I read with some interest a recent letter to the editor concerning my alma mater, Duluth Denfeld High School. The writer seemed to advocate returning Denfeld to its “roots” as a training ground for the trades, back to a Smith-Hughes-style curriculum to re-emphasize blue-collar trades and de-emphasize careers in education, the law, engineering, medicine, or other professions. As I write this response, it’s no secret that parents and educators and administrators and school board members are discussing ways to restore population and opportunity equity between Duluth’s two public high schools. I have no skin in that game. All my children went to Hermantown schools. My wife Rene’ and I made a choice 34 years ago to live in the country, a choice that had nothing to do with the Duluth school system and everything to do with lifestyle. We didn’t leave St. Marie Street in Duluth because of educational turmoil. But it seems given the recent, passionate debate concerning the disparities between Denfeld and East, some Duluth parents might be making choices for their kids based upon the lack of opportunities available for kids living on the Hillside and out West. If that’s the case, I think calls for changing Denfeld’s educational mission and focus would be a serious mistake.

I was never the smartest kid at Piedmont, Lincoln, or Denfeld. But Gary Ames (my 4th grade teacher) apparently saw something in me. My perceived abilities were limited to reading, writing, English, and the social sciences. Though I took accelerated science classes later in my public school education, my math skills remain rudimentary. No calculus for this guy! But thanks to Mr. Ames, I spent an hour a day in 4th grade concentrating on reading and writing with Mrs. Zakula. Because of my participation in Mrs. Zakula’s workshop, I found myself plucked from Mr. Child’s sixth grade class at Piedmont to spend mornings at Lincoln Elementary with kids from Stowe, Morgan Park, Riverside, Irving, Laura MaCarthur, Merritt, Bryant, Ensign, and Lincoln: elementary schools located in the Western half of the city. Two kids were named from each school to spend time with Miss Hollingsworth; a dedicated, smart, no-nonsense teacher who tried to keep twenty or so gifted students engaged. My partner in crime from Piedmont was Jan Erickson (now Larson). Our moms took turns driving us to and from Lincoln. We’d work on English, writing, spelling, reading, drama, and history/geography at Lincoln, eat our lunch, and then head back up the hill for math, science, art, and gym at Piedmont. We weren’t teased or ostracized or ridiculed by our Piedmont classmates. It was an accepted part of the day that Jan and I would wander back after lunch and resume our seats at Piedmont for the afternoon session. And the kids who spent time with Miss Hollingsworth? What became of them, these children of ironworkers and steel plant employees and electricians and custodians and nurses and railroaders? You already know my story. Jan became a pharmacist. Other “special” class members became engineers, professors, chemists, teachers, and school administrators. Some, its true, migrated towards blue-collar jobs, working in construction and the mines and the like. But so far as I know, all went on to lead productive, enlightened, engaging adult lives.

Personally, I carried with me a singular skill from my time with Miss Hollingsworth, a skill that served me well throughout junior high, high school, college, and law school. One of the most important components of mornings spent under Miss Hollingsworth’s tutelage was the requirement that we write, edit, and compile three massive written reports during the year. One had to be a biography. One had to be a historical and geographical review of a foreign country. And the third? We were allowed to choose any topic we wanted to write about. In addition to meeting certain size, illustration, and editorial limitations set by Miss Hollingsworth, we were also required to give an oral presentation of our reports to the class. The fact that Miss Hollingsworth required us to produce documents that, quite frankly, went beyond any writing assignment I encountered until college, and then get up and talk about our work, well, that experience alone was enough to ensure we were successful as we entered adulthood and went off to college, the trades, or the military.

The bottom line is, had Mr. Ames or Mrs. Zakula or Miss Hollingsworth not seen something in this Piedmont kid, or if the other teachers in all those other Western elementary schools not seen similar attributes in their students, who knows where we would have ended up in life. There’s certainly no shame in being an electrician, a welder, a bank teller, or a caregiver in an assisted living facility. All trades, jobs, and professions have their own sense of duty and honor and dignity attached to them. But to suggest, as the recent letter writer did, that kids from the Hillside and the Western half of Duluth should somehow be limited in their aspirations seems to me to be shortsighted and ignores the history of what kids from those neighborhoods are capable of achieving.

( (c) Mark Munger 2017. This essay originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune. Mark is the young fella, fourth from the left in the first row. Ms. Erickson Larson is in the middle row, second from the left.)

 

 

 

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy (Audible. 2009 ISBN 978-0553381559)

I was given a copy of Conroy’s last book, A Low Country Heart by a friend for Christmas. I wasn’t too kind to the old guy in my review (use the search function above to find what I had to say) but, having loved the movie version of Prince of Tides and having heard nothing but raves about The Great Santini and Conroy’s other, autobiographical novels, well, I had to try another book written by this Boy of the South. I chose Santini as my selection and listened to the Audible version of the novel on my rides to and from the courthouse. Here’s my take.

Conroy knew himself, his family dynamics, the fear and loathing, and yes, love, he felt for his father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot who served in three wars. It’s a difficult thing, I think, for sons to write about fathers. At least, I know that will be true for me when I finally sit down to put my life with my old man on the page. The warts. The celebrations. The wisdom. The anger. The tender moments. The praise. The chastisement. They all have to be there, whether you’re writing an autobiographical novel or a memoir. Here, at times, I think Conroy’s venting of his teenage-self’s hatred of The Great Santini, who, like the author’s own father, is a no-holds–barred disciplinarian and asshole, gets in the way of the protagonist’s story. And yet, in the end, Conroy is such a masterful storyteller, for 3/4 of the novel, he had me spellbound. It’s the other 1/4 of the book, where Bull Meecham is an unbearable brute, who, despite the ending (spoiler alert) eventually does get his comeuppance, and several extended narrative passages  chronicling the details of the Meecham family’s domestic life, that leads me to give this less than a 5 star or even a 4 and 1/2 star review. Conroy knows how to write for the male half of American society. His depictions of boyhood bullying and sports and flirtations with girls becoming young women is all spot on. I enjoyed the story except for those rare passages that dragged or became so brutal and horrific (in terms of Bull’s behaviors) that I nearly wanted to scream at Ben, the son, the oldest child, and the Conroy stand-in, to find Bull’s .45, put a bullet in the old man’s noggin and end it all. But, after finishing this marathon of family dysfunction, I have to admit: Pat Conroy knew how to spin a yarn.

