Noon on Monday, 9/26/2016, I’ll be at the Finnish American Heritage Center in Hancock, MI to talk about my latest novel, Boomtown, a legal thriller set against the backdrop of the copper/nickel mining controversy in NE MN. I’ll also be taking questions about my Finnish themed historical novels, Sukulaiset and Suomalaiset. Free and open to the public in the Archives Room of the Center. Signed books available and provided by Finlandia University’s Northwind Books.
More at: http://www.finlandia.edu/about/festival-ruska/.
The Sky Watched by Linda LeGarde Grover (2015. Red Mountain Press. ISBN9780990804772)
Speak English. Forget the language of your grandparents. It is dead. Forget their teachings. They are ignorant and unGodly. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Indians are not clean. Your mother did not teach you to be clean.
(from “Everything You Need to Know in Life You’ll Learn at Boarding School”)
Indian boarding schools. Creation myths. Cultural references. Family. These are the compass points of a new poetry collection by Duluth poet and author, Linda LeGarde Grover. A confession. I grew up with Linda’s siblings. Of the 14 LeGarde children, I knew four of them fairly well before age thirty: Nancy, two years older than me; Jerry, a year ahead of me in school; Susie, a classmate at Lincoln Jr. High and Denfeld H.S., and Jimmy, who played shortstop on my law firm’s softball team. I’ve also had the pleasure in my later years of spending time with Linda at book signings and other writerly events. So take this review for what it is: opinion tainted by familiarity. That having been said, if these poems of Ojibwe life and dreams and spirituality weren’t damn good, well, I’d beg off and tell Ms. LeGarde I didn’t have the time to review this book. But that’s not the case.
There’s a Zen-like quality to LeGarde’s verse and prose poems, the wrapping of myth into history into sadness into joy that reminds me of the Finnish epic saga, The Kalevala. Though the mysticism that is so often the cornerstone of Native American contemporary writing (think Erdrich or Northrup or Alexie) may be found in some of these poems, front and center, LeGarde isn’t heavy handed in applying aboriginal beliefs and magic to her remembrances. Instead, the connections between spirit and flesh, reality and fantasy, are more subtle, less onerous for non-Native readers, allowing us access to a world that, while seemingly shrinking due to the monolithic advance of American culture, continues on beneath the fabric of everyday life. LeGarde’s periodic reflections of being raised in the non-Indian world while being taught the “old ways” at home and within her family, the clash of cultures being omnipresent and somewhat daunting, rise from the page, easily accessible but poignant.
Our little sister is the only blond in our family. As children we were fascinated by her coloring, her hair that lightened to an ice frost in the summer, her cheeks that bloomed with a red fire in the winter. Winters she became the sun, summers the moon.
(from “Mary Susan”)
On the critical side, a few of LeGarde’s poems left me scratching my head as I tried to decipher their meaning or simply did not rise to the level of the rest of the collection. But these minor deviations in authorial quality are momentary, fleeting, and rare. What one is left with, after having spent time with Ms. LeGarde, her family, her traditions, her ancestors, is a feeling of love. And hope. And respect.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. Read a poem or two each evening before bed. You won’t be disappointed!
Mark Twain. Will Rogers. Garrison Keillor. Each generation seems blessed with a humorist who, instead of standing off in the distance and pointing out the incongruities in American life, stands shoulder to shoulder with ordinary men and women. Our homegrown satirists have descended into the muck and mire of race and politics and religion to identify the best and the worst of America. Using words as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, our beloved social commentators have made us understand how far we, as a nation, have come and how far we have yet to go. Now the best of them, a man who combined music and poetry and narrative to reflect on our national pulse, is hanging it up.
I was just a kid behind the wheel of a battered Chevy Chevette negotiating I-494 from my apartment in Bloomington to downtown St. Paul on my way to my first “real” job as a process-server; going to law school at night. On those early morning drives, I’d tune into Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and listen to The Morning Show, a program featuring musical guests scheduled to be on A Prairie Home Companion (PHC), Keillor’s iconic Saturday evening radio variety show. Charlie McGuire, Leo Kottke, Prudence Johnson, Bill Staines and a plethora of other musicians enlivened my morning drives. Hailing from late seventies Duluth—the rebirth of the Arrowhead’s arts and culture and music scene still decades in the future—The Morning Show’s cavalcade of music was a revelation. In addition, faux advertisements and commentary and puns and jokes intertwined with the music. It all added up to an auditory experience unlike anything I’d ever encountered. I was hooked. My love of all things Keillor became engrained in my Northern Minnesota soul. Once I married my sweetheart and Rene’ joined me in the Cities, we made frequent trips back to Duluth. During our drives home, we tuned into MPR and listened to PHC.
Decades passed. Rene’ and I are still together. We’ve raised four sons and we’re now grandparents. Our boys grew up listening to PHC on family vacations. Our boys have also seen Mr. Keillor at the Fitzgerald Theater and at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. They‘ve grown up listening to The News from Lake Wobegon. They’ve been raised on Garrison’s wicked political satire. Assessing Mr. Keillor’s impact on my family and the countless other American families who tuned into his broadcasts is difficult. One doesn’t want to exaggerate. That would be, well, so un-Norwegian, so un-Lake Wobegonian. And yet, it’s markedly true: Garrison Keillor’s renditions of Americana have been like no other. Is the show’s draw its not-so-subtle nostalgia, a desire for a simpler time, a more innocent world? Or is it simply the great music that draws us in? Or a mixture of the two?
