Parent Lake from Our Campsite

It was my son Matt’s idea. The father of three, a guy who’s on the cusp of forty, Matt, along with his three younger brothers, grew up canoeing the BWCA with his mother and I as a family. Some of those trips were wonderful excursions into wilderness. A few, including the paddle where it rained two of the four days we spent on Sawbill Lake and then decided to switch to blizzard conditions, our K-Mart tents leaking like sieves, our sleeping bags sodden, were memorable but for the wrong reasons.

Our Tents at Our Campsite

Last year, Matt, me, and his eldest son Adrien canoed Brule Lake, the lake where I learned to paddle when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 67 from Piedmont Heights. We had a pretty good family bonding experience last year on Brule despite no walleyes, high winds, big waves, and nearly constant drizzle. Adrien was a trouper in the canoe and caught his share of smallmouth bass so I wasn’t worried about taking him back into wilderness. But I suggested that Matt pull a permit for Hog Creek, which leads into Perent Lake, a reliable walleye lake, in hopes avoiding weather on big water. Matt agreed and pulled the permit. Then things got interesting.

“Avery wants to go with us,” Matt said over the phone a few weeks before our trip.

I thought about the problems taking a high-energy-four-year-old would mean. First, we couldn’t possible pack two adults and two kids into one canoe along with food, tents, fishing equipment, and gear for three nights and four days in the woods. Which meant either finding another adult to accompany us, trying out Adrien as the bow paddler in Matt’s canoe, with Avery duffing. But we were weeks away from the trip and there was no chance we’d find another canoeist to join us. Jack, my youngest son, an Eagle Scout and nearly 22, would have been the logical choice. Or my wife, René. But both of them are still working and weren’t available.

“I’ll have to kayak and you and Adrien and Avery can use the Old Town,” I said, thinking that the Coleman, our other paddling canoe, was too small for the gear we’d need if we added a kid.

“OK.”

The second problem was, well, pretty obvious. Like I said, Avery is high energy. Not that his older brother is lethargic. Adrien is plenty active in his own right. And the two of them together? They brawl and argue and carry on just like you’d expect from brothers three years apart. So I wasn’t concerned about having Avery join our little expedition simply due to his age. With his personality, I was worried he’d be bored silly while his brother and dad canoed Hog Creek’s winding, narrow course into Perent, a trip that usually takes two to three hours. There’s a ninety degree turn nearly every hundred yards, making Hog Creek laborious. And I was also concerned that the little guy would not take to sitting in the bottom of the Old Town as Matt and I paddled around the lake searching for walleye.

The third issue didn’t involve the kids or Matt directly. It was me. While I’ve kayaked on the Cloquet River, a wide, fairly flat, piece of water from my house to Bowman Lake, I’ve never taken a kayak into the BWCA. My skills in such a narrow, tippy, craft are rudimentary, which caused me brief concern.

What the hell, I thought. No time like retirement to learn something new.

I spent the better part of the Wednesday before we left packing our gear and food. On Monday, Adrien and I’d gone into town to shop from the menu I’d created. We picked up food and supplies at Gander Outdoors and Cub Foods. After we completed our mission, we came back to the house and sorted the food: nearly all dried and dehydrated with the exception of some organic mandarin oranges I’d added as fresh fruit. That turned out to be a mistake: the oranges didn’t last a day before they started to sprout mold. We never ate a one. Anyway. After Adrien and I separated the food into meals, I packed everything in black plastic garbage bags and stuffed my dad’s old Duluth Pack (the best inheritance a son could ever hope for!) with food. Then I wandered out to the garage and dug through our camping bin and on the shelves for all of the cooking and other items we’d need for our journey: my two-person Alps tent; headlamp; cook kit and folding frying pan and sporks and plastic utensil set; battery powered lantern; camping hatchet; para cord; and two-burner propane Coleman and LP fuel. All of that gear was stuffed into an old Army duffle given to me with a smile by some supply grunt at Ft. Dix back in 1981 when I enlisted. I also packed my own Duluth Pack (a Christmas gift from Dad three decades ago: they really are built to last a lifetime!) with my clothes, rain gear, my tent, ThermaRest pad, a couple issues of The Sun magazine and a Sam Cook essay collection. I would eventually read the magazines in my tent at night by the light of a headlamp suspended from the tent’s ceiling. But the Cook? Never got to it.

Wednesday after packing the duffle and Duluth Packs, I walked outside, the day waning, put the hitch on my Jeep Grand Cherokee, drove across the lawn, connected my aluminum trailer, drove to the canoe rack next to the river, loaded my 10′ piece of crap SunDolphin fishing kayak in the trailer, hoisted the way-too heavy 18′ Old Town Discovery onto the Jeep’s roof rack, fastened the canoe and kayak down, drove back across the lawn, and parked the Jeep next to the garage. I loaded the duffle. the packs, my soft-sided tackle box, rod tube, worm buckets, life jackets, and paddles into the rear of the Jeep, leaving the back rope holding the canoe loose to allow Matt to load his gear in the morning.

I’ll stop here to clear up the title of this essay. My wife loves that goofy app, JibJab, where you take head shots of yourself and others and add them to music to create a silly video. She’s infected all three of Matt’s kids, including Ari, the youngest and the only girl, with her nonsense. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve taken to calling Adrien and Avery “JibJabbers” for their antics. And when they are out of line, I’ll yell “Quit yer JibJabbing.” That’s what the title is trying to reflect: the likelihood our canoe trip would end up emulating those stupid videos. In some ways, it did …

Matt and the boys made it to the house on Thursday morning right on time. We loaded up and hit the road. After a brief stop in Two Harbors, we turned north on Highway No. 2, towards the Isabella Ranger Station to pick up our permit. Except …

“I thought the Ranger station was in this building.”

We made it to Isabella, after only a minor detour due to Grandfatherly misdirection, well before 1:00pm. My thought was, I wanted to be on Hog Creek no later than 1:30 or so, giving us plenty of daylight to negotiate that meander, get into Perent, find a campsite, and set up camp. Nice plan, right?

“It was,” Matt said.

We spent time driving around Isabella. Not a lot of time, you understand, since it’s just a hamlet in the middle of nowhere.

“What’s your receipt say as to where you’re supposed to pick up the permit?’

The Jeep grew quiet.

“Matt?”

“It says permit pick-up is at the Tofte Ranger station.”

Matt called Tofte and found out they were open until 4:30pm. We had plenty of time, given it was an hour drive and not yet two, to pick up the permit. Still. There was a lot of father son discussion about reading the fine print before setting out on a wild goose chase. But, we got to Tofte, watched the obligatory BWCA video with the boys, got our permit and directions how to access Hog Creek via the back roads.

Hog Creek Portage Pond
Matt and the Boys on Hog Creek.

We made it to the landing by 3:30. I was concerned we’d left ourselves precious little daylight to find a campsite, set up, and cook dinner. Turned out my assessment of the situation was correct. And that was before we encountered another unexpected delay.

“Matt, do you have your rods?” I asked as we paddled a wide stretch of the creek close to its confluence with Perent Lake.

“I thought you grabbed them,” Matt said.

“No, I’m not in charge of your shit, Matt,” I said, in a less than grandfatherly tone.

“You told me to move them, when they were resting next to the packs.”