4 stars out of 5. I need to see how Duvall played Bull in the movie. On to NetFlix…

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance (Audible. Harper Audio. 2016. 978-0062300553)

Weird, huh? I follow up reading one Southern writer’s bestselling novel by diving into a memoir/social science dissertation concerning mountain folk, poverty, welfare, and yes, just like The Great Santini, family violence and dysfunction. J. D. Vance is a survivor. No doubt about that. When one reads (or in my case, listens to) his life story as depicted in this tale, it’s remarkable that the boy made it to becoming a man. That much is clear. Vance makes it readily apparent that he managed to become an Ivy League-educated lawyer and writer, not because of his immediate family (his parents) but because of extended family, friends, and teachers filling in the void, protecting him, nurturing him. The autobiographical portions of the book are outstanding. It’s when Vance switches from telling his life story and educating the reader/listener indirectly about the effects of poverty and familial discord upon children though his prose to lecturing us on social policy that the memoir loses steam.

It’s a worthy read, a read that fits in well with our current political impasse but Vance’s pronouncement that he remains a “Conservative Republican” begs the question: How can that be possible? I mean, is he not reading the newspapers, listening to the radio, watching the news (including Fox)? I’m not talking about the Orange Headed One and his accelerating disintegration. I’m talking about what the leaders of the Republican Party are proposing in terms of social engineering with the dismantling of the ACA, defunding birth control services provided by Planned Parenthood, tax breaks for the wealthiest segment of society, increased military spending at the expense of Medicaid, and the like. Take Vance’s experience as the grandson of Kentucky hillbillies as an example. He writes poignantly and lovingly, but with a distinct hint of irony and angst, about his mother, his sister and other young women becoming pregnant months after they have their first menses. Where does these young women turn for birth control if Planned Parenthood is defunded? Surely, a man as smart as Vance knows that simply because some old white dudes in Washington stop making birth control available for poor teenaged girls, they won’t stop having sex and making babies.

I enjoyed hearing Vance’s story. And he’s right: more folks, white, black, rich, poor all need to take responsibility for their own actions. But sometimes, despite all the rhetoric coming from The Right, folks do need a helping hand. Despite having been able to take advantage of Pell grants and scholarships and other programs directed at serving the author and others in his situation, Vance’s “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” mantra, though eloquent and without the harshness of Rush or Hannity’s vitriol, rang a bit false to me. Still, overall, this memoir is a well-crafted, valuable read.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
Jean Rhys

Thanks to Lake Superior Writers for asking me to speak today at the annual meeting of this robust, determined, fine organization. Also, I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s writing contest. It’s a privilege to share the podium with you folks and applaud your hard work and dedicated creativity. On to the talk. Lawyers have a hard time saying their names, much less giving a speech, in fifteen minutes.

It was suggested that you might want to hear about my writing journey and the creative process I engage in every morning when I fire up the coffee pot, spend a few moments of contemplation in the john, and wander sleepy eyed into my writing studio overlooking the wild and scenic Cloquet River. But as proud as I am of my routine and the prodigious number of words my pens and word processors—from that first Tandy 286 we bought in 1984 to the 27” iMac that’s been my writerly tool for the past seven years—have produced over the course of twenty-six years, I’m not interested in rehashing the unique process I engage in to craft books. I’m here to talk about the universal flow of words in keeping with the theme of this year’s contest. And while, in a physical sense, we’ve had more than enough rain to fill my beloved Cloquet River to the brim, it’s Ms. Rhys’s metaphorical river, a river in danger of being dammed and eliminated by current events, that concerns me today. What do I mean?

First off, what I’m about to say might come off as overtly political. I don’t intend my remarks to offend or alienate anyone who might have a different take on the world than I do. We’re all entitled to our opinions and beliefs. That’s, as George W. Bush might say, “the beauty of Amerika.” But, having been given this short snippet of time to speak to you, rather than regurgitate old truisms about writing and process, I want to candidly speak about my own struggles with where we are as a people and a culture since November of 2016 in the context of being poets, essayists, and fiction writers. Here goes.

I was devastated. There’s no other way to describe what I felt waking up on that Wednesday morning. I’d pulled all-niters before (I never did go to bed in 2000, believing that Al Gore had won and then slowly learning, as night became morning, that he had not). I’ve found myself on the losing side of the electoral ledger many times (beginning in 1972 with George McGovern) so when the reality of The Donald being elected our president sank in, there was disappointment, yes. There was a bit of anger, sure. But I was not ready for the impact November 8th had on my writing.

Those of you who‘ve followed my hectic, toss-everything-at-the-wall and see what sticks, go it alone approach to building a writerly portfolio can attest to this simple truth: In nearly three decades, having written and published seven novels, one massive biography, a collection of essays, and a volume of short fiction, I’ve never been slowed by that dreaded curse, writer’s block. After having sought the assistance of literary agents and failed, having published my first novel, The Legacy, in 2000 on a cooperative basis with Mike Savage, I’ve made my mark, pun intended, as a self-published writer by sticking to my guns, by writing what I’m interested in and what I think readers might want to read. Knowing who you are as an artist, knowing what you value in you work, is the key to surviving. Here’s what that sage of Texas wisdom, Willie Nelson, once wrote about such things:

When it came time to record, I think Columbia expected me to fly to Nashville, New York, or L.A., and cut the songs in a state-of-the-art studio with triple-scale sidemen…I used my own band…The arrangements were lean. The accompaniment behind me was sparse. We cut every song in just a few takes…The feeling couldn’t have been more relaxed…But when the chief Columbia bigwig heard the tracks, he said, “Why are you turning in a demo?”

“Ain’t no demo”, I explained. “This is the finished product”.