It’s Friday night. Labor Day weekend. I’m sitting next to my wife beneath the soaring steel canopy of the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. Over the course of three hours, a seventy-four year old man who’s endured health scares, multiple marriages, and occasionally disappointing book sales (as all fiction authors and English majors must!) stands in a pristinely white suit (perhaps unconsciously claiming the stage persona of Samuel Clemens?), and leads the house band and guest musicians through gospel, opera, choral arrangements, folk, rock, and swing. With help from the omnipresent radio acting company, current presidential candidates make appearances as voices for GPS devices and a skittish private eye meets The Donald. We laugh. We sing. We applaud. The hour grows late. The host, cast, and musicians take a final bow. The old man at the center of it all says he’ll be back next year. Fireworks explode above the emptying stage and illuminate the night sky. We rise from hard seats and head towards the parking lot.
Very soon folk musician Chris Thiel, a member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, will begin hosting a very different sort of Prairie Home Companion. There will be no news from Lake Wobegon. Guy Noir will no longer sleuth the airways. Longtime sponsors The Ketchup Advisory Board and Powdermilk Biscuits will pull their advertisements. But rural America’s voice won’t be absent from our culture. Mr. Keillor will continue to narrate The Writer’s Almanac; a podcast I listen to for inspiration every morning before I write. He’ll pen novels set in the little town that time forgot. He’ll craft essays for The New Yorker and national newspapers where he’ll challenge us to aspire to be better than we are. And maybe, just maybe, on Labor Day weekend, 2017, the tall, gangly man in the white linen suit will climb down from the grandstand stage, microphone in hand, and sing “America the Beautiful” with ten thousand fellow Minnesotans.
Things change and, as families drive across this great land, their car radios tuned to MPR, or as dairy farmers listen in as they muck out their barns, or as older folks settle into recliners listening in as they wait out winter, it’s unlikely that Chris Thiel will make folks forget Garrison Keillor. But as the old man himself might say, “Give the kid a chance. You might like what you hear.”
I know I will.
(An edited version of this essay appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on 09/11/2016)
Dalva by Jim Harrison (1988. Washington Square Press. ISBN 978-0-671-74067-2
“Jim Harrison’s Dalva is the story of a remarkable modern woman’s search for her son…”
That’s the cover blurb that grabbed my attention and compelled me to buy this novel at Books on Broadway, a lovely little bookstore in downtown Williston, ND. I’ve read Harrison before and both loved and been less than excited about his work (Legends of the Fall-big thumbs’ up; True North-not so much) but because the recently departed author hailed from two places I thoroughly love, UP Michigan and Montana, I figured this book, given the impressive blurbs, would make for an interesting and engaging summer read. I got the interesting. Engaging? That fell by the wayside as I plowed through Harrison’s prose. Here’s why.
I applaud any male author’s willingness to tackle the voice of a woman in the first person in fiction. There are so many opportunities to stumble and fall, to marginalize the character by inserting male sexuality, male language, and male foibles into the writing, that, well, when an author of Harrison’s stature makes the attempt, takes such a risk, I stand up and take notice. Having tackled this quirky task myself (Esther’s Race), I have sympathy for males writing in the female voice and vice versa. And, for the most part, Harrison handles the difficulties of putting on a woman’s skin, getting into the female mind, with adroitness. That makes the first part of the tale, told in Dalva’s voice, very readable and believable. Sure, the sexuality of the main character seems so feckless and free and without thought of consequence, some readers might argue that Harrison is casting male sexuality onto the female persona. But making that assumption or assertion, I think, misses that there are indeed intrepidly sexual females in the world, women whose carnal appetites equal those of men. So the fact that Dalva has a child early on out-of-wedlock and continues on a path that includes trysts and affairs and nary a serious relationship, well, that’s the free spirit of the character and it’s solidly valid. So it’s not Dalva’s lust or affection or love of flesh that stands out as an issue for me. Rather, it is the fact that, having established a strong, interesting woman as his lead actor, Harrison suddenly changes up the game and gives us an insipidly weak and uninteresting male character, Michael, a sniveling, milquetoast thirty-something (a decade younger than his sometime lover, Dalva, which women readers will likely applaud!) to move the story forward. The author compounds this unacceptable slight-of-hand, this bait and switch, by giving Michael center stage for the second part of the story. Even though part 1, featuring Dalva, and part 2, featuring Michael, are equal in length, I found the second portion of the tale far more labored and uninteresting. My take. Accept it or reject it as you like.
Dalva reappears for the concluding section of the book, “Going Home” and the lives of the two main characters weave back and forth, with other, supporting actors making appearances to enhance the plot. But the narrative, as structured throughout the volume, presents challenges. What do I mean? First, the blurb proclaiming that this is a story about a mother finding her son, a child she gave away as an infant, is pure fallacy. Oh, sure, the birthing and giving up and lamenting are all there on the page. But that segment of the story is so defuse, so subtle that proclaiming, as the blurbist did, that the adoption and search scenario is a main theme of the book is a crock. There’s little significance of the “lost child” narrative to the remainder of the book’s story arc. It simply failed to connect, at least with me. Additionally, the unchaptered structure of the novel, while not anywhere as difficult as reading Joyce, is a bit off putting. And finally, there is this. The ending so confused me, well, I won’t spoil it for you if you decide to wade into this book, but I’m still scratching my head as to how and why it occurred.