“That’s because I didn’t want them to get busted. But I never loaded them in your canoe and they’re not in the kayak.”

Understand: by this time we’d climbed over three beaver dams and were two-thirds of the way down the creek. There was little choice: I had one extra rod in my tube. Fine for Matt but the kids wouldn’t be able to fish.

“I’ll go back. You keep paddling. Stay at the mouth when you hit the lake so I can find you.”

As I headed back upstream, the modest current a non-factor, I was pretty pissed off. The rods weren’t left at the portage, a short jaunt from the landing. They were all the way back at the landing, where we started. Which meant that, in addition to climbing over at least one of the three dams, I’d have to unload the gear in the kayak (Matt’s and the kids’ extra stuff), and portage not once, but twice. I’m never gonna do this again, I thought as my shoulders throbbed and my legs tightened when I pressed my feet into the SunDolphin’s foot pegs. But, despite adding at least another hour and a half to the journey (I paddled like mad), and making nearly three complete trips up and down Hog Creek, when I met up with my son and grandsons, the tempest had passed. Exhaustion will do that to a guy.

Things didn’t get easier.

“What about that campsite?” I asked as we paddled into the lake.

“No good. I let the kids out there to explore. It’s no good. All lilly pads. No place to swim.”

We pushed on, following the dots on my 1987 McKenzie Map (OK, I take responsibility for using a map older than three of my kids!), but finding every campsite either no longer in existence (happened once) or already taken (happened about a half-dozen times). It was after seven, the sun completely gone, night encroaching, when I finally had had enough: “Let’s go back to that first campsite and hope it’s not taken.”

Turns out, yes, there appeared to be no place for the kids to swim given the entrance to the site was clogged with weeds but, in fact, the campsite itself was perfect. Plenty of space for three or four tents. Ample firewood. Decent pit toilet. Fairly level rocks for cooking and storing pots and pans. “Matt, what is wrong with you?”

“What?”

“You said this campsite stunk. It’s perfect, except for the weeds. We paddled all the way around the lake when we could have been here, setting up, having dinner.”

“I only said there was no place for the kids to swim.”

“That’s not what you said..”

By the time our tents were pitched and camp was set up, it was too late for dinner so we gobbled some jerky, trail mix, and breakfast bars and called it a night.

Despite a few minor meltdowns by the littlest JibJabber, and a fright put into the older JibJabber when Matt and I insisted he turn off his headlamp to watch a satellite cross the starry night sky, the kids did swell over the span of four days in the forest. However, Avery did show the attention span of a typical four year old: “When are we going fishing?” he’d ask as we did dishes or made supper or whatever. Then, as soon as we were on the water, him not catching fish (you need to keep your line in the water to catch anything!), it was “This is boring. When are we going back to camp?” And so it went.

Adrien turned out to be our salvation. Oh, Matt and I caught small walleye and some small pike. I added a rock bass and a perch to the mix. None of them were big enough to keep for supper until Adrien brought in a nice 15″ walleye, followed by its smaller sister or brother. Matt then caught a couple about the same size, and we had fish for Saturday night supper!

Adrien accompanied me when I, very apologetically, filleted the four walleye we kept. Because we didn’t want to attract bears, we canoed a short distance away from camp, cleaned the fish, deposited the guts and leavings beneath leaves and branches, and brought back a zip lock of fairly boneless fillets. Given my meager fish cleaning skills, there were complaints about a bone or two being encountered during dinner. Not from my son, mind you, but from the JibJabbers.

Gramps and Adrien Coming Back with Fillets
Fishing Buddies
Fresh Walleye and Spanish Rice for Dinner
Nightfall in Camp

We never saw moose despite being in the most moosey of places. But there was ample evidence, in the form of old bones from what was likely an old wolf kill, that moose had been around. What we did witness, what thrilled the boys as we floated on the black water of Perent Lake in search of fish beneath a clear, though pre-autumnal, sky was a raft of red-headed mergansers-at least twenty strong, a chorus of loons, and most importantly, a host of bald eagles screaming and chirping from towering white pines next to our campsite.

One of Our Feathered Friends

The boys watched gape-mouthed as a brilliantly white headed raptor dove from the pinnacle of the sky, dipped its talons just below the lake’s rippling surface, snatched a fish, and found a tree in which to eat its lunch. It was a Marlin Perkins’ moment, one that Adrien, at seven, will always remember. One that, when he sees photos of the trip, Avery might also recall as he ages.

There was one night, when Matt and the boys were tucked in their sleeping bags in their tent, when the devil in the boy roared. Inexplicably, Avery decided that bedtime was as good as any for a meltdown. Man, the patience my son showed while Avery screamed and screamed and screamed, wailing as if somewhere had lit his socks on fire. I never had that measure of resolve when rearing my boys. If one of them engaged in such shenanigans, for better or for worse, he’d have been cuffed about the noggin’! Whether that worked, as parental redirection, any better than simply, as Matt did, waiting it out, well, I’ll leave it to Matt’s wife, the psychologist in the family! Besides, I’d been foresighted enough to pack earplugs in my ditty bag. So, when Avery’s nighttime opera began, I simply plugged in, read The Sun, and tuned out.

After our daily, morning fishing excursions (we ended up doing alright, boating somewhere around thirty fish, mostly walleye but none bigger than Adrien’s), we’d head back to camp, eat our PB& J pita sandwiches, jerky, trail mix, and breakfast bars, sip Kool Aid, and nap. My sons had all pitched in at Christmas and bought me a pretty neat Nest hammock, an offering from the National Parks Association (part of the purchase price goes to maintaining America’s “Best Idea”), which caused me, when I opened the package next to the tree, to say something like, “Oh, how nice.” And display a faux smile that would make a beauty pageant contestant proud. But you know what? I was wrong. What a wondrous nap one can take in a Nest, where you can draw loose fabric around you as if in a cocoon, and sleep the sleep of angels. Thanks, boys! And as you can see, Adrien also enjoyed the peace of swinging in the wilderness breeze to the sounds of loons trilling in the near distance.

Sunset on Perent

When we packed up Sunday morning, after a breakfast of stick-to-your-ribs maple and brown sugar steel-cut oatmeal (complete with sugar sprinkles because boys can always use more sugar!), I dreaded the trip back up Hog Creek. I was right to fret. I managed to flip my kayak trying to help the overloaded Discovery over the first dam. It wasn’t bad enough I flipped: I had an audience. I filled the SunDolphin from aft to bow with water and when the guys watching my antics from two canoes offered their assistance, I did what any red-blooded male would do: I declined. They pushed on and I lifted a boat heavy with several hundred pounds of water over my head and held it there, waiting for the water to drain. Matt had left me standing in waist deep water, struggling with the kayak. He apparently didn’t want to be associated with an idiot who can’t get out of a boat without tipping. But it got worse.

At the next dam, with Matt nowhere to be seen, but the same guys struggling over the second obstacle, I flipped ‘er again. This time, not much water got in but I was drenched: any part of me that had been dry after the first dunking, well, it was soaked. Luckily, my iPhone was in an Otter Box and secure from water. My wallet, however, was another matter. It was at the second dam that I made a discovery that really topped it all: I’d lost the tip to Avery’s Zebco rod back at the first beaver dam. I got back in the SunDolphin, not swearing but laughing like a fool at my stupidity, and paddled downstream. At the dam, I searched and searched until, just as I was ready to give up and leave, I spotted the teensiest bit of rod tip sitting upright in the cattails.