“Can’t be. It’s too rough. It’s too raw. It doesn’t sound like a finished record. “

“What’s a finished record sound like?”

“Anything but this…You need to go back in and polish it.”

That ain’t gonna happen…”

“You’re making our job impossible.”

“Well, let’s see what the public says.”

The public said yes, we like this Red Headed Stranger. We like this sparse sound. We like this sad story…”Blue Eyes Cryin in the Rain” (sent) the album to the top of the charts. One week the execs were calling the record my ruination; a week later, it was my breakthrough.

I use this snippet from Nelson’s memoir, It’s a Long Story to illustrate that I’m not the only stubborn SOB who thinks he knows what he’s doing when it comes to his or her art. But that stubbornness, or fortitude, or sisu if you will, took a big hit on November 8th. So much of what I believed in as an American, so much of what I thought our nation stood for, at least in my left-leaning, certifiably Liberal with a big “L” mind, was placed at risk by The Donald’s election as our president, I found, for the first time in nearly thirty years, I had no will, no impetus, no ability to sit down and begin.

I say “begin” because my 10th book, Boomtown, was finished in early 2016 and published later that year. Between writing short essays and book reviews and putting them on my blog, posting writerly events and family news on Facebook, writing a short story here and there, I was searching for another novel. It dawned on me in late 2015, as Boomtown went through its final edit, that the Finns have been my best and most loyal readers. It intrigued me that the story I told in my first Finnish American historical novel, Suomalaiset, the tale of Finnish immigrant Anders Ahlomaki, had a temporal relationship to the debates that raged during the Presidential campaign concerning The Other: folks with dark faces and a belief in God filtered through The Prophet. As I thought of a new project I recalled that, as depicted in Suomalaiset, it was here in Duluth, in the very courthouse where I work, that Judge William Cant was asked to apply the Oriental Exclusion Act to Finns; declaring them to be descendents of Genghis Kahn and thus, ineligible under federal law to become American citizens. As I watched and listened to the talk of walls and exclusion and theocratic bans, the idea for Kotimaa: Homeland, the story of why Anders Ahlomaki left Finland for America juxtaposed against the angst and turmoil and upset occurring both here and in Europe due to the influx of The Other, percolated in my head. Thinking about the topic of my work-in-progress brings to mind another Jean Rhys quote:

Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important it finds homes for us everywhere.”

I’d started researching and writing the first chapter of Kotimaa before the election. Things seemed to be, as is usual once I get into a writing project, moving comfortably ahead. And then that damned election happened. It stopped me cold, dead in my tracks. I could not write.

Truthfully, things haven’t gotten that much easier for me now that The Donald is in office. I won’t go all political here and rant about the latest revelations of deception, falsehood, self-dealing, hypocrisy (though I do chuckle now, when watching the news, as I recall those nasty chants of “Lock her up”, and think ”yeah, ain’t Karma a bitch?”). But I will say this: reading the most recent issue of Poets and Writers magazine gives me a deeper appreciation for how serious, how dire the situation for the arts has become.

Predictably, the new regime is focusing its laser sharp budgetary pen on the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and anything remotely tied to promoting and sponsoring art and literature in this country. Of course, these gestures are wholly symbolic: the total cost of all federal arts programs doesn’t equal the cost of one submarine, one aircraft carrier, or likely, one year’s worth of secret service protection for The Donald’s entourage. But the bull’s eye is there, on the back of every poet, writer, painter, sculptor, and musician who benefits from such programs. Here’s a sampling of what some folks, folks much smarter and more respected than me, say about this assault on the arts.

Indeed, too often these days it feels like we are swept along by negative forces beyond our control. We need to resist that feeling. We need to remind ourselves that…we are creators. Let’s not underestimate or diminish the energy of that creative potential…

Kevin Larimar, Editor in Chief, Poets and Writers.

Poet Erin Belieu…an organizer of Writer Resist rallies, which brought out thousands of writers and citizens in cities all across the United States on January 15, five days before the…inauguration, asserts that such rallies are essential to defend free expression, reject hatred, and uphold truth in the face of lies and misinformation.

 Remembering poet Elizabeth Alexander’s recitation of “Praise Song for the Day” at Obama’s 2008 inauguration, Nicole Sealey, the executive director of Cave Canem, and a woman of color, had this take on things: “So much has changed” is a very gracious way to describe the political climate in which we now find ourselves. In “Praise Song for the Day”, the speaker asks, “What if the mightiest word is love?” I have no doubt it is love, but the new administration would have me believe that the mightiest word is fear…

 Sharon Rab, founder of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize weighs into the discussion by quoting author Barbara Kingsolver as to the importance of literature: Writer after writer has remarked that literature helps readers empathize with others, an experience that can shift the tide from violence, aggression, fear, injustice, and love of power that leads to war—to the tolerance and understanding that leads to peace. Barbara Kingsolver describes empathy as “developing like a muscle—it strengthens with use.” Literature makes us realize our shared humanity, a realization essential to any genuine pursuit of peace.

 Poets and Writers devotes more than ten pages of the current issue to profile writers and poets who’ve received NEA grants to launch careers. Most of the folks included are of limited means and of color: NEA grants awarded to those writers ensure diversity of thought and genre beyond the James Patterson and Vince Flynn novels crowding the shelves of our bookstores. One young Asian American novelist, Peter Ho Davies, has a unique perspective on the current situation. He happened to be in Washington D.C., on 9/11 working at the NEA, sifting through applications, having been previously awarded two NEA grants himself. The NEA was housed in an old federal building not too far from the White House. Here’s his story:

We saw smoke rising from the Pentagon…(and) we were evacuated. That afternoon, back at the hotel, we decided to continue our work… There’s been much talk of patriotism in the years between then and now. The NEA, representing as it does, a nation’s faith in the arts, seemed to me that day and ever since, an institution any country could and should be proud of. The federal building where the NEA was based on 9/11 was, incidentally, the Old Post Office Pavilion, now the Trump International Hotel. The cost for a night in its largest suite on 9/11/2017? $25,000 per night.”