Harrison is an American icon. Poet, essayist, novelist, and teacher, Jim Harrison deserves, on the strength of his other work, to be recognized as an American treasure. But despite the proclamations on the jacket of this book, I would not place Dalva at the top of the list of Jim Harrison works that require reading.
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Before we left home, the shit literally hit the fan. Rene’ and I were due to leave the house early on Friday morning. I had plans to load the car, tuck away the dogs (our son Matt had agreed to feed, water, and exercise our Lab and Dachshund), and hear the hum of rubber on asphalt before 8:00am. Didn’t happen that way. Here’s why.
First, I woke up sicker than a dog. Headache. Upset stomach. Body aching all over and unable to decide whether it should puke or let loose from the other end.
“Maybe we should stay home,” my wife of 38 years thoughtfully suggested.
“Can’t do it,” I replied, dragging my way out of bed and towards the shower. “Gotta set up early tomorrow. Besides, we’re supposed to be at Halvorsons’ tonight for dinner.”
Bob and Dode Halvorson are friends from law school. Bob was a year behind me at William Mitchell, someone I played intramural softball and football with and shared cheap beer in the Irish bars of St. Paul. Dodie is his wife. They invited us to meet up with three other couples with ties to the Dorsey Law Firm, the place I spent two of my four years working my way through night law school. The Floms, good friends from Moorhead, and the Liesches and the Buckvolds, who hail from the Twin Cities, were to meet up and spend some time together at the Halvorson cottage on Fish Hook Lake near Park Rapids. The other folks have gathered annually since our days together at Dorsey. We were late invitees, the result of another of the couples we spent considerable time with, Mark and Debbie Ginder, passing away in the past year. I didn’t want to miss the chance to reconnect with people who helped define me as a person and a lawyer, whose support was essential to completing four years of night school while juggling a full time job, marriage, fatherhood, and working as a caretaker at a Wilder Foundation high rise.
The warmth of the shower did little to curb my aches and pains. I dressed, ate some half-toasted wheat bread slathered with peanut butter, woke Jack (our 18 year old son), let the dogs out to do their business, packed a suitcase with clothing for two days and nights away from home, and started lugging boxes of books out to Rene’s Nissan Rogue.
“Damn kids,” I muttered as I passed Jack on his way upstairs to get a towel.
“Not you. Matt’s boys. Daycare bug. It got me…”
Rene’ repeated that I should get back into bed and call off the trip.
I need to get out and get Boomtown moving, I thought, highlighting that the Northwoods Art and Book Festival, a neat little gathering in a tiny tourist hamlet a half hour south of Park Rapids, has always been a great place to sell my books. Plus we need to make our commitment to the Halvorsons and the others. Who knows. We miss this invite and, well, we just might not get invited again.
“No, I need to do this.”
“Can you drive?” I asked as I watched Jack drive away in his blue Matrix.
Then, I heard water running in the basement. I tumbled down the stairs towards Jack’s bathroom. What I found wasn’t pretty.
The lower level of our home has a bathroom that sits slightly up slope from our septic system. Whenever the baffle in the solids tank is clogged (usually with toilet paper), the sewage and gray water reverses course. The noise coming from the basement bath? It was the toilet overflowing with foul water and bits of toilet paper. But that wasn’t all. The tub was half-filled with the same disgusting mess. The words that came out of my mouth, uttered like the wail of a father over a fallen child, can’t be printed here in a family-friendly blog.
I’ll spare you the details. But I did learn something new. We’ve been in our house for 16 years. By the time the septic guy arrived, I’d managed to get the sewage flowing again. The alarm in the house was blaring but the poop water was diminishing.
“Here’s another thing,” the kid said, pulling on a white handle fitted between the solid and the liquid tanks in our front yard. “Your filter’s clogged.”
“Didn’t even know there was a filter between the tanks,” I said, my head pounding, my legs shaking from the bug.
“Well, now you do. Needs to be cleaned at least once a year.”
I slept the entire four hour drive to the Super 8 in Park Rapids. By the time we arrived, though I wasn’t fit as a fiddle, my headache had ebbed and my guts had calmed to the point where we could register at the motel and head out to the Halvorsons’ for dinner. Despite the anxiety of the shit storm and the resulting cleanup (I did as much as I could but knew that a more concentrated, more thorough scrubbing of the bathroom, tub, and sump room awaited) the dinner of salad and steak, prepared by Bob and Rita Buckvold and their daughter, was wonderful. The company? With old friends, the stories get retold, the love is rekindled, and the years seem to melt away.
Saturday morning. Rene’ made arrangements with Joe and Marcia Liesch to get a ride from the motel out to the Halvorson place on Fish Hook Lake. She was fast asleep when I pulled away from the Super 8 in her Rogue, headed south on the backroads for Hackensack. I’d gulped down a cup of motel coffee, eaten a hardboiled egg and some yogurt, but still felt the affects of the bug as I meandered towards the art festival. By the time I pulled up to the Hackensack Community Center where my rented table was waiting for me, the illness had run its course.
You might be asking why, given I was nearly at death’s door (OK, that’s a huge exaggeration but damn it, I did feel like crap!), would I drag my sick body and my long-suffering wife all the way across
Minnesota to sit in a hard metal chair behind a rented folding table selling books to strangers? Well, the simple answer is, of all the events I’ve done over the years, the Northwoods Art and Book event is on that I can always count on.