At the last dam, I flipped ‘er again. This time, two other guys, guys I’d not seen before, were at the dam, trying to coax their very expensive Kevlar Wenonah over the barrier. They too asked if they could help. I again declined.

I met up with Matt and the boys at the portage, which, given there were four other canoes vying for space, was pretty crowded. It was there that one of the guys who’d offered me aid at the last dam asked me, “Hey, aren’t you Mark?” Turns out my last debacle had been witnessed by friends of my son Chris: guys who’d taken my Old Town into the BWCA a time or two with my third son. Shit!

Thankfully I wasn’t alone in my ineptitude. After the other parties cleared the portage, we lugged our stuff across the trail for the final paddle. As Adrien and I moved packs into position to load the canoe, Matt brought the Old Town close to shore, and, alone in the canoe and on flat water, my son ended up taking a well-needed bath.

“Must be a Munger thing,” I said as Matt stood up, waist deep in cold water, the humor of the moment seemingly unappreciated.

Gramps and Adrien Mulling Over Life

Thing is, we all survived. Memories were made. And the JibJabbers? They learned a bit about why their grandfather isn’t a fan of copper being mined next door to God’s wilderness.

Mark

Peace.

Leaving Perent Lake but Ready for Another Paddling Adventure
Avery and the Jeep in Tofte on the Way Home.
A Tired JibJabber

Peace.

Mark

Harry gave me the fever that causes these nighttime visions. My father was the one who first interested me in stream trout fishing by taking me to the iconic fishery, the Brule in Wisconsin. I was five years old when he broke me out of nursery school to go with him across the old Interstate Bridge connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin. The dream didn’t die after that but was nurtured by me pedaling my Columbia one-speed to Engwall’s in Piedmont, or Miller Creek, or, later, when I had a five-speed Schwinn Varsity, to Keene’s Creek and the Midway up in Hermantown. I fished the way Harry taught me: with fly rod, hook, sinker, and worm. I caught a few, caught many more chubs than brook trout, the speckled denizens of those tiny waters, and on occasion, when the Minnesota DNR planted keeper sized German browns (8″ or better fish), I managed to catch one or two of those as well.

A brook trout in hand.

Over the years, my father introduced me to fishing the North Shore rivers, streams, and creeks for speckled trout: the Sucker, the Lester, the Manitou, the Temperance, and others. Though Dad owned a small collection of dry and wet flies, I never saw him use them when we fished. He was, like that drunk guy in a River Runs Through It a hook, sinker, and worm guy when it came to fishing brook trout. As a father myself, I introduced three of my four sons (sorry about that Dylan!) to the pleasures of stream fishing for brook trout.

During our family excursions up the Shore, we used my dad’s methodology. Somewhere along the way, Matt, the eldest, and Chris, my third son, developed an interest in tying and using flies. Though I inherited Dad’s flies and bought a few more on my own over the years, I remained a worm and hook guy. Why? Well, the few times I’d tried catching trout on a fly had been dismally disappointing. Since, during my working life, I managed maybe a trip up the Shore every two or three years, and since I love the taste of pan-fried speckled trout, I fished with what I knew would catch fish for dinner. This week, because it had been a good three years or better since I walked the slippery stones of a North Shore brook trout stream, I started to think that I needed time on the water in hip waders: just me, my fly rod, and wilderness. So when Rene’ announced she was spending Saturday with her pal Nancy picking blueberries in Bayfield, I told her I was going fishing.

My favorite stream.

I swore, as my Jeep bounded over boulders and fallen trees down the logging trail leading to the stream I’d spend the day on, I’d stick to flies for at least the first hour just to see whether I could master the four count rhythm and catch a brookie or two a dry fly. Here’s the thing though: with some rare exceptions, most of the streams of the North Shore are really no more than creeks. Except for their lower reaches, where the streams broaden a bit as they roar through canyons near their mouths before emptying into Lake Superior, the vast majority of the North Shore watercourses are narrow and boulder strewn, with much of their upper reaches clogged by overhanging black alders. The same brush that keeps their waters cold enough for brook trout makes it impossible to toss a fly in the traditional way.

A bit upstream from where I began, the alders take over.

As I worked upstream, I found a few spots where I could make a cast with a dry fly. But given it was late morning and a sunny day, I had no strikes. There were no trout rising to snatch natural bugs from the river’s surface, a bad sign for someone trying to emulate the natural food of the ecosystem. After an hour of fruitlessly trying to mimic Norman MacLean, I gave up. I’d told Chris during a call on my way up the Shore that I was going wormless. That was a lie. I had brought worms: not the dew worms I normally fished with but tiny angleworms. I slipped off the fly I was using, tied on a small florescent jig, pinched down the barb with a pliers, slid a worm on the small No. 8 hook, and went to work.

What a fisherman looks like after catching his first brookie of the day!

My plan was to work the upper reaches of the stream for a few hours, walk back to the Jeep, and motor down to the lower portion of the river, a place I’d fished with my old man and my sons, where I knew the trout to be bigger and the stream more forgiving. But I was catching trout where I was, albeit the biggest I actually landed was barely frying pan size at 7″. Though I missed a couple of bigger fish, getting them out of the water on the end of my jig but not into my hand, the majority of the fish I hooked and ended up releasing were between 4″-6″: too small, by my standards, to keep. A few of the brookies were tiny, maybe 3″ long. They too were carefully placed back in the cold waters of the river to grow.

“Just another pool,” I’d tell myself as I worked through the black alder in search of trouty places. I’d come to a spot that looked good, usually a whirling pool beneath low hanging cedars, confirm my instincts by catching a trout or two or three, and then, instead of turning around and heading back to the car, I kept going. It was so silent there, in the bosom of the river. There were no sounds of humanity, no car horns or train whistles or voices. Only the squawk of jays, the trilling of songbirds, and the occasional peeping of the bald eagle that flew above me, seemingly interested in my quest for trout, broke the silence of the valley. So I stayed, working upstream, until, pulling my FitBit out of my fishing vest, I noted it was five-thirty. I’d fished the river for six hours straight, hooked and landed two-dozen specs, used up all my worms, and lost a half-dozen flies and jigs to pines and cedars. It was time to head home.

The way back.

Easier said than done. I’d forgotten my walking stick, an essential for fishing streams like the one I was on, back at the house. Though my waders, inherited from Dad, had carpeting glued to the soles, making them less slippery than bare rubber, a walking stick for balance is pretty well standard equipment for trying to negotiate a river on the North Shore. I made do: I found a nicely peeled beaver chew that fit the bill. But that stick wasn’t the safeguard I thought it would be. I took three tumbles on the way downstream to the Jeep, banging both knees and eventually ending up on my ass in the current, my T-shirt soaked, water leaking over the tops of my waders. But beyond a few scrapes and scratches, I didn’t get hurt. Still, with my back aching and my body tired from crawling over old beaver dams and flotsam and alder limbs, I came to the realization that, at 64 years old, a man shouldn’t be doing what I was doing by myself. Sure, I had my cell phone with. But there was no service. If I broke an ankle trying to step through the slippery rocks, or broke a wrist trying to stop myself from falling, what then?

This is how an exhausted old trout fisherman looks when confronted by yet another obstacle.