 Against this backdrop of turmoil and unrest and dissonance, have I been able to fire up my iMac and begin? Sort of. I’ve managed to research and write a rough draft of the first one-third of Kotimaa: Homeland, the portion of the tale where Anders Ahlomaki, like many other Finnish males of his time, migrates from Finland to the copper mines of Norway. But things have again slowed down. Anders and I, at least for now, are stranded in Røros, Norway. The year is 1905. I’m attempting to work on a contemporary section of the novel set in the States and Finland in 2017: a time when the world is coming to grips with nationalism, racism, and The Donald’s rise to power. Some might ask, “Why? Why do you write about such things? Why pick the scab from the wound?” Here’s the thing.

First, I write about topics and people and circumstances that interest me. My novels have covered a wide range of human experience and history. I’ve written about horrific suffering in the Balkans (The Legacy); about infidelity and its impact on family (Pigs: A Trial Lawyer’s Story); race, addiction, Catholicism, and redemption (Esther’s Race); religious fundamentalism (Laman’s River); the turbulent politics and labor relations of the early 1900s in Duluth (Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh); the holocaust and the terrible choices Finland and Estonia were forced to make during WW II (Sukulaiset: The Kindred); and concerns raised by the proposed mining of copper/nickel in northern Minnesota (Boomtown). In the end, I view my role as an author as an entertainer but one who also attempts to educate (not indoctrinate) his readers by requiring them to use their critical thinking skills. In terms of style, I write somewhere in the nether world between genre fiction and literary fiction, which may be why I’m here, talking to your folks, instead of accepting a Pulitzer. But that’s who I am. That’s what I do.

In the same recent issue of Poets and Writers, author Laura Walter, musing about writers and publishing and success and fame, related how she deals with her writing students when they ask, “But my manuscript—do you think it’s any good?” Her take is that what the student is really asking is, “If I spend all these painful, terrifying, uncertain hours working on this book, can I expect a payoff, or is there a chance I’ll do all this work and be left with nothing in the end?” Here’s her take:

 The difficult answer is yes, you really can do that work and not receive the kind of payoff you probably dream about—literary agents, book deals, starred Kirkus reviews…In an effort to be transparent, I (tell folks) about novels I’ve written that didn’t secure an agent, much less a contract. Even so, completing those manuscripts made me a better, stronger, writer…I frame my answer this way because I worry that writers might be seeking shortcuts—if one can’t ensure the work will lead to a payout, then maybe it’s not worth devoting time to the project at all. But the publishing industry offers no shortcuts or guarantees. The only variable writers can control is how hard they work.

I guess, in the end, I’ll rely upon my fortitude, my sisu, and my work ethic to sustain me through these next two or four or six or eight years. God, it hurts to say that! But I’ll pluck along on my keyboard, searching for those goofy Finnish and Norwegian umlauts, trying to bring a story together that is, for me, true.

(This essay was given as a speech on 05/21/2017 to the Lake Superior Writers. (c) 2017, Mark Munger)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home Sweet Jerome by Diane Rapaport (2014. Johnson Books. ISBN 978-1-55566-454-1)

Most folks who travel to Arizona for vacation (or to spend the winter as “snow birds”) eventually end up taking the long, snaking road out of the valley up to the old copper mining town of Jerome located between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Rene’ and I bypassed that side trip last April, our first visit to The Grand Canyon State, in favor of, well Sedona and the Grand Canyon. This year, with Rene’s sister and brother-in-law along for the ride (actually, come to think of it, Al rented the car and drove!), we made time to stop in Jerome on our way to Sedona. While wandering the crooked, narrow, steep, slanty streets of Jerome, I stopped in at the local museum and bought this short history of Jerome’s people and the place. I’m sure glad I did.

More of a collection of short vignettes about the rise and fall of copper mining, pot growing, the arts, the characters, and the buildings of Jerome than a cover-to-cover narrative history, I found Rapaport’s choice of inserting the personal alongside the factual a solid editing choice. It made the book read much like you’re taking a stroll down one of the town’s rugged thoroughfares. The four of us spent a couple of hours wandering around this fascinating village in the sky, the snows of the San Franciscan Peaks still visible in the distance despite the 90 degree weather in the valley. High in the sloping neighborhoods of Jerome, the temperature was more moderate, 65 degrees, a welcome respite for northerners vacationing in the desert, and the perfect climate for discovery. I only wished I’d read Rapaport’s chronicle of the rise and fall of Jerome before we hit the streets, slid into a cozy little eatery a cup of coffee and a snack, and talked about the town’s vistas and beauty. I would’ve liked to have known about details of the village’s illegal, pot cultivating heritage-the income producing industry that replaced mining when the Douglas family pulled the plug on the copper mines-as I wandered the streets, gazing down at the nearby state park where the old underground mine is preserved for tourists. But I didn’t. And that’s a shame. I didn’t have the narrative backdrop of the exciting times that roared into Jerome in the late 1950s and into the 1980s when pot was king. Rapaport’s discussion of the end of the backyard drug trade reveals the sort of simple, matter-of-fact reportage that makes the book imminently readable and memorable.

The police raid was like an explosion. It shattered lives and caused immense turmoil. Those arrested were friends and neighbors. They were an integral part of the community. Six of them owned homes and worked hard to restore them. They helped fill volunteer positions. Our kids played with theirs. We smoked and partied with them; went camping and rafting. The fallout wrapped us in collective mourning, guilt, and anger.

When mining ceased in the 1950s and the town’s population plummeted from 15,000 to 400, leaving behind sagging streets, broken water mains, leaking sewers, and a demolished economy, the slow influx of artists and musicians and seekers and writers and dreamers was the impetus for the town’s salvation. With few financial resources and a devastated infrastructure to rebuild, the beatniks and hippies and the few natives who hung one reclaimed the once proud town, much of the reclamation being funded by illegal marijuana growing and selling. Not everything was easy. In fact, reading Rapaport’s account of the town’s resurrection, nothing was easy. And yet, today, the place is visited by over one million tourists, whose credit cards and currency keep the dream of Jerome alive, all thanks to a handful of tough, ornery cusses whose vision of an artists’ and thinkers’ paradise, at least when the hubbub of tourism dies down, isn’t far from the reality of the place.