“Oh, I just loved _____ (fill in the blank). Do you have anything new?” is a common comment and question from readers. 20 or more authors set up shop in the UCC Church across the street from the community center. I choose to pay a little higher fee to be isolated from my brother and sister authors. Why? Less competition, pure and simple. If I’m one of only a few, rather than one of many, trying to foist my words on strangers, odds are, I’ll sell better. This year was no exception.
The rewarding thing about these events is that time and time again, kind folks who’ve purchased a book in the past stop by and buy another Munger read. In the 16 years I have been selling words to strangers, I’ve only heard a handful of negative comments. I accept them, as I accept praise, reminding myself of Hemingway’s admonition that, if you revel in the glory of the critics, you must accept their condemnation as well. Boomtown, my as-yet-to-be-launched murder mystery/legal thriller sold well. At the close of the festival, I said my goodbyes, packed up my boxes, and hit the road. Within an hour, I was back at the Halvorson cottage, a Bent Paddle Black in hand, floating on the calm waters of the prairie lake. The Floms joined us and, as we sat down for dinner with friends, joined by the Halvorson’s daughter Zoe and her boyfriend, the old stories flowed. I’m sure the twenty-something child who grew up with most of these folks had heard every tale from our law school days. And yet, she pretended to listen…
Sunday morning. We were back on the road, headed south. The last leg of our trip took us to Target Field to watch a Twins game with my friends, Judge John DeSanto, and former Chief Public Defender, Fred Friedman. We set up this event months ago. Originally our wives were to join us. A week ago, Fred stopped in at my office to reveal that Mrs. Friedman and Mrs. DeSanto would not be attending. I kept this bit of news to myself, disclosing it only as we drew closer to the Twin Cities. My wife wasn’t particularly pleased to learn the other ladies had bowed out. But she’s a good sport and after letting off a bit of steam, she quieted down and accepted that she was the only girl in the group.
It was a great day for a ballgame. I was hoping that the resurgent Twins would make a showing. When Dozier hit a bomb to left to tie the game, I thought, Damn, this is gonna be fun. But by the time we shuffled out of the ballpark later that afternoon, the Twinks had been on the receiving end of a 11-4 shellacking. The bumbling hometown favorites had nearly as many hits (6) as they had errors (4). But again, sitting with two mentors who I admire a great deal, trading stories, talking law and baseball and families, well, it really didn’t matter what the score was.
After a pit stop in Forest Lake at Famous Dave’s, we roared onto the freeway and were home slightly after eight Sunday night. It had been a grueling, tiring, exhausting yet delightful weekend. I wasn’t even pissed off or upset when I grabbed my scrub bucket, cleaning supplies, paper towels, and made my way into the basement bathroom to begin the process of scouring.
Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy by Jonathan Clements (2009. Haus. ISBN 978-907822-57-5)
As a non-Finn interested in Finns, I’m always looking to learn more about the history and culture of this fascinating people. When I was working on my second historical novel involving the Finns, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, Carl Gustav Mannerheim loomed large. That book is set during the most turbulent of times for Finland: the Winter War, the Continuation War, and the Lapland War (or, as those of us outside Finland know the period, WW II). Though Mannerheim was already a prominent figure in Finnish history by the time the U.S.S.R. attacked Finland in 1939, having led the White (conservative) forces to victory in the Finnish War of Independence against the Reds (communists) in 1918, and having served a lengthy career prior to that as a soldier and spy for the Russian Czar (Russia having political control of Finland until 1917, when the Finns threw off the mantle of occupation), it was his brilliant strategy in defending the tiny Finnish lion against the Soviet bear in 1939 that caught the world’s attention. I knew much of Mannerheim’s involvement in the later period from my research. What I didn’t know was the backstory, the details of his service in the Russian military, his herculean trip to China as a Russian agent, and his close personal ties to the doomed Nicholas II.
If you read the reviews of this book on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll find a smattering of complaints that Clements spends too much time re-telling the early years, too many pages spent describing Mannerheim’s time as a Russian cavalry officer and Russian spy in the Orient. It’s true that the author devotes cursory time exploring the one-day president and field marshal’s exploits during the Finnish War of Independence and WW II. And not much more than that detailing the precarious position Mannerheim found his nation in during WW II as a “co-belligerent” of Nazi Germany. But these aren’t serious defects in my view. Rather, I read this book as it was written: as a very simple, straightforward introduction to a complex and brilliant man’s career in public service. Clement’s scholarship isn’t an exhaustive exploration of Mannerheim or his life and times. It is a Cliff Notes version of the man’s story and it’s one that serves as a valuable first read about the man voted the most honored and famous Finn in his nation’s young history.
The writing is crisp (there are a few typos, which, since when I find them in my books, I cringe, made me smile!) and the plotting is concise. I found the book, while not memorable, a steady, honest read.
4 stars out of 5. An invaluable first step in understanding Carl Gustav Mannerheim.
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2012. Mariner. ISBN 9780547737362)
Heralded by many as an “instant classic” when it was released in its original Danish, We, the Drowned is a worthwhile read. But. And here’s the caveat I would assert: it is not Denmark’s Anna Karenina or Grapes of Wrath or some such monumental work that defines a nation, a culture. No, We has more in common with Moby Dick, a novel many consider to be an American icon but one which, upon reading today, seems bogged down by page upon page of filler; fact interspersed with great narrative and descriptions of life at sea on a whaling ship tied to one mad man’s pursuit of infamy. Jensen’s prose, as translated, is honest, concise, and weightily dark, as one would expect from a Scandinavian author. And there are memorable characters crossing from one generation to another who drive the plot: a fictional history of the island of Marstal, a seafaring piece of land that harbored Danish sailing vessels, ships that sailed to every corner of the Earth in service of commerce.
