and building cabins are well described and historically accurate. A childbirthing scene, where Kristina demands that Karl Oscar deliver the prostitute Ulrika to the Nilsson cabin to assist with the birth of their son, is poignantly tense and tender, with the reconciliation of the two women entirely believable and well wrought.
As he did in The Emigrants, Moberg spends much time chronically the faith of the immigrants, taking the prophet-like Danjel Andreasson from the heights of evangelical zeal to the depths of despair. Danjel fled Sweden under the threat of excommunication from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the national church of Sweden, for ministering to his flock without proper education or ordination. Moberg casts the itinerant pastor as a sort of modern-day John the Baptist or Martin Luther; a man so convinced of his direct connection to God that he forswears the rigor and organization of the state church to the jeopardy of his soul. But though the preacher discovers that he is free, once in America, to speak his mind and search for his vision of heaven, Moberg portrays Danjel as dejected, fallen, and unsure: it is a marvelous change in character that is entirely believable given the pastor lost his wife on the Charlotta, her body having been buried in the cold waters of the North Atlantic after being wracked with disease.
Unlike the first novel, which seemed to be inordinately preoccupied with, well, procreation, Unto a Good Land is far less titillating in its carnality and far more educational and interesting as a piece of historical fiction. Not that sex is necessarily a bad thing in a historical novel but here, Moberg puts the desires and physical intertwining of his characters in the background and lets their work ethic, spirituality, and interpersonal connections shine through.
A well-written and insightful story of Scandinavian immigrants coming to my “neck of the woods.”
4 and ½ stars out of 5.
(This review originally appeared on the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. blogsite. Find out more about that organization’s efforts to promote and save vanishing emigrant, immigrant, and Great Plains related fiction at: http://www.rurallitrally.org)
The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (1951. Simon and Schuster. Translated by Gustaf Lannestock. ISBN 978-0873513197)
There is a lot of sex in this book. I mean it. For a novel published during the more sedate and less titillating 1950s, The Emigrants references the act of lovemaking, coitus, or, if you prefer, samlag (Swedish) innumerable times throughout the novel’s 366 pages. Now, to be clear, Moberg doesn’t toss graphic descriptions of carnal knowledge onto the printed page. Rather, as a true gentleman, the author of this initial installment in an emigration/immigration trilogy depicting the lives of a schooner full of Swedes fleeing poverty, religious persecution, and landless futures carefully alludes to sex throughout the story, never really painting a word picture of the mechanics of such physical connections. Some of the references to sexuality are humorous. A graphic description of the permanently aroused state of a dead Lutheran pastor’s manhood, which befuddles his survivors as they prepare his body for the man’s funeral, comes to mind. Another tidbits of carnality include glimpses of the sexual prowess of one the great prostitutes depicted in literature, Ulrika of Västergöhl. None of the passages depicting Man’s basest desires are offensive. But they are indeed prevalent, sprinkled by the author throughout the narrative like naughty exclamation points.
But this isn’t a story about sexual repression in mid-19th century or even mid-20th century Sweden. It is, in the end, the story of Karl Oscar Nilsson, his wife Kristina Johnsdotter, and their young children who, as the inherited family farm of Korpamoen sinks deeper and deeper into debt, leave their Swedish homeland for America. The writing in the first one-third of the novel, the section that depicts all the adversity and travails that afflict the young couple (and the other characters, including Ulrika) is crisp, descriptive, and spot-on. Moberg’s ability to weave history, geography, and character together to create believable fiction is well served in the early portion of this tale. The author also adroitly captures the fear, trepidation, and hope that must have been experienced by uneducated emigrants about to embark on a three-month voyage across a vast boiling pot of water, bound for a land that they had only the vaguest of notions about. The tension between tradition, such as Karl Oscar revealing his plan to sell the family farm to strangers, uprooting his young family, and leaving his ailing mother and father behind; Karl Oscar’s younger brother Robert deserting his laboring job, employment little better than slavery, without notice to join Karl and Kristina on their voyage; Kristina’s uncle, Daniel Andreasson, a religious zealot in danger of a prison sentence for preaching the Gospel without the blessings of the state church; is palpable and real during the first section of the novel. Based upon the beginning of The Emigrants, I had high hopes that Moberg’s writing would continue to be clever, commanding, and intriguing throughout the remainder of the novel.