A worthy exploration of a unique backwater town.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

The Valley of the Moon by Jack London (2006. Hard Press. Kindle version. ISBN 978-1406946253)

I loaded this old London novel I’d never heard of because my second son and his wife surprised us in naming their daughter, our first granddaughter, Saxon. I’d never heard the name and when I asked Dylan where they came up with such a lovely, unique name, he told me Saxon was the female protagonist in a long-forgotten Jack London novel he once enjoyed. Turns out that wasn’t the only surprise in nomenclature. Saxon’s middle name is Mercedes, and my wife and I presumed that was to honor the child’s maternal great grandmother, Ann Mercedes Raymond Privette. That’s true, Dylan advised, but then I ran across a character  named Mercedes in the book and I knew my son had pulled one over on us! To the book.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel. It’s a snapshot of California, particularly the rough and tumble of early 1900s Oakland, the setting for the first third or so of the story. Saxon is a laundress in a commercial laundry, working her hands and fingers and bones to weariness for a dollar or so a day under deplorable, non-unionized conditions alongside other women. She meets Billy Roberts, a sometime prizefighter and full time teamster whose ability with horses and fists is legendary. The two fall in love, marry, and set up housekeeping in a working class neighborhood of Oakland. True to the times, once married, Saxon quits working outside the home, becomes pregnant, loses the child, and then, economic disaster strikes: Billy’s employer is caught in the middle of a Teamsters Union strike. The boxer ends up in jail after a brawl over scabs, his arms broken by company thugs, and the couple loses everything. Instead of trying to hang on in Oakland, trying to scrounge up enough work to get by, Saxon and Billy set off on a journey to find, as it is coined in the beginning of their walk about California, “the valley in the moon.” At some point, with no real explanation, the catch phrase changes to “valley of the moon.” In either case, the object of Saxon and Billy’s journey by train, foot, stagecoach, and wagon replicates the migration of their forefathers and mothers from the East Coast through the Plains to California, though the protagonists’ peregrination is limited to California and a brief foray into southern Oregon.

London’s dialogue evokes a long-forgotten time, a voice and a diction that, interestingly, I heard distantly in phrases that my deceased father-in-law, a railroader, used into the 21st century. The author’s reliance upon speech patterns and expressions of his time, essentially contemporaneous to the story he tells, gives the plot authenticity. What isn’t authentic, at least to my eye, is the luck and happenstance that prevails in favor of Saxon and Billy’s ultimate success. The narrative ends up being a tad tilted towards the hero and heroine with not nearly enough conflict and struggle to be faced on what surely must have been a physically demanding and emotionally desperate migration. Then too, because of the times and London’s status as a world-renowned writer of distinctly American stock, there are moments in the story when, despite the author’s socialistic and liberal views towards working men and women, he displays disdain for immigrants of color (the Japanese and Chinese) and Southern European origin (the Italians and Greeks). Though voiced primarily by Billy, who is uneducated, illiterate, and at times, abusive towards Saxon, the disparagement of The Other sometimes feels as if it is coming from London directly, as if he is standing behind Billy, urging on the young man’s Xenophobia. The simplicity of the main characters, Billy as the impulsive, physical specimen, Saxon as the thinking, planning, demure handmaiden to her prince, also grows a bit long, especially when London, having exposed his readers to a dark, explosive, and dangerous side of husband towards wife, avoids wading too deeply into the psychology and after-effects of spousal abuse.

In the end, the book held my interest. London’s descriptions of the landscape the pair encounters on their quest for a farm on “government land”, a place in the world they can call their own, are expertly drawn. They should be. The ultimate destination for Saxon and Billy, the valley of the moon, is a place London knew well, a place he and his second wife, Charmian Kittridge, knew like the proverbial backs of their hands. In some ways, this novel is a precursor to the classic worker migration story told by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. That book is a classic. The Valley of the Moon isn’t, though I’m confident that the book’s namesake will be!

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

PS Rather than buy the usual Christening gift for Saxon, I went online and found a gorgeous first edition copy of the book and had it shipped from London (no pun intended) to Duluth. We brought the book with us on a visit to the kids in North Dakota after the Christening. It’s now in a glass case courtesy of Grandma Rene’ and sits in a place of adoration in the Munger home in Williston.

It’s a Long Life by Willie Nelson with David Ritz (2015. Back Bay Books. ISBN 978-0-316-40354-2)

This isn’t great literature. It’s the personal history of 20th century pop and country and blues culture centered around one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our generation. It isn’t epic or especially well-written. The language is plain and at times, a bit forced in terms of its folksy charm. There are some scene switches and editing glitches (maybe Willie will use that line in a song someday!) that grate and make one reassess just how entertaining this book is. And while the author proposes to “come clean” about his life in terms of his three failed marriages, his troubled youth, his pot use, and his problems with the IRS, there’s not a whole heck of a lot of personal revelation here that hasn’t been examined in other articles and books about Nelson. And yet:

I loved the book.

Sort of like Willie’s whiny, thin voice, I can’t really explain it.

But here’s a passage dealing with a court case involving the Highwaymen, Willie, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristopherson, and Waylon Jennings, when they were sued by a 1960s one-hit-wonder band, the original Highwaymen, for name appropriation. Judge Stephen S. Trott was one of the original band members, a federal district court judge, and the plaintiff in the civil lawsuit against the “real” Highwaymen.

“Your honor, I can only imagine the anger and dismay of the audience when, instead of seeing Judge Stephen S. Trott and his four associates take the stage, the fans see Willie, Waylon, Johnny, and Kris. I’d venture to say we’re even running the risk of a riot”…The judge got a kick Goldberg’s (Nelson’s lawyer’s) sarcasm and seemed ready to dismiss the case against us. I felt sorry for the original Highwaymen, though, and came up with an idea. I asked my partners whether they’d go along with my plan. “What do you have in mind?” asked Waylon. “Let’s get the original Highwaymen to open up for us at the Astrodome.” Waylon laughed. So did Johnny and Kris. The rodeo fans got to hear “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” and everyone lived happily ever after.