As in every northern European novel, there are fantastic tales (Laurids, who is saved by his heavy boots as he ascends towards heaven on the business end of an explosion, is but one example of such a character), foreboding, death, pestilence, and evil. That’s one of the difficulties with this book: there is very little light or redemption or kindness or love expressed by any of the individuals who populate the tale. Sex isn’t romantic. Courtship isn’t kind or gentle or devoted. Cruelty and harshness abound. But the writing is succinct and direct, in a style that serves the story well. An example:
No one in our town has such a thing as privacy. There’s always an eye watching, an ear cocked. Each and every one of us generates a whole archive of talk. Your slightest offhand remark takes on the weight of a lengthy newspaper commentary. A furtive glance is instantly returned and pinned on its owner. We’re always coming up with new names for one another. A nickname’s a way of stating that no one belongs to himself…
Now, my wife will be the first to tell you that I love dark. Bleak could be my middle name. But 675 pages of small print of consistent, constant pain, suffering, and death tends, without some light, to be a bit much. Then too, the author’s choice of changing, without warning, from third person narrative (“they”) to first person (“we” or “I”), while perhaps valuable to the author’s intention of making the collective souls of Marstal a character in the story (the community having one, unified voice), was something I found disruptive to the story’s flow. And there’s the ending and the coincidences that align in the last one hundred pages of the tale that cut into the suspension of disbelief necessary in any work of fiction. I won’t ruin the book by revealing just what happens other than to say I was not enthralled with the ending. The book’s coda seemed far too predictable and pat. But then, perhaps professional envy is hurting my critical eye. After all, We has been translated across the globe whereas my two Finn novels, similar in genre to this work, remain largely undiscovered beyond the shores of my beloved Lake Superior. I hope the green eyed monster didn’t interfere with my reading of this novel. I enjoyed it. Just as not as much as predicted.
4 stars out of 5. Not The Old Man and the Sea but a solid read if you wish to learn more about Denmark and its nautical roots.
You’ll need to enlarge the photo above to see everyone clearly. The picture was taken on Anni Stahle’s phone. Anni is the Head of Public Diplomacy for the Finnish Embassy to Canada. She’s the lovely lady in white. Across from Anni, in the vibrant red hair, is Sari Lietsala, Counsul, 2nd Secretary in the embassy. Next to Sari is my host and tour guide, Dr. Ron Harpelle, Chair of the History Department at Lakehead University. His wife Kelly Saxberg, a documentary filmmaker and Finnish Canadian (who invited me to speak at Finn Fest) is across the table from Ron. Next to her, and directly across from me (I’m wearing the green hula shirt) is Ritva Murto, the ambassador’s wife. Seated next to Ritva is Ambassador Charles Murto and to his right is Laura McSwiggan, Honorary Vice Consul in Ottawa. The last member of the group, seated to my right, is Margaret Wanlin-Hyer, Thunder Bay business consultant and wife of former MP (member of parliament), Bruce Hyer. There. Now you who I had dinner with at Thunder Bay’s trendiest restaurant on June 24th. Just how did I end up in such esteemed company you ask? Hold on a second and I’ll tell you.
It’s no secret that, as my second son Dylan once remarked, I’m (paraphrasing) “semi-famous in Canada.” Back in 2000, after my first novel, The Legacy was published, I took a chance. I was looking for places to promote my book: bookstores, civic groups, arts and crafts shows, and libraries were all targets of my less-than-sophisticated marketing strategy. Many times, emails and letters and promotional packets I sent out were ignored, discarded, or relegated to the slush pile. But when Barb Philp, head of Adult Services of the Thunder Bay Public Library system replied to my email and invited me to come up to Thunder Bay to read from The Legacy, I made the trip north on Highway 61 to Thunder Bay. Reading for the first time in front of a room full of strangers, I was mortified. Oh sure, I’d done a reading at my book launch at the Amazing Grace Bakery and another at the local Barnes and Noble store. But those events were held in my own backyard, attended by friends and family. I had no idea what awaited me in old Fort William that wintery night in 2000. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about.
In fact the experience at the Brodie Library compelled me to so something out of my comfort zone: I joined a writing group, the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW). Through NOWW I participated in the annual book sale at the Waverly library, Finn Fling at Lakehead University, book signings at the local Chapters Bookstore, a conference at the Prince Arthur Hotel regarding Karelian Fever (the reverse migration of Finns from the US and Canada back to Soviet Karelia), the Sleeping Giant Writers Conference, readings at other branches of the Thunder Bay library, and a workshop discussing the perils and rewards of self-publishing. All this because one nice lady, Ms. Phelp, took the time to invite me up.
So here I am. It’s early Saturday morning. I’m at the Finnish Labour Temple on Bay Street. I’m crammed into a room with ten or so other vendors on the third floor of the building, selling my books to Finns attending Finn Fest. When I saw that the festival was scheduled for late June, I emailed Kelly Saxberg, who I’d met at a brunch following the debut of her film, Under the Red Star. That chance meeting, brought about because my novel, Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh, portrays the lives of Finns who settled around Lake Superior, propelled my work-in-progress, Sukulaiset: The Kindred (a story of Karelian fever) forward. 16 years after I first made my way north to Thunder Bay as an author, I find myself back in this lovely harbor city shadowed by mountains, talking to Canadians about Finns and hawking books to strangers.