The remainder of the book depicts the voyage of the brig Charlotta, a sailing vessel 124 feet long, packed with 15 crewmembers, and carrying a contingent of 78 emigrant passengers from Sweden, including Karl Oscar and Kristina. It isn’t that craft deserted Moberg during the last two-thirds of the story: It is that, in an effort to render an authentic depiction of the harrowing passage experienced by many immigrants to America during the 19th century, the author spares no detail regarding the illnesses, agony, boredom, frustration, and fear experienced below the decks of the Charlotta. What the reader is left with is nearly two hundred pages of well-written narration and dialogue limited in geographic scope to the forty-pace by eight-pace deck of the brig. Moberg’s descriptive powers are adept. His word choice is concise. He instills emotive fire in his writing. And yet, in the end, unlike the middle passage scene from Roots, the best depiction of a similar oceanic transit in all of literature, Moberg’s attempt to make the reader feel and care about the emigrants and their suffering falters. Why? Scene after scene of billowed sails, gray seas and skies, storms, sickness, and death may well mimic the reality of what the emigrants experienced. But such repetitive prose, even when well written, becomes, and became in this case, redundant. In a nutshell, Moberg didn’t provide enough variety in the last two-thirds of this novel to keep up the heady pace, the internal steam of narrative and dialogue that made the first portion of this book so compelling.
Despite the criticisms leveled above, The Emigrants has value for anyone interested in understanding the motivations and desires of Scandinavians who immigrated to North America during the last half of the 19th century. While the sections portraying the passage of the brig Charlotta across the Atlantic may be a tad overdone, the overall impact of the characters and their struggles remains powerful enough to label Moberg’s initial offering in the trilogy a “good read”.
4 stars out of 5
(This review originally appeared on the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. blogsite. Find out more about that organization’s efforts to promote and save vanishing emigrant, immigrant, and Great Plains related fiction at: http://www.rurallitrally.org)
Tuesday. April 21st. Noon. Cloquet Library. Munger and Grover. Two Denfeld kids talking writing and The Dance Boots. One Book, One Community. Free and open to the public with signed copies of the book available for purchase. Still on the fence? Read my review of the book at: http://cloquetriverpress.com/wordpress/…. You won’t find a better way to spend an hour of your time.
Vacationland by Sarah Stonich (2013. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816687664)
Cautionary note: I consider the author, Ms. Stonich, to be a literary friend. Not a close personal friend, someone who has been to my house for dinner, but someone I’ve spent time with at Ely’s Blueberry Festival in my EZ-Up selling books to Minneapolitans. Anyway, that caveat aside, here’s the scoop on Sarah’s latest.
Vacationland is a contemporary novel of life in the northwoods (Ely or Tower, MN cleverly disguised as someplace not Ely or Tower) that reads more like a collection of linked short stories than linear reportage. I picked the book up about a year ago and it has been sitting, awaiting discovery, on my reading stack ever since I purchased it at the Bookstore at Fitger’s in Duluth. Last week, while on vacation in Orlando, I finally had time to read the book cover to cover. I am happy I did.