I tried flies again in some of the wider spots as I made my way to the car. Nothing. I was ready to give up and just keep pushing through but when I came to the last bit of open water and saw trout feeding on small bugs on the surface, I had to give the dry fly on the end of my leader one last go.

The pool.

Success! After fifty-plus years of worm dunking, only occasionally tossing a dry fly at trout with no success, I managed to make a decent four count cast near where a brookie had surfaced, feel the strike, set the hook, and land the fish. It wasn’t a monster: just another 6″ speckled bit of God’s handiwork. But it was something.

The one.

Peace.

Mark

The Hapsburg Empire: A New History by Pieter Judson (2016. Belknap. ISBN 978-0-674-98676-3

My pal, Dave Michelson, gave me this tome to read. The thought behind Dave’s gesture was that, since both of us are going to Europe with a group of friends this August, and both of us are going to search for familial roots from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (he is of Austrian descent and I am 1/4 Slovenian), it would do me good to read some history of the empire. So I did.

Thing is, this book is, well, informative, a bit of a slog. Judson’s prose style is very academic, which can sometimes bog things down a bit. In addition, the author is most concerned with the premise behind this book: that scholars who view the Hapsburg Empire as a decayed, hapless enterprise that devolved until it was forced to defend itself from internal and external enemies, which resulted in WW I, “the war to end all wars,” are not totally correct. His main thrust is that the Empire was, in fact, progressive and modern and on the road to democracy despite its history as a monarchy. It’s fine if Judson wants to impress his readers with facts and statistics and the politics behind his view but what we are left with is pretty dull and dry. I was looking for the author to incorporate additional facts and history beyond recitation of political intrigue and the adaptations made by the rulers of the empire (including non-royal legislators) towards a more democratic future. That never happened and it made for a pretty slow go.

In addition, two themes that weren’t touched upon in the book but I was interested to read the author’s perspective about were; What sort of sanctions and/or limitations were placed upon Austria by the winning side at the culmination of WW I (with an eye to the fact that, the sanctions placed on Germany were, in large part, the cause of Hitler’s rise), and Why did Austria-Hungary feel the necessity to engage itself in war at all, given that the assassination triggering the decision involved a non-state actor from Serbia? The last question seemed to be one that Judson would spend a lot of time on given the premise behind the book but it was given little in-depth analysis or even reportage.

In the end, I learned a great deal about the development of the bureaucracy of the nation, a bit about the relationships between Austria and Hungary and the other nationalities and linguistic groups incorporated into the empire but I didn’t get a sense of history or come to an understanding of what it was that made Austria-Hungry the dualistic nation that essentially began the Great War. This seemed, from beginning to end, to be a textbook for an upper level history/political science course and not a book to be consumed by ordinary folks simply interested in the region.

3 stars out of 5. A valuable read in terms of its premise but a very demanding text.

Mark

Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich (2018. University of Minnesota. ISBN 978-1-5179-0562-0


OK. Here’s a required disclosure. I first met Ms. Stonich when her debut novel, These Granite Islands was released on the heels of my debut novel, The Legacy. We were both invited to do readings and signings of our books at the Duluth Barnes and Noble. She had no idea who I was and likely had no idea I’d written a novel. So she didn’t attend my event at the local BN. I, on the other hand, read all about her and her first book in a very nice profile in the DNT, which prompted me to write an essay about writerly envy (mine!) in the Hermantown Star. Of course, I never thought she’d read an essay written in a suburban newspaper but, through a mutual friend, she did. Ms. Stonich emailed me a tongue-in-cheek response. I attended her event at BN. We became writerly friends. And remain such. There. Disclosure out of the way!

To the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the character of Meg in the first installment of the Laurentian Trilogy (Vacationland) and was pleased to see her “pop up” in this second novel set in the imaginary, northern Minnesota border town and tourist trap, Hatchet Inlet, a place that bears a mighty close resemblance to Ely, Minnesota. But before I dive deeper into why this book is a good read, I want to clear up a few small points of irritation I have with the book. All three criticisms are minor and have nothing to do with the characters, plot, or overall story.

First, Alpo, the main male protagonist, engages in trout fishing which given northeastern Minnesota (from Duluth up the North Shore) has a lot to choose from in terms of stream trout fishing, is a nice touch. But here’s my beef: the author has Alpo catching and releasing cutthroat trout. In NE Minnesota. While that point might seem to be a minor factoid, it isn’t to a trout fisherman (like me!). Minnesota has only two native trout species (and they are actually char, not true trout): lake trout, found in Lake Superior and some larger, deeper inland lakes; and brook trout, originally limited to Lake Superior and streams flowing into the big lake up to the first natural barrier in the streams. When Europeans arrived, brookies were planted by settlers and sportsmen in North Shore streams above the first natural barrier and in other creeks, streams, and rivers. The point is, Alpo would have been fishing for brookies, not cutthroat trout (or perhaps German Browns, or Rainbow trout, both which were introduced into some of NE Minnesota’s creeks, streams, and rivers by settlers and sportsmen). He would not be fishing cutthroat trout in NE Minnesota. (See https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/fish/trout/index.html).

My second minor critique regarding the natural world is this: Minnesota hasn’t had a verified, resident population of wolverines since the big pines and spruce were clear-cut in the early 1900s. Is it possible that a single, male wolverine looking for a mate (much like the reports of cougars in Minnesota) could wander into NE Minnesota from Ontario? Possible but never verified. (See https://bringmethenews.com/news/north-dakota-just-saw-its-first-confirmed-wolverine-in-a-long-time). A better choice would have been to have characters in the story talk about fishers, of which NE Minnesota has plenty of and which are a pretty awesome member of the weasel family in their own right. A minor point but one worth getting right in such a well-drawn story.

Finally, there’s a fleeting reference to a badger being involved with a dead body. NE Minnesota is the only area of the state where there are no resident badgers. I’ve lived a life in the woods in and around Duluth, including many trips to the BWCA and up the North Shore, fishing, camping, XC skiing, and hiking and have never, not a once, encountered a badger in my “neck of the woods” dead or alive. (See https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/issues/2016/may-jun/badgers.html). A better choice for a mammal of this type that does inhabit the forests of NE Minnesota would have been either a woodchuck or a porcupine. But enough with the petty.

Here’s the thing about Ms. Stonich’s writing. She is a master of character, making all of the folks populating her imaginary worlds seem fully formed and worth worrying over. This novel is no exception. From Alpo to Sissy to Louise to Pete to Rauri, these are people you come to care about. The only “villain” in the tale appears offstage (Rev. Peter: will we learn more about him in installment 3 of the series?). Even though the dementia-driven Louise seems hellish, she too is redeemed in the end. How that happens, I can’t say other than to hint that her final scenes are hectic, uproarious, and cinematic. There is also abundant conflict, internal and otherwise, sufficient to keep a reader interested in just what the hell is going on in little Hatchet Inlet. The pacing is spot on. The dialogue, evoking the speech patterns of the Finnish/Minnesotan brogue (and its frequent understatedness) is right on the money.