That passage paints a fairly accurate picture of literary voice and the type of humor Nelson relies upon to tell his story and that tone and tenor suits the old cowboy just fine. But to me, as a struggling regional author, a writer who waits for accolades from readers and critics, the authorial approach that hits closest to home for me is the depiction of Nelson’s drive, his determination, to make his art his way. The story of Willie’s struggle to be true to himself and his muse, well that, to me is the real story here, with all its flaws, warts, and imperfections. These snippets of wisdom are valuable reminders that even the best artists run long and taxing races before they cross the finish line in glory. In this vein, Nelson’s depiction of his interaction with a Columbia Records executive about the content and styling of one of his greatest albums, Red Headed Stranger, is illuminating and positively inspiring. The executive hated the rough, raw, outlaw sound of the tapes Nelson tossed on his desk. But he’d been savvy enough to construct his contract to give one person creative control of his art: Willie Nelson. And that person believed in Willie Nelson. The rest is history.

A fun, quick read that has its pluses and minuses but, overall, paints a portrait of an American original that sings (pun intended!).

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey (1971. Ballantine. ISBN 345326492)

It was fortuitous that my friend Dave was reading this book when we were together on vacation. That’s true in two ways. First, I was about halfway through All the Wild that Remains, a profile and comparison of the wilderness ethics and lives of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner when Rene’ and I met up with Dave, his wife Lail, and some other friends in Scottsdale about a month ago. Secondly, because we were staying near Phoenix, a city that demonstrates issues raised by Abbey and Stegner in many of their writings (including the most obvious-that deserts and much of the arid West are not places to build cities because there is little water), the fact I was reading David Gessner’s new book about two icons of Western literature and my pal was reading Abbey’s classic memoir of a summer spent at Arches National Monument as a ranger was, well, just plain spooky. So it was only natural that, when I finished All the Wild that Remains, and Dave finished Desert Solitaire, we exchanged books and kept right on reading. Here’s my take on Abbey, having known about him, read about him, but having never read him until now.

We eat lunch, Ralph and I, and lie for another hour or two in the willow glade until the bright inferno  in the sky has edged far enough westward to let the cliffs shade part of the river. Then we launch off, in the middle of the afternoon, and paddle across the current to the shady side, abandoning ourselves once more to the noiseless effortless powerful slide of the Colorado through its burnishes chute of stone.

This passage, though not written about Abbey’s time spent at Arches but about an earlier trip through Glen Canyon to float an untamed and undammed section of the Colorado that Major Powell explored a century earlier, is typical of the magnificent prose Abbey is able to summon. Of course, given the author’s reputation as a monkey wrenching environmental saboteur, not every page is filled with literary greatness. At times, in an effort to promote his beliefs, including the major theme of his summer in Arches; that the federal government should stop paving gravel entrance roads to make trips by citidiots to our national treasures (National Monuments, Parks, Forests, and Wilderness Areas) easier and simply leave wilderness to be wilderness, Abbey comes off as preachy, condescending, and mean spirited. Ah, but that is but one aspect of what Abbey has to offer. The other more subtle, more Stegner-like side of the man is epitomized by countless passages and scenes like the one excerpted above: great writing that pulls you into a fascinating world where rain is occasional, brutal, but life sustaining, and where only the well-prepared human visitor should enter. There is much to admire in the man’s curmudgeonly discourse about modern America. There is much truth in his observations about the government being willing to alter nature and geography, such as creating Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam, despite the folly of such artifice. How much water is lost from that impoundment due to evaporation? How many tons of silt and mud and decay pile up behind the concrete restriction of the river, ultimately causing the lake to become cloudy, warm, and foul? How much of the vital sense of place, the taming of the wild for the gains of a few million fools who wish to play golf or water ski  or water grass lawns in the desert is lost when a river like the Colorado, the major source of water for a huge watershed, is captured and tamed? Abbey may be cranky, ornery, and foul-mouthed in his occasional rants against “The Man”. But his manner of addressing the implausibility of Phoenix and Las Vegas and Denver is no less credible or valuable than Stegner’s more professorial approach. Indeed, in some ways, Abbey’s unhinged discourse may be exactly the medicine we need today. In the present age, an age Abbey would likely rail even more profusely against, America finds itself confronted by federal leadership hell bent on “opening up the West” (allowing unrestricted mining, logging, grazing, drilling and other commercial uses of nationally-held lands) and decommissioning sacred, rare places like Arches National Monument; a sanctuary of desert originality holding on for dear life against the uninformed, narcissistic stroke of the presidential pen.

An astounding, if slightly disorganized (Abbey tends to meander from the story of his summer at Arches to other tales, though all have merit and should be read), call to arms. You don’t have to agree with every premise advanced by this self-styled apostle of wilderness but you do have to accept that much of what he said nearly fifty years ago has, and is, coming true.

Excellent.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014. Scribner. ISBN 978-1-4767-4658-6)

A story of contrasts. A German boy (Werner) whose life revolves around his ability to tinker with electronic gadgetry; his eyes and hands quick and easy with tools, his mind adept at solving problems,  joins one of the youth movements in Hitler’s Germany and becomes a person that his sister, with whom he shares a bleak existence in an orphanage, barely recognizes. Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl, lives a life of comparative luxury despite her infirmity, until she and her father are forced to flee France’s capital city, taking refuge in the fortress town of Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure’s ingenious father works as a locksmith for a museum and, as they move from city to town, uses his considerable model-making skills and locksmithing ability to craft models of Paris and Saint-Malo that allow the girl to travel within both in relative safety. But the German Wermacht is on the march and with the invasion of France, eventually the paths of the two young protagonists cross. Doerr won the Pulitzer for this unique and creative look at two lives tossed into the maelstrom of a cataclysmic conflict and it was much deserved. One of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, here’s a sample of the author’s voice and his fine prose:

Her father says their weapons gleam as if they have never been fired. He says their boots are clean and their uniforms spotless. He says they look as if they have just stepped out of air-conditioned train cars…Curfews are installed. Music that can be heard outdoors is banned. Public dances are banned. The country is in mourning and we must behave respectfully, announces the mayor. Though what authority he retains is not clear. Every time she comes within earshot, Marie-Laurie hears the phsst of her father lighting another match. His hands flutter between his pockets…He flips the locking clasp on his tool case over and over until Marie-Laure begs him to stop.