At the center of the inter-related lives revealed in the book is Meg, the grandchild of an immigrant, who inhabits what once was a family style resort, Naledi Lodge, the place her grandfather raised her during summers when Meg wasn’t in boarding school or away perfecting her art. Don’t let the first chapter throw you off: this isn’t a Kent Krueger murder mystery wanna-be. It’s a character driven piece of fine fiction that, despite some flaws (I wasn’t too keen on the ending; it seemed a bit of a stretch and not in keeping with the pulse of the book), has the feel of warm flannel and a roaring fire on a cold October night spent considering impending winter. There were a couple of times I had to go back and re-read a passage to understand which cottage or camp or cabin or character was being depicted to ensure I understood the flow of the tale, which, as I pointed out above, is distinctly non-linear in execution and connected by thinly woven strands of friendship, vacation visits, and family ties. But, in the end, it is the writing (Stonich is nothing if not an accomplished craftswoman) that overcomes any minor flaws one encounters in completing this wonderfully told tale:
Much of the resort is pocked with neglect: a sack of mortar left leaning near a wall has hardened to its own shape, with tatters of sack flapping; a tipped wheelbarrow has a maple sapling sprung through its rusted hole. Flat stones from a run of stairs have eroded to a jumble below, and high on the plateau old cabins lean like a trio of gossips, their eaves and sills lushly bumpered with moss.
If you want more out of your reading choice than cardboard characters driven by plot, if you want to understand the pull of the northland and the people that call this part of the world home, Stonich’s latest effort is a good place to begin your journey.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
The Tattoo by Chris McKinney (2007. Soho Press (Kindle Version). ISBN 978156947450)
Last year, while vacationing in Hawai’i, I picked up one of Chris McKinney’s more recent crime fiction novels, Queen of Tears, on Kauai where we were staying. I enjoyed the read so much, I went on Amazon while still on the island and purchased the Kindle version of The Tattoo. Other books got in the way and this year, while vacationing in Florida, I was in need of something to read and remembered the book on my Kindle. My re-discovery of the lost manuscript on my eReader was indeed fortuitous.
An “as told to” story set in prison in Hawai’i, this novel chronicles the life of a small-time Japanese American gangster, Kenji, who is in prison for manslaughter. We suspect, but do not confirm until the end of the tale, who the victim of Ken’s outrage and anger might have been. In telling his life of crime, passion, drugs, familial disruption, and the Code of the Samurai, Ken speaks during tattooing sessions with Cal, a mainland haloe (white person) of his loves and losses, which, in essence, is the narrative of the book. Cal is mute from his own traumas (physical and emotional) but we learn a bit about him as well as Kenji’s life story unfolds. This is a simply told piece of genre fiction that McKinney manages to make it into a page turner. It’s a tale that would do well on the big screen. There’s romance, sex, action, and conflict (internal and external) enough for two books in The Tattoo. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn a bit more about race relations and crime on Hawai’i. You might, as I did, guess the identity of Kenji’s wrath part-way through the tale. But that doesn’t, in anyway, deter from a fine, fine ride through the Hawai’ian countryside.
4 stars out of 5.
Historical linguist Roman Kushnir of Vaasa, Finland is the latest reviewer to give my new historical novel, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, a big “thumbs up”. Here’s a portion of his kind review:
“In beautiful winter Finnish forests and on the centuries-old streets of Estonian towns the magnificent story of love and rivalry, war and peace, separation and reunion unfolds. The characters are often based on real people, and that is why a reader follows their lives with a heart trembling and with full immersion into their dramas and tragedies. This rich, detailed and easy-to-read historical fiction is a perfect book both for those who are interested in the history of Finland, Estonia, and the Finnish-American migrant diaspora from the 1930s to the 1940s, and for those who are curious to learn something about this history. Although Mark Munger is neither a Finn nor Estonian himself, he writes about Finland and Estonia with both skill, knowledge and understanding. The novel is not only a story of the Finnish and Estonian characters’ battles and hardships, but also of their feelings, strengths and weaknesses which they discover and rediscover during the hard times. An inspiring book… “ Roman Kushnir, Migration Turku, FI. (1/2015).
Read the entire review on p. 57 of the journal, Migration at http://www.migrationinstitute.fi/files/pdf/siirtolaisuus-migration/2015_1.pdf and then buy the book!