So don’t let my minor quibbling about a few isolated facts dissuade you from picking up this book. In a nutshell, what I said to my wife when I was halfway into the read stands as a solid testament: “Your book club should read this one. I think you’d really like it.” This isn’t a literary work like These Granite Islands. It’s not War and Peace. The novel was fashioned as entertainment, not enlightenment and that’s OK. But there’s also enough, in the author’s careful wordsmithing of characters, scenes, and plot to allow those whose noses tend to be a bit loftier to enjoy the story. My take is that Ms. Stonich has written a tale somewhere between Patty Jane’s House of Curls and the best of the Cork O’Connor whodunits. Any author who can channel Minnesota writers Lorna Landvik and William Kent Krueger in the same book deserves a read.

4 stars out of 5: A great book club selection.

Mark

Mr. Walter and Ryder Litman

At one time, there were four elder statesmen on this trip. This year, due to age, death, and maladies, only one of the gentlemen made it. Mr. Walter “Frtiz” Mondale was the lone representative of the Greatest Generation to make the long trek to Lake Elsie in the Ontario bush. There’s a sadness in that equation, likely related to the fact that one of the missing guys is my father, Harry, the man who invited me on this trip more me than a decade ago. Dad underwent quadruple bypass surgery in December of 2016 and spent three months in recovery, but still made the journey from Port Charlotte, Florida to Lake Elsie in June of 2017 despite just having had a serious medical intervention to his 89 year old body. When he passed last April, he was getting his fishing gear together for the 2018 trip, ready to teach Mondale how to catch walleye. But such was not to be.

Mr. Walter’s right hand man in all things outdoors, George Millard, is also missing in action this year due to complications of knee replacement surgery. Bruce Meyer, the caboose of the quartet (he’s the youngest, a few years short of 90) and Harry’s longtime fishing and hunting partner, had to stay home in Iowa due to his own health issues. That left just Mr. Walter to protect the good name of his generation and prove, in the spirit of the camp, that even Norwegian pastor’s sons can fish.

There’s privilege attached to being the guy who’s responsible for driving a former Minnesota Attorney General, U.S. Senator, Vice President, and Ambassador to Japan into a foreign country. On the Friday afternoon before our trip, I picked Mr. Walter up at the Duluth airport, drove him the Willard Munger Inn, and got him situated with the help of my cousin Jeff (he runs the joint). I returned later with René to pick up my mom (her townhouse is close to the Willard) and Mr. Walter. We met Barb and Tony Perella (Sammy Perrella’s wife and son) at Valentino’s where we had a fabulous meal and caught up with family news and all things political. After dinner, I dropped Mr. Walter off at the Willard, dropped my mom at her townhouse, and headed up the hill.

Sounds pretty routine, right? Well, stop and think about it. Here I am, a retired state court judge, ferrying around a man who broke bread with the rich and famous and powerful, a man who was a heart beat away from the presidency. Me, this lowly Denfeld and UMD grad, a guy who visited the principals’ or deans’ office in every school he ever attended, is charged with making sure Mr. Walter gets to Ignace for the flight to the Litman Camp. Who decided I was trustworthy enough for such an assignment? Just askin’!

I picked up my passenger at 6:30am from the Willard. Jeff provided us with coffee and then, we began the seven hour drive north. A couple hours into the trip, we met Tony and Sammy Perrella in at the Blue Water Café in Grand Marais. It’s part of our annual tradition that we break bread at the Blue Water. More political talk, discussions of Tony’s interest in attending law school (he recently graduated from St. Thomas undergrad), and random jabbering about family and friends followed as we ate hearty breakfasts. Sammy paid the bill and then, we were back on the road.

The Beaver at Lake Elsie

Along the way, we saw a huge bull moose, his antlers sprouting velvet, standing out in the open, on the railroad tracks that parallel the Queen’s Highway. An hour or so after the moose, we pulled into Upsala, a hamlet with one gas station/restaurant and not much else. It’s also tradition that we stop and buy an ice cream treat in Upsala, something my father started years ago, before I was nominated to join the group. There’s utility in my having been asked along: all of the guys were, when I first started coming on the trip, nearly eighty, not the age one wants to be driving on two-lanes along the North Shore and through northwestern Ontario. Didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t asked to tag along for my fishing ability. I’m OK with being charged with getting my passengers, in this case, passenger, safely to Ignace.

At the Pigeon River, I handed our passports to the Canadian customs officer, a very polite yet business-like fellow in his early forties. And this is something that has happened before: the officer knew instantly who Mr. Walter was. Apparently, according to Sammy Perrella who had to go inside the customs building to declare some items, the guy was totally excited about the encounter: regaling his fellow officers with his brush with fame. That sort of reaction has never happened when we stop at American customs on our return to the States. I think the fact a young Canadian knew who Mr. Walter was says something about how Canadians and Americans appreciate history and how they’re taught history and public affairs in their respective educational systems. Can you name the current Canadian Prime Minister? I can. But how many Americans can? Anyway.

New folks own Ignace Airways, the charter float plane service the Litmans use to access their camp on Lake Elsie. Understand: Elsie is a long and deep body of pristine water with only two camps on its shores. The other place on the lake is occupied by a widow, Ava, who usually times her visits so as to be able to fly in or out with folks coming and going from the Litman Camp. Other than seeing an occasional boat from Ava’s camp fishing the lake, the only other folks we see are canoeists using the lake as a link in longer paddles. It’s a quiet, peaceful place when the planes are gone and the camp’s generator isn’t running; The sort of place a man needs to clear his head, his heart, and his soul. We unloaded our vehicles near the scale. Tim, the pilot, weighed all our stuff, loaded it into a trailer, fired up a four wheeler, hauled our gear to the Beaver, loaded the plane (with our assistance), and invited us to find a seat. I claimed in the co-pilot’s seat, a vantage point that gives one a clear and unobstructed view of the Canadian landscape rolling beneath the seaplane.

We’re greeted at the dock by Ross and Jay Litman, two of the camp’s owners and guys who know their way around both a fishing rod and a hammer. Owning a fly-in bush camp is taxing. There’s constant work to such a remote Shangri-La. The Litmans are the perfect family to run such a place: they’re forever fixing, improving, changing, and adapting things to meet the needs of their family and their guests. Gary Litman-a cousin, Sam Litman-Jay’s son, Ryder-Sam’s son, and a friend of Sam’s were also in camp, making the group a four generation lineup that should frighten any walleye into submission.

Mark and Tony.
Sheriff Ross with a lake whitefish.

Saturday evening went well. I was assigned to captain a boat with Sammy and Tony as my crew. As the week progresses, we shifted boats depending upon the weather and who was interested in fishing and who would rather stay in camp and nap or read or prepare the next meal. There’s a lot of napping involved between rain storms and heavy meals and chores and the occasional adult beverage such that not everyone goes out to fish whenever boats leave the dock.

Ross, Sammy, Devin, and me (taking photo) chasing walleye.
Releasing a Lake Elsie walleye.
Captain Jay piloting the pontoon on the cusp of a storm.
Puppies need a nap now and then…

Gary Litman casting for lake trout from the dock.

Gary and Jay battled small mouth bass on their fly rods, spending time in back bays in search of gullible, ravenous fish ready to attack anything thrown their way. We caught our fair share of walleye-sometimes at will, other times, after much effort and searching- as well as lake trout, whitefish, smallies, and pike. Almost all of the fish we caught were returned to the lake. Ross and Jay and Sammy and Gary served up gourmet meals (including a fabulous fish fry) with Jay being the chief chef and meal planner. Ross guided Mr. Walter and ensured that Harry’s pal caught fish. But, overall, the fishing wasn’t as good as it’s been on past trips, likely because the lake remained very cold. Trust me when I tell you Elsie’s waters haven’t warmed up: I took sauna and dove into the lake twice and the shrinkage, to steal George Castanza’s line, was noticeable!

