Can’t Quarrel with Kirkus

Kirkus provided me with a fine review of the new book.



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From the October Newsletter of the Bookstore at Fitger’s


Last week we debuted our new Newsletter Feature – 5 QUESTIONS! This week we’re profiling local author Mark Munger, whose new book Duck and Cover: Things I Learned Waiting for the Bomb (A Memoir) is on sale now. 

1) How do you describe your books in 10 words or less? “My books depict the history, people, times, and events of northeastern Minnesota in fiction and nonfiction.” 

2) What’s in your cup while you’re writing?  “Vanilla and hazelnut flavored coffee. Very hot and black and always two cups in the morning while I write.”

3) What are three books you’d handsell if you were a Bookseller?      Lonesome DoveGrapes of Wrath, and Germinal.

4) Why are Independent Bookstores important? It used to be that local/regional authors could count on the big box stores, Borders and B & N, to host events in support of our work. My very first event was a reading at the old stand alone B & N store in Duluth back in 2000. That’s no longer the case. It’s the Indies who support the work of local and regional authors. Without them, I’d have no place to sell my work or make appearances. There is also something comforting and intellectually stimulating to walk into a small, cozy, independent bookstore where folks can help you find your next great read. You don’t get that in a big box store and you certainly don’t get that online.”

5) How would you describe Duluth to someone? “Duluth is a lovely city on a hill overlooking the wildest and most beautiful of the Great Lakes. It’s a university town and a deep water port full of students, hard working folks, bookstores, fine restaurants, cozy pubs, and intelligent, caring people.”

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Mark Munger is a non-Finn with an interest in Finnish Americans.


What’s your ethnic and personal connection to the Finnish American story?

JR: I’m Finnish on both sides. My Mom’s line is from the Kuortane area. My Dad’s line is from the Vaasa area. Both sides were Swedish-speaking Finns, which is why my last name is Rundman. My Great-Grandparents came to Ishpeming from Finland. My Dad was a teacher and taught briefly in Hancock. That’s where I was born in 1971. My parents then returned to Ishpeming where I grew up. I’ve been wondering if my