If you enjoyed The Nightengale, or my historical novel of the Finns and Estonians during WW II (Sukulaiset: The Kindred), this is the sort of well-crafted, highly charged prose that you will devour.

5 stars out of 5. A magnificent work.

All the Wild that Remains by David Gessner (2016. Norton. ISBN 978-0393352375)

Part memoir. Part travelogue. Part biography. Part environmental treatise. This well drawn work of non-fiction is the perfect reading companion for anyone traveling to Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Denver, or anyone simply interested in the environmental legacy of the American West. Gessner examines contemporary issues like land use, water rights, fracking, and wilderness in the context of the writings of Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegner, two revered Western writers. Both men, despite enormous differences in their approaches to environmental activism, retain dedicated followers decades after their respective deaths. Gessner inserts himself in the middle of the debate as to which approach: “monkey wrenching” (environmental sabotage; Abbey’s preferred method of achieving change), or philosophical and political dissertation (Stegner’s choice), is the more effective in terms of halting the degradation of Western resources and lands. This is a must read for fans of both writers because Gessner’s challenge, which he accepts and does an admirable job of meeting, is to consider present-day issues in the context of history and geographic reality, all the while merging the theoretical with the pragmatic. A good sign that the author is on the right track in pushing readers out of their comfort zones is this: I’ve never read Abbey, though I’ve read Stegner (he’s a fellow Eagle Scout, after all!) both his fiction (Angle of Repose) and his non-fiction (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian). Because of Gessner’s excellent writing on the similarities and differences between these two authors of the West, I’m now one-third into Abbey’s classic, Desert Solitare. That fact alone should compel you to pick up a copy of All the Wild that Remains.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

A Notion of Pelicans by Donna Salli (2016. North Star Press. ISBN 978-68201-035-8)

I’ve known Donna as a fellow writer, mostly from her attendance at readings I’ve given at various locales over the years. As a fellow author and as a teacher at Central Lakes Community College in Brainerd, she’s attended some of my events close to her home in central Minnesota. This effort, her first novel, is one that intrigued me and, after talking briefly with her recently, I bought the book directly from the publisher. When I told Donna I’d ordered it, she cautioned, “It’s really a women’s book…” but despite that caveat, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

More a collection of linked short stories, each section profiling a different female denizen of a mythical, nameless town on Lake Superior’s North Shore, the stories intertwine and create an overall tale much like a patchwork quilt; quilting being a familiar feminine pastime around these parts. But to be clear, the whole cloth is, as with a completed wall hanging or afghan for the back of the davenport, indeed greater than the sum of its patches. Taken as a whole, the stories form a thoughtful revelation of small town life centered around a little church congregation, its pastor and, most succinctly, the pastor’s wife. It is Serena Cross, the wife of Rev. Richard Cross, who functions as the character link in these vignettes depicting contemporary females as they deal with love, loss, infidelity, and age. Rena also serves as a link to the history of the town and the church in the form of her devotion to the memory of Lavinia Hansen, the town matriarch. It is Rena, more than any other character, who forms the binder, the glue if you will, to cement independent stories into a cogent whole. The writing is crisp; the plot intriguing but it is the character studies that Salli provides her readers with that compel us to continue on. We are drawn deeper and deeper into the internal dialogue of each of the characters until it seems like we too are as intimate with each woman portrayed in this collected tale as her partners and friends seem to be. One would expect a writer who teaches others to be a master of her craft. Salli doesn’t disappoint in this regard as this passage makes clear:

The chill outside lifted mid-morning, just before ten. By ten-fifteen, the day had gone to hell. But before we go there, let me say the morning started out like any other. I slipped into my nubbly-but-soft red chamois jacket, descended the narrow back stairs of the parsonage, and crossed the church grounds to the cemetery. There’s something about a cemetery that I love, and about this one, especially. In the sunshine this morning, the clutch of worn and fusty headstones rose brightly out of a crazy quilt of leaves. Mostly maple-feverishly red, calm yellow- with a smattering of oak-crisply, patient brown. As I sat there, thinking, looking out over the lake and running leaves through my fingertips, the world was kept at bay by the wrought-iron fence that wraps the perimeter.

The book is filled with realistic dialogue and the sort of tapestry of characters one would expect to find in any small town in the Midwest.

And therein lies my minor criticism of the book. The sense of place conveyed by Salli throughout (particularly because the cover art is so reminiscent of Grand Marais, Minnesota-the last outpost of civilization in northeastern Minnesota on the big lake before one crosses over into Canada) really isn’t that of the big lake and all it entails. Why? Here are a couple of  minor issues that, with a bit more research and familiarity with the North Shore, could have been avoided.

The consistent allegorical appearance of white pelicans along Lake Superior’s rugged north coast, gave me, a son of this “neck of the woods”, pause. I’ve lived around the big lake for over sixty years. I’ve never seen a white pelican (as depicted on the book’s cover) anywhere near this part of the world. Are white pelicans ever found on Lake Superior’s North Shore? Yes. But it’s such a rare and unusual event, that to mark it as relatively commonplace-as the story seems to suggest-doesn’t ring true for someone who knows the flora, fauna, and geography of the area. (For more on white pelicans on Lake Superior, see http://files.ontario.ca/environment-and-energy/species-at-risk/stdprod_075573.pdf. The article indicates that white pelicans on Lake Superior’s North Shore are confined to a small colony near Thunder Bay, ON.) The other anomaly that struck me from the place and setting aspect of the story was not jarring but still caused me to be drawn away from the book’s great writing. There’s a reference in the story to the sounds of railroads and locomotives moving about the unnamed town. Unless one is in Two Harbors or Silver Bay (where ore trains do occur) there are no trains or train tracks along the North Shore. Again, this might seem like a minor detail. And to readers from Ms. Salli’s backyard (Brainerd being a railroad town) the persistence of pelicans and the sounds of locomotives in an isolated village on the North Shore may not seem out of place. But they do to me.  A simple fix with respect to the namesake of the church, the white pelican, would have been to comment, either through Rena, the narrator, or another character, about how unusual it is to see a white pelican soaring over the rocks and waves of the North Shore. Add to that a short commentary about the trains, perhaps referencing that the town has links to taconite mining and shipping, and we’re good to go. In the end, I can forgive the trains but I remain slightly troubled by the pelicans.