Laker ready for release.

A few days before the trip ended, a plane landed picked up Gary Litman and Sam’s friend, and their gear. Our nightly discussions of politics, life, and sports surely missed their contributions. Wednesday evening, our last night at the camp, we journeyed out on the pontoon. We found fish and I ended the trip with the battle of my lifetime. At first, I thought I had a snag. But then the tip of my rod started to twitch and dance. I’d switched from my medium light rod to a stiffer, shorter, medium weight rod but was still fishing with 6# test, a bare jig, and no leader. It became apparent, early on in the fight, that I’d latched onto a big fish, likely a pike, that didn’t want to be caught. The critter dragged me from the bow of the pontoon, to the stern, and then back to the bow, all the while trying to bite off that meager monofilament connection between fish and man. Eventually, Captain Ross made his way to the bow with the net. I let the fish tire herself out and reeled gingerly, hoping against hope I didn’t snap the line. Ross patiently planned the one and only dip of the net the big fish was going to allow, and in one motion, gathered in the giant. The fish was so big, only her head and one-third of her body fit in the net. We eyeballed the fish at 42″ or so and guessed the fish was somewhere between 16# and 20#. With little fanfare, I slipped the hook out of the pike’s mouth and slid her back into the lake.

The Loch Elsie Monster…

Thursday morning came and it was time to clear out our gear and get ready to leave. Everyone has a job before the Beaver or the Otter arrive to fly us out. My job, since I’ve been coming on the trip, is to sweep and mop the floors of the main cabin and the bunkhouse. Now that there’s an on-demand hot water heater on site, it’s not nearly as arduous a task as when we had to boil kettles of water on the stove. By ten, our gear was piled outside the cabins and all the chores were done. In the midst of clean-up, Ross motored down the lake, picked up Ava, and motored back. But the plane didn’t come at 10:30 as planned. Tim, the pilot, was tied up flying other fishermen to other camps and it wasn’t until early afternoon that our group was flown out in two shifts. I went with Mr. Walter, Ava, Jay, and the Perrellas. The camp dogs, Sam and his son Ryder, and Ross followed in a second flight.

Waiting to Board the Otter.
On the way home.

We waited at the seaplane base for the rest of our group and once the second plane arrived, loaded our gear into cars and a trailer, said goodbye to Ava and the folks from Ignace Air, and started the long drive back to Duluth. We met up one last time, at the Subway in Grand Marais, and then I drove Mr. Walter back to the Willard.

Friday, Sheriff Ross and Tony Perella picked Mr. Walter up at the Willard and drove him to the airport. Their route took them up Piedmont Avenue, a portion of which is designated “Mondale Drive”. The signage honoring Mr. Walter was always a bone of contention for my father: he went toe to toe with MNDOT over the diminutive nature of the placard. Mr. Walter, I believe, shares my late father’s view of things. That being said, I want our former Vice President to know that, despite the less-than-impressive signage posted along Piedmont Avenue in his honor, he’s huge in the hearts of his Lake Elsie fishing buddies. Thank you, Mr. Walter, for your service to Minnesota and America.

Peace.

(With apologies to the creator of Driving Miss Daisy)

Mark

The signage. You be the judge!
The Complete Stores of Leonora Carrington Introduction by K. Davis (2017. Dorothy. ISBN 978099736648)

1 star out of 5. Terrible.

When I think of all the books I’ve read, only two stand out as being as difficult to read and complete as this one. Until I Find You, a terrible novel by John Irving, ended up in the trash before I finished it. It by Stephen King, was so horrific a story (a clown murdering children? Godawful, that!), I stopped a third of the way in. This collection of weird and nonsensical imaginations from Ms. Carrington, a surrealist painter, is in the running for the worst of the lot. None of the stories made sense. They have no enlightening or redeeming value. They have no plot, no characters of note, and no cohesiveness of design. In a word, this book is a waste of time. This collection was hyped on Lit Hub. Why, I have no earthly idea. Don’t bother.

Finn by Waino W. Korpela (2012. Korpela Publishing. ISBN 978-1-937706-06-7)

On the contrary, this little memoir/poetry collection/essay on Finnish language is a hidden gem. Not perfect, you understand, but certainly, for those studying Finnish American history and immigration, a worthy addition to your library. Korpela, who passed away in 1999, wrote an epic poem outlining Finnish history and that poem, “Song of Suomi”, is the beginning place for a reader’s introduction into his reflections and thinking on Finnishness. The poem isn’t perfect: some of the stanzas and transitions are clunky and less polished. But overall, it gives a solid, quick, fast-paced introduction into Finnish history. The notes to the poem, added as an addendum, are helpful in explaining the details that are glossed over in verse.

Korpela’s discussion of Finnish linguistics and the roots of the language takes up the middle section of the book and is enlightening, if a tad bit dry.

The final section includes short stories and poems that chronicle Waino’s life as a Finnish American child growing up on a farm. This is really the highlight of the collection and I wish he had put pen to paper more often with an eye to writing fiction.

All in all, a satisfying reading experience.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

My grandfather and grandmother, Jack and Marie Kobe, shared a vision. Jack, a Slovenian immigrant, and Marie, a school teacher born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, somehow managed to find each other. Jack grew up the son of an immigrant miner and a miner himself. When Jack wasn’t working (he was employed in a local open-pit mine at age 14), his loves were hunting and fishing. With Grandpa’s connections to the railroads, he’d hop an ore train, jump off at a favorite lake or hunting spot, and catch a train back to Aurora at days’ end. In his early twenties, Jack and his brothers built a hunting shack on the shoreline of Wynne Lake (near present-day Giant’s Ridge) proving Grandpa also knew how to swing a hammer.

Susanne Kobe Schuler, author of Back of Beyond

            Grandma Marie taught school in Aurora. She’d been lured to northeastern Minnesota by its lakes and beauty—her romantic, poet’s heart having been steeped in Service and Longfellow and summers spent with her family at resorts in northern Wisconsin. As a girl and a young woman, she dreamed of a camp surrounded by birches and pines. She met Jack on a tour of his mine. Sparks flew and they were married. Work required that the Kobe’s resettle in Duluth but Marie’s dream of having a place in the woods never abated. In 1939, after giving birth to daughters Barbara and Susanne, Marie found her Shangri-La. She and Jack purchased 160 acres of cutover land on Bear Island Lake near Ely and set about building a resort. It was to be a working man’s place: affordable, rustic, tidy, and clean. Because Jack worked as a salesman for Berwind Coal, he hired Finnish carpenters to build cabins, a fish-cleaning house, an ice house, and a small store. By the summer of 1940, the place was open for business. Marie originally wanted to name the resort “Back of Beyond” but settled on “Buena Vista” (Beautiful View) as being more appropriate.