My time here is limited. I have to leave the festival early to be in Two Harbors where I am slatted to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of my Uncle Wayne.
I arrived in Thunder Bay on Thursday evening. After settling into my room at the Prince Arthur Hotel, I strolled the town’s resurgent waterfront. I stopped to admire kids playing in a fountain, skaters doing tricks on concrete ramps, billowing sails of boats plying the bay inside the breakwater, and locals and tourists walking through the park on a beautiful summer evening. I found a pub, had a local brew, and set off to find something to eat. My favorite restaurant in town, Armando’s, closed. I wandered Port Arthur’s downtown until I found a pub serving food but I was disappointed to learn that the kitchen was closed, leaving a meat and cheese appetizer tray as my supper. I drank a Sleeping Giant lager, listened to two local boys emulating Neil Young, watched the crowd, and marveled at the lengthy journey I’d made in pursuit of fame.
On Friday, Ron Harpelle (Kelly’s husband) met me in the hotel lobby. We found a local haunt and over steaming cups of java, we talked politics, family, projects, films, and books for the better part of an hour. Ron was charged with meeting Ambassador Charles Murto and his wife Ritva at the airport. With time to kill, we piled into Ron’s van for an impromptu tour of the city. We visited Lakehead’s new law school and met the dean before heading to Chapters. I was bound and determined to buy a copy of Charlie Wilkins’s memoir, Circus at the Edge of the Earth. I’ve met Charlie, who came to Thunder Bay decades ago as the library’s writer in residence, a number of times, including at my first reading at the Brodie Library all those many years ago. He’s a well known essayist and writer with a national audience and a pretty neat guy. I own several of his books. I’ve always wanted to read Circus. Chapters is Canada’s equivalent to Barnes and Noble: a chain bookstore that believes bigger is better. Unfortunately, when I checked Chapters’ computer and the shelves, no Circus. In fact, no Charlie Wilkins whatsoever.
“We can order you a copy,” a helpful young female clerk suggested.
“I’m American,” I replied. “I don’t think that’ll work.”
I was buying a copy of Such a Long Journey by Canadian author, Rohinton Mistry just as Ron sauntered up.
“No Circus?” Ron asked.
“No Wilkins. Period.”
I paid for the book. We walked to the car.
“I really wanted that book,” I lamented.
My talk at the library went well. The audience listened intently as I explained researching and writing my two Finnish flavored books. Folks asked questions. I sold and signed books before making my way to the Labour Temple for the festival’s opening ceremony. I took a seat and watched an itinerary splash across the big screen in the crowded hall. Covers of my Finn books appeared. I smiled. Member of Parliament, Patty Hajdu, the Ambassador, and other dignitaries were introduced in English and Finnish. Several Finnish groups and musicians performed between brief speeches. And then, the festival was officially “open for business.”
Our dinner Friday night at Bight Restaurant was filled with political discussion, talk of the cultural differences between our nations, and consideration of just how The Donald was going to build a wall along the American/Canadian border.
“Is he going to float the thing in the middle of the Great Lakes?” I asked aloud. Given that Ambassador Murto, his wife, and staff were in attendance for casual dining, I’ll not repeat their responses here. Lets just say that the world is wondering just what the United States is thinking. Our meals were great. The wine was tasty. I avoided desert.
Saturday morning. I rose, packed, checked out, and drove the short distance to the Labour Temple for breakfast at Hoito (another of Charlie’s books, Breakfast at Hoito is one I have read and cherish). The restaurant in the basement of the old union hall wasn’t open. I walked across the street to Scandia and found the same Finnish pancakes I was craving. After eating and reading the Chronicle Journal, I set up my table in the tori (market) and waited for customers. Outside, the sky was darkening. Before long the clouds let loose, drenching vendors set up in the parking lot.
As I sit in my chair and watch Finns wander about, I consider the fact that I’ll likely outsell Thunder Bay’s most famous author because, inexplicably, the largest bookstore in town doesn’t carry his titles. Kelly arrives to say goodbye. She hands me a copy of The Big Blue, a documentary she directed about Wilkins and 15 other folks, mostly Canadians, who rowed from Africa to America. No sails. No motors. Just the power of their arms and legs propelling a catamaran across the Atlantic. I thank Kelly for her and Ron’s hospitality. Shortly after she leaves, I pack up and make my way back to the States.
I jet down Highway 61, and make my uncle’s funeral just in the nick of time. Later, after unpacking at home, I pop the DVD into the player. I watch and listen as my Canadian friend contemplates a journey that he, at 63 years old, seems ill equipped to make. And yet, despite the odds, he does what he sets out to do and then writes a book about the experience.
They aren’t even stocking his books in his adopted hometown’s biggest bookstore and yet, he soldiers on.
There’s a lesson in this tale for those of us who aspire to write something folks want to read.
PS You can find copies of Charlie’s books (including his account of his Atlantic crossing, Little Ship of Fools) online if not on the shelves of your local bookstore!