I don’t want to dissuade readers from picking this novel as a worthy selection for consideration, enjoyment, and book club discussion. There’s plenty of great writing and conflict and interpersonal angst within the pages of this slender novel to make it a compelling read. And maybe, in the end, with my heritage of being a historian and primarily a historical novelist, I’m quibbling too much on detail. I’ll let you folks give a read and decide.

4 stars out of 5. A good, solid read that would make, despite some minor setting issues, a fine book club selection.

Peace.

Mark 

 

 

The photo at left was taken at the White Horse Tavern in downtown St. Cloud on St. Patrick’s Day. What you see in the photograph are seven old friends, some who’ve known each other since grade school, raising their glasses to the recently departed mother of another friend. The Bensons, the Johnsons, the Mungers, and Katy Wild-Olson met at the trendy saloon for dinner before attending a stunning performance by a Minnesota treasure, the Ring of Kerry Band, at the restored Paramount Theater in downtown St. Cloud. Absent were Bruce and Jan Larson. The Larsons were the first folks to accept my invitation to meet up in the county seat of Stearns County, listen to great Celtic music, and marvel at the talent of the young women in the St. Paul Irish Dancers performing alongside Ring of Kerry on the storied theater’s stage.

The Larsons, the other folks raising their pints, and Rene’ and I, are part of a group of friends, some couples, some singles, who gather for an annual holiday dinner in and around Duluth. Most of us are Denfeld grads. And most of us have been attending these get togethers for the better part of thirty years. As we’ve aged, we’ve also attended graduations, weddings, Eagle Scout ceremonies, and miscellaneous celebrations involving our respective children, vacationed together (including three Caribbean cruises, a few camping excursions, golf outings and pig roasts at the Munger Farm, canoe trips to the Michelsons, ski tours of Thomas Lake, visits to Arizona, and dinner-theater trips to the Twin Cities to see plays at the Guthrie, comedy at Acme, and live music at the Dakota). And as our parents have aged, we’ve also attended obligatory farewells to folks of the Greatest Generation. It was the death of the matriarch of the Erickson clan, Jan’s mother Shirley, that compelled Bruce to call me a week or so before our scheduled trip to St. Cloud.

“Mark,” Bruce said after I answered my cell phone in my Jeep, “Shirley passed away. Jan and I won’t be able to go to the concert.”

I assured Bruce and Jan that I’d cancel their hotel room and try to find folks to use their tickets for the show. Back home in my writing studio behind my iMac, I emailed the rest of our concert group the sad news. I also extended an invitation to others in the Dinner Club (there are 23 folks on that roster as of today) to attend the concert in the Larsons’ stead. I got no takers. On the Monday before St. Patrick’s Day, I called the hotel and got Larsons a refund on their room. Via office email, I also extended an invitation throughout the Sixth Judicial District allowing folks I work with to claim three free tickets to the show (I’d ordered 10 when I only needed 9 so I had 1 extra ticket even before the Larsons cancelled). Within minutes, Sheila from Monticello replied via the Web. I had no idea who Shirley was or what she looked like. But her daughter works in the Hibbing Courthouse, saw my mass email, called her mom, and the next thing I knew, the free tickets were claimed.

The other complicating factor was that we wanted to make it back to Duluth to say our goodbyes to Shirley. Her funeral was scheduled for 11:00am on Saturday morning. That meant eating a quick breakfast at the hotel, driving north for two and a half hours, and sliding into a pew at Christ Lutheran in Piedmont before the preacher got started. Doable but definitely not the leisurely Saturday morning I’d envisioned when I conceived the trip back in January. Thankfully, we’ve all aged gracefully. The pints and cocktails we quaffed down before the show were done with such maturity and moderation that no one had to negotiate an early morning hangover or exceed the speed limit on Highway 23 to make the funeral.

Anyway, inside the Paramount, I claimed my seat and introduced the group to Sheila, her husband, and their friend. Looking up at the distant terracotta ceiling, I marveled at the historic theater’s elegance. Visions of what the Norshor in Duluth may well become; a magnet for great music, theater, and entertainment in Old Duluth; manifested. When Ring of Kerry and the Irish Dancers finally took the stage, they did not disappoint. From “Danny Boy’s” soaring vocals, to fast paced reels and jigs and sea shanties that raised a ruckus, the authenticity of the band’s sound, their energized delivery, instilled timeless images of Ireland, Scotland, and Cape Breton upon the crowd. It was an evening of friendship, great food, hearty drink, old and new stories, and laughs accentuated by marvelous musical performances and enhanced by energetic, bright eyed young ladies twirling and whirling to iconic Celtic music.

Truth be told, younger folks wouldn’t have let the night end so soon. The street outside our hotel was barricaded from vehicle traffic. Live music played across the street inside a huge wall tent spanning half a block of downtown St. Cloud, allowing the Irish-and those who wish they were Irish-to party long into the night. But being of a certain age, we claimed soft, warm beds in the Grand Stay Suites, our bellies full of Guinness and wine and brandy and lamb stew and Shepard’s pie, our minds stilled to calm by remembrances of lovely music and dancing Irish lasses.

We met early Saturday morning in the lobby, slurped downed coffee, scarfed breakfast with deliberation, and hugged each other slan leat before driving north beneath a wintery sky, mindful that Shirley Erickson was waiting for us to come and say goodbye.

Peace.

Mark

(PS Here’s a sample of what you all missed:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vWumoL7XuQ. Buy their music at: https://www.ringofkerry.us/.)

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