From Left to Right: Unknown girl, Susanne, Barb, and Lizette Barber

            My mom and aunt grew up working the resort. They’d leave school in Duluth in April, finish the grade in Ely, begin the next grade in Ely, close up the resort in October, and enroll in the Duluth schools until the following April, when the cycle would repeat itself. All of the antics and heartaches and stories from the girls’ time at Buena Vista are chronicled by my Aunt Susanne in her memoir Back of Beyond. By the early ‘50s, with Barbara’s marriage looming and Susanne entering St. Scholastica, my grandparents decided to sell the resort to pay for a wedding and college.

            Over the years the resort, known as The Escape, and Timberwolf Lodge, managed to stay afloat as a no nonsense, family-oriented place.  The simple cabins built by hard-working Finns formed the cornerstone of a legacy. While working as an arbitrator in Winton, I stayed at Timberwolf Lodge with my three oldest sons and my wife, Rene’. When my eldest boy wanted to take a vacation with his family, he chose to stay in one of the original cabins at the resort. But times have been hard on small, family operated resorts. So, when I received an email from my daughter-in-law that the resort had been sold again, the news wasn’t earth shattering. What was surprising, and uplifting, and completely in keeping with my grandparents’ vision for Buena Vista is the new owner’s intentions for the place.

            The Twin Cities YMCA purchased Timberwolf Lodge (and the adjacent Northern Lights Resort) to create a family camp. The Y needed another facility in northern Minnesota to accommodate families yearning for a connection to wilderness. When I learned about the transition being planned for Buena Vista, it brought tears to my eyes. Grandpa Jack and Grandma Marie are smiling! What better use of the original cabins, forested land, and sandy beaches of the old resort than a place for parents and kids to bond with nature? I shot an email to the Y. Niki Geisler emailed me back. She’d read Back of Beyond and was excited to make contact with the Kobe family. Niki invited the family to the dedication of the revamped facility, dubbed Camp Northern Lights. It was heartwarming to find out that the camp’s main road is now known as “Kobe Drive”, that the cabins built for my grandparents are now demarcated “Buena Vista”, and that new cabins built by the Y—in a style reminiscent of those built in the ‘30’s—bear the label “Back of Beyond”.

            On May 30th, my 90-year-old-mother, my 86 -year-old-aunt, myself, and other family members—four generations of Kobe’s—were guests of honor at the dedication of Camp Northern Lights. As we toured the new facility with Y staff, Mom had tears in her eyes. My aunt, confined to a wheelchair by age and unable to take the tour, smiled broadly when asked to sign copies of Back of Beyond for folks visiting with her at the Sisu Lodge.

And as my seven-year-old grandson, Adrien, stood on a dock, the blue, crystalline, and clear waters of a border country lake rippling behind him, I knew Grandpa Jack and Grandma Marie were happy with the way things turned out.

(c) Mark Munger, 2019

An edited version of this essay first appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.

Bonhoeffer: Pator, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (2010. T. Nelson. ISBN 978-1-5955-5138-2

Marvelous. That’s the one word I’d use to describe this fine biography as well as the exemplary life lived by Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Prescient is also another word that fits here. Unlike many of the Lutheran pastors of his time, Bonhoeffer recognized Adolph Hitler, long before the Night of the Long Knives, long before the burning of books, long before the rounding up of the Jews and other “undesireables”, for what he was: evil. Unvarnished, uncontrolled, and unrepentant evil.

Metaxas takes us through Dietrich’s early life, his education, his loves, and his relationships with mentors, friends, and family: something completely expected in a massive biography such as this. But more importantly, it is the author’s painstaking recreation of his subject’s metamorphosis from pulpit skeptic of Hitler to would-be assassin, that drives this work:

I am hopelessly torn here, going to India and returning to Germany to take charge of a preacher’s seminary shortly to be opened there. I no longer believe in the university…It is high time we broke with our theologically based restraint towards the state’s actions-which, after all, is only fear. “Speak out for those who cannot speak”-who in the church today realizes that this is the very least that the Bible requires us to do?

(Letter of 9/11/34 to E. Sutz)

The use of original source material, as I did in Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story, can lead a reader to become bogged down in minutia. But the author avoids that here and, in almost every instance, the original source material clarifies the subject’s evolution from pacifist to conspirator. Even though I knew the ultimate, horrific fate that awaited this kind and genteel man for his participation in the conspiracy to kill Hitler, I found the road to that conclusion fascinating. I especially enjoyed Metaxas’s detailed revelation of the Confessing Church’s role in pastoral opposition to Hitler, to include, in Bonhoeffer’s case, being willing to take the matter further and actually plan the assassination of the Nazi leader. That principled stand is starkly different from the fawning adoration expressed by the State Lutheran Church for Hitler and his policies. “Make Germany Great Again” could well have been the catch phrase that the official church adopted as part of its creed; a creed by which pastors and leaders turned a blind eye to the truth: Adolph Hitler was not a Christian, had no love for his fellow man, and was, if there is such a being, Satan incarnate. Bringing Germany back from the bowels of desperation occasioned by the nation’s humility at the conclusion of the Great War was good enough for leaders of the state-sanctioned church to turn a blind eye to this reality.

I find it interesting that, here in the U.S., leaders of the Evangelical movement have adopted our current leader and his nationalistic, “Make America Great Again” slogan much like the state church in Germany adopted the ideas and policies of Adolph Hitler. Church leaders on the Right seem willing to ignore the fact that our current leader neither espouses nor embraces the tenets of Christianity that Bonhoeffer spoke about in sermon after sermon: piety, love of God, modesty, charity for one’s neighbor, love for those who don’t love us, and on and on. I make no claim that Donald Trump is the essence of evil that Adolph Hitler clearly proved to be. But I also think that the evidence is very clear Trump is not someone who “speaks for those who cannot speak”. Failing to understand the similarities between then and now is to miss the arc of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life’s work and his sacrifice.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Carver: Collected Stories by Raymond Carver (2009. Library of America. ISBN 978-1-59853-046-9)

I’d always heard about Raymond Carver, hailed as the champion of late 20th century minimalism in short fiction. But I’d never read any of his work. He’s a rare animal, in terms of a fiction writer in that, so far as I am aware, Carver never completed a novel. His entire career and catalog of work, most of which is included in this volume, involves that dying animal, the short story. One of my kids gifted this book to me (at my request) for the past Christmas and it was the first of four books I read while spending two weeks on the Garden Island.

My take on Carver’s writing is, that, at times, it is simply magnificent. “The Bath” and its various permutations, “The Ducks”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, and “Tell the WomenWe’re Going” all stand up to Hemingway’s or Welty’s or Lawrence’s best. Carver is not a happy writer, writing quaint little vignettes of domestic life; few, if any, of the characters are happy or have marriages that are fulfilling, complete, or loving. There is much turmoil, likely mirroring that of Carver’s own personal life, displayed in these tales. But more than the fine storytelling held within the hardcovers of this tome, it is the side-by side comparison of Carver’s original work to the edited versions of his stories, pared down, sparse snippets of the efforts, all accomplished at the brutal hand of Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, that makes this collection intriguing to a writer like me. Lish’s scalpel is evident in many of final versions of the stories but it is most prominent in the gruesomely engaging “Tell the Women We’re Going” where two young married men chase after two teenaged girls on bicycles to a bad end. As published, the tale runs 6 and 1/2 pages. Carver’s original, a far more detailed and sinister version of the themes Lish reined in, weighs in at 13 and 1/2 pages! So the question one must ask, if we’re considering an original of nearly twice the length versus the final, edited cut of a story, Who was actually the writer, the originator of the sparse, crisp, curt writing for which Carver is applauded and lionized?