Beyond the Hundreth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner (1992. Penguin. ISBN 9780140159943)
William Gilpin, a 19th century promoter of the settlement of the American West, is cast early on in this biography by great fiction writer Wallace Stegner (The Angle of Repose) as the fool, as the comedic foil to the steadfast, dedicated, determined teacher-turned explorer/ethnologist, Major John Wesley Powell:
If William Gilpin was enthusiastically part of his time, yapping in the van of the continentally confident, Major John Wesley Powell was just as surely working against the current of popular optimism in the policies he developed, and decades ahead of it in his vision. It was to be his distinction and in a way his misfortune that in an age of the wildest emotionalism and nationalistic fervor he operated on common sense, had faith in facts, and believed in system.
The major revelation that Powell’s journeys down the Colorado and through the Grand Canyon, to include exploration of the surrounding streams, rivers, creeks, buttes, mountains, and bluffs brought to the American public and the scientific community is this: The line being tossed to the frenzied schools of would-be Californians, Coloradians, Wyomingites, Arizonians, and Dakotans, that the West was a place of vast mineral resources, open land, tillable soil, and timber was only partly true. What, in Powell’s humble estimation, Gilpin and the other “boomers” left out was this: The vast majority of the American West between the Mississippi and the Rockies was arid and nearly impossible to farm. Water was the resource, not gold or silver or coal or timber, that would dictate how and where the West should be settled. It was Powell’s understanding of the ecological fragility of the vast plains, canyon lands, deserts, foothills, and mountains, and the necessity of protecting water for human consumption, that would drive American civilization beyond the 100th meridian.
To this end, Powell, as depicted by Stegner, worked his one-armed slender frame to the bone for nearly forty years of travel, research, and Congressional politicking, always begging and shucking and jiving for financial assistance to back his efforts. When, at the height of his powers, he was given the reigns of both the US Geological Survey, the first consolidated effort to map the entirety of the continental US, and also control of the Irrigation Survey-the bureau that was designated by Congress to set water rights and policies for the arid West-he urged Washington to adopt a socialistic view of water and water rights. Powell’s singular vision, that water in the American West was a resource that needed careful planning and protection, to include the establishment of an elaborate reservoir system to store the snow melt waters of the Colorado and other major Western rivers during the spring for the heat and dry months of the summer (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Powell) ) eventually came to fruition but not without the downfall of its promoter. In the end, Powell’s push for communal farming and water use, which included a ban on new settlement and development while his surveys were being completed (much to the chagrin of Senators and Congressmen from the affected states), was his demise. But Major Powell’s careful research and study of the natural world in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, including the detailed analysis and categorization of the indigenous people, their languages and cultures, was the work of dedication and tenacity that no politician could defeat.
I picked this book up at the gift shop on the south rim of the Grand Canyon because I believed it simply chronicled Powell’s desperate and dangerous rafting trips down the Colorado. But that was a mistake: This book, written by one of the 20th century’s best American fiction writers, is so much more than an adventure story. It is, as the wild fires rip through our beloved West, a prophecy of things that have come to pass. I don’t think it’s difficult to decipher what Powell might think, looking down from the heights of heaven, to see Phoenix and Las Vegas and Denver using potable water to green up lawns and golf courses.
4 and 1/2 stars. A must read for anyone concerned about the future of development in the West.
They are old men now. Actually, they are very old men now. But in their day, they were (collectively) a Vice President (and Senator, Ambassador to Japan, and Minnesota Attorney General); a criminal defense lawyer, fur trapper, and gemologist; a Peace Corps diplomat, economist, and outdoors enthusiast; and a plaintiff’s lawyer, Democratic delegate to the 1968 National Convention, and avid hunter/fisherman. They range in age; from Harry Munger, the eldest, to Bruce Meyer, the youngest; 89 to 83. Mondale is 87 and Millard, a mere 85. They have battled cancer, heart attacks, stomach ailments, bowl disease, loss of spouses and children, and a host of other conditions through their “golden years”. Their vision has dimmed and their hearing is sometimes non-existent. Two of the four use C-Pap machines to sleep at night. Their gaits are unsteady: quiet, slow steps to avoid catastrophic falls. And yet, there they are standing on the wooden dock outside Ignace Airways, waiting to board a DeHavilland Otter for a short flight, a flight all of them relish and remember from years of fishing together. They are headed to Elsie Lake in the backwoods of Ontario. The “younger” guys, two men in their late fifties and early sixties (myself and Sammy Perrella), help the fertile octogenarians into the Otter and claim seats. The Otter slips away from the pier. Randy, the bush pilot, fires up the powerful single engine that will lift tons of humanity, gear, and food into the still Ontarian air. And then, they are airborne, returning to the Litman Camp for another week of walleye fishing.
Ross and Jay Litman, two of the four children of Judge Jack and Helen Litman, the camp having been left in the confident hands of the Litman children upon the deaths of the patriarch and matriarch of the family, greet the Otter as it lands. The plane is quickly unloaded. Mike, who is married to Mara-the only Litman daughter, stands on shore, waiting to leave. We pack his gear, some bags of trash and recyclables onto the plane, and Randy shuts the door, ready to depart. The Otter’s piston-driven engine revs. The old sheet metal of the cowling rattles. The newly arrived pick up our bags and begin the process of settling in.
