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.