Despite the editorial quibble I raise above, a worthy addition to any reader’s library.

4 stars out of 5.

The Breath of a Whale by Leigh Calvez (2019. Sasquatch. ISBN 978-1-632178-6-3)

I picked up this beautifully bound and illustrated trade paperback at the Talk Story Bookstore, the only bookstore on Kaua’i. I was, very simply, drawn in by the cover art and the extremely high quality of the binding and presentation. That’s an interesting way to buy a book by an author you’ve never heard of, I’ll grant you. But, given that we were searching for humpback whales during our stay on the island, and given the book appeared to be about, you guessed it, humpback whales, I took a chance. I’m glad I did.

Calvez has spent her adult life studying whales, particularly the whales of the Pacific. She’s spent time along the mainland coast, in Oregon and Washington State, and in the Hawaiian Islands, mostly engaged in researching the lives and habits of blue whales, humpbacks, and orcas. There’s no question, upon reading her prose, she’s a gifted and concerned environmentalist and scientist. But more than that, she is also a gifted writer:

Blue whales can live to be ninety years old. Do they remember being hunted in the 1960s and 1970s in their historic feeding areas, so they simply don’t go there anymore? Do they remember the days when they could hear others of their kind from a thousand miles away rather than one hundred miles or so today, due to the levels of noise pollution in the oceans? Why is it they have moved closer together? Is it so that they can hear one another?

Her prose is elegant, well paced, and yet, conveys the details of her expertise without weighing down the narrative with excessive facts and science. And, she is, despite all the issues confronting whales and dolphins and their kin today, hopeful about the survival of these magnificent mammals, which in this very complex and troubled world, is in itself, a reason to read the book.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2018. Milkweed. ISBN 978-1-57131-130-6)



Richard Wagamese was, according to the back jacket of this enthralling novel, one of Canada’s great authors, indigenous or otherwise, up until his death in 2017. I picked up this book at Zenith Bookstore in friendly West Duluth (none of that Spirit Valley bullshit for this Denfeld boy!) and packed it into my computer bag for our Hawaiian vacation. I’m glad I took the novel along.

Wagamese’s character, Saul Indian Horse, begins his journey of loss, sadness, understanding, and redemption, as a boy escaping the Indian boarding school movement. His grandmother and his family take him north, into the bush, to avoid being captured by the authorities and sent off to assimilation. The early sections of the book, to my mind, recall the best of Native American mysticism and surrealism as depicted by Grover, Alexi, Treuer, and Erdrich. In addition, the author’s depiction of the world of the indigenous boarding school is fascinating, terrifying, and haunting:

St. Jerome’s was hell on earth. We were marched everywhere. In the mornings, after the priests had walked through the dorms ringing cowbells to scare us awake, we were marched to the latrines. We stood in lines waiting our turn at the toilets-dozens of them for a hundred and twenty boys. Some of us soiled our pants during the wait, because we were strapped if we left our beds at night…

Saul’s tale of woe takes a bright turn when he discovers, despite his diminutive size, an ability to both skate and put the puck in the net. Hockey, playing on a tribal team against other tribal teams, becomes the Indian child’s ticket out of hell. He lands in the arms of a loving Native family, where, for the first time since he left his grandmother, he finds love and compassion and understanding. In fact, Fred Kelly and his wife Martha, the folks who give Saul a home, know more about what Saul has endured than Saul does himself. I found the hockey section of the book to be a bit too lengthy. I wanted more detail about Saul’s alcoholism, his battle towards sobriety, and the loves of his life. That’s my only criticism of the novel: it lives a tad too long on the rink.

This would make an excellent book club selection given the themes it explores and the high quality of its prose.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr (2002. Scribner. ISBN 978-1-4391-9005-0)

Excellence. You’d expect nothing less from an author who has won a Pulitzer (for All the Light We Cannot See, reviewed elsewhere on this blog). Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we?

When the rain let up he heard the water dripping from the roof and a cricket under the refrigerator started singing. There was a new voice in the kitchen, a familiar voice, the mwadhini’s. He said, “You will be left alone now. As I promised.”

“My son…” the shell collector began.

“This blindness,” the mwadhini said, taking an auger shell from the kitchen table and rolling it over the wood, “it is not unlike a shell, is it? The way a shell protects the animal inside? The way an animal can retreat inside, tucked safely away? Of course, the sick came, of course they came to seek a cure. Well, you will have your peace now.”

Yes, the shell collector, the story’s protagonist, is blind, living on a beach in Africa, collecting rare shells, some of which have healing powers, some of which can kill a man. But there’s so much more to this tale than is revealed in an exemplar snippet. Trust me. If you enjoy great writing and revel in finely crafted short fiction, pick this one up and devour it in one sitting as I did. Bob at Zenith books recommended this one even though he’s not a short story reader. He was right to point me in the direction of the shell collector.

5 stars out of 5. Every story, a rare shell of truth…

Return to Paradise by James Michener (1951. Dial. ISBN 978-0-8129-8677-8)

Finally. After the Grisham debacle, The Reckoning, where a modern day writer began his tale of heroism in the South Pacific brilliantly, only to have it fade into nonsense at the book’s conclusion, I feel fulfilled. This collection is unique in that Michener gives us both an essay about a place (for example, New Zealand) and a short fictional story about folks who live there (such as “Until They Sail”, which happens to be my favorite piece of fiction in the book). My friend, Nancy McVean, picked this book out when she and her husband Ron were vacationing on Kaua’i and wandering around their favorite (and only) bookstore on the Garden Island. She knew I liked books about places I’ve been to and so, Return to Paradise was part of this year’s Christmas present. I’m glad she gave it to me.

Now to the critique. Whereas Grisham’s latest novel seemed to lose steam, perhaps because the author wrote himself into a corner or perhaps because, quite simply once the historical portion of the tale was complete, he lost interest in the topic (The Bataan Death March), Michener’s essays and short stories hold up well from beginning to end. What is so gratifying to me as a writer is that this effort was accomplished by one of our best in mid-career, before he engaged a cadre of researchers to do his leg work or resorted to “co-writing” with lesser lights (take note, James Patterson and others!). Here’s a sample of the type of splendid writing I’m talking about:

The days of that dreadful autumn were rainy, cold, and dismal. Barbara tried her best-in the house of five women and no men-to keep spirits alive. She baked special goodies for their teas, instituted a program of reading each night at least four poems from The Oxford Book of English Verse, but the love lyrics were so lacerating to the heart that by common consent this was stopped. And week by week, the Japs came closer…And then titanic hope burst like a mighty spring flower all across New Zealand. The 1st Marine Division landed from America, and with it came astonishing stories of equipment, superb young men, and hope.

There. Concise, tight, and well executed writing that makes an author smile. Michener’s essays set the stage for the actions, emotions, and successes or failures of his myriad characters in multiple exotic locales. From Fiji to Australia, readers are side by side with the author for a wild and wonderful trip through the South Pacific. The final essay, where Michener pontificates about the changing geopolitical nature of America’s relationship with Asia, is spot on and, in this time of Little Rocket Man and The Orange Headed One, troubling to say the least.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A valuable and scintilating look at the islands of the Pacific.

Peace.

Mark

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