My wife and I spent our honeymoon here back in August of 1978. Oh, we weren’t alone in the Canadian bush. The entire Litman, Munger, and Mondale families, along with the Secret Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and an Ontario Provincial Police officer or two camped with us to provide security for the then-Vice President. My wife hasn’t been back to visit but I’ve been privileged over the past decade to join the four fertile octogenarians, sometimes accompanied by neurosurgeon Dr. Bob (Robert Donley, M.D.), Sam Litman (Jay’s son), and Tony (Sammy Perrella’s son) for five or six days in paradise.
In the bunkhouse, I claim a top bunk and roll out my sleeping bag. The old men do the same. Despite the ages of my bunkmates, the banter is lively and nearly constant. That evening, Ross, Jay, and Sammy man boats to transport us to the walleye “hotspots” for the evening bite. Elsie does not disappoint yielding fish after fish after fish to jigs and spinners tipped with minnows and worms. After a long drive, a short flight, and a few hours of excitement, we eat a hearty dinner and tumble into bed.
The menu and the cooking (handled by Jay and Sammy and Ross) is always exemplary. We eat big, hot breakfasts including eggs, bacon, French toast, blueberry pancakes, egg McMuffins, and sausage. Lunch is a rarity. Dinners this trip include hamburgers and brats, filet of beef, Sammy’s pasta, Sammy’s pizza, fresh fish, barbecue ribs, brisket, and assorted side dishes. There’s not a restaurant in the U.S. or Canada that can top the fare at the Litman Camp. George and I are the designated dishwashers. Everyone, regardless of age or infirmity, pitches in to clean and organize before we leave. Ross, as always, is a whirling dervish of energy, constantly on the move. Jay, to his credit, tinkers, using a methodical approach to repairing the things that need repair.
The political discussions around the dinner table? With an “interesting” election brewing and a former candidate for President in attendance, well, let’s just say that the dialogue becomes spirited; the observations, crystalline.
Despite rainy, cold weather, everyone catches fish.
One afternoon, Ross and I take a detour and end up talking to the only neighbor on Elsie Lake. Imagine, if you can, a lake the size of Fish Lake (near where I live) with only two fishing camps on its beautiful shores. Then take away road access, requiring everyone and everything that comes onto the lake to be either flown in or, during the depths of the Canadian winter, hauled in over the ice via snowmobile. That’s Elsie. Anyway, back to the narrative. Ross and I pull up to the only other dock on the lake to say hello to Ava, the owner. It’s supposed to be a short, “how-do-you-do” session. Instead, the very slight septuagenarian asks us to join her on the deck. I ask the old woman about her personal history and she launches into a story of escape from East Germany, the foreign accent beneath her well-formed English buttressing her words. It’s a harrowing ordeal that ends with Ava escaping to Canada and her mother being shot by a neighbor working as a border guard. Motherless, and having left her father behind, Ava relates a tale of heroism, kindness, pluck, and fortitude that someday might find it’s way into a Munger short story or novel. We thank the old woman for her hospitality and leave, the two of us happy to have learned something of her mettle.
On the only day the sun comes out (except, of course, for the day we leave!) Jay and I motor the pontoon boat across the lake to fish for smallmouth bass. My gold spinner tipped with a nightcrawler or a minnow is an instant hit. I pull in big smallies every fourth or fifth cast. Jay catches a few on flies. The bass are on their nests, depressions created by the fish to lay eggs in Elsie’s cold water. The fish are readily visible, hovering above their nests, aggressively protecting their defined territory. The fish aren’t hungry: just pissed off at our intrusion. It’s an afternoon spent hauling in one and two pound smallies, the fish snapping viciously at our offerings, diving deep and leaping high into the still Ontario air when hooked.
Over the week, we catch a few lake trout, some whitefish (pound for pound the hardest fighting fish I’ve ever tied into), oodles of walleye, tons of bass, and the occasional lunker northern pike (Bruce landing one over twelve pounds). Nearly all the fish go back into the lake with the exception of a few walleye used for the evening fish fry the night before we leave and a few fillets for the fertile octogenarians to take home.
Ever constant and nearby are the dogs: Devin, Jada, and Lilly. The two Labs, Jada and Lilly, can be found under the table at every meal, waiting for Harry to drop them a treat or two. During fishing hours, the dogs are out on the water, keeping their human companions company.
One night, after sufficient reflection and libations, we come up with a plan. Ava, it seems, is in need of a husband. Our collective genius devises a scenario where George, a widower, might be willing to “take one for the team” by proposing marriage to the elderly refugee if, and this of course, is the key, her fish camp is part of her dowry. The plan is never implemented though George seems willing to give it a go. And that’s where the term “fertile octogenarian” manifests: in our rousing discussions of how and when the marriage might, if ever, be consummated.
In our travels, we see an otter scoping us out and bald eagles and countless ducks and geese in flight. Resident loons locate a school of bait fish just off the Litman dock and feed and call for hours. Ross points out native orchids, Minnesota’s state flower, the showy lady slipper, as we walk a wooded trail. A tree frog makes itself known. On the ride from Thunder Bay to Ignace, we see a cow moose grazing in a roadside swamp. There is no question we are in wilderness despite all the fine food, noisy chatter, and relative comforts the camp offers.
“I hate having to do this,” Ross says as he dismantles his rods and reels. We are packing for departure when the Sheriff of St. Louis County utters his lament. Indeed. The next morning at 11:00am sharp the Otter and a Beaver will be idling on the now calm water, waiting to fly us back to Ignace. Five days spent with wisdom, age, and good people will have come and gone. But the memories? Ah, they will be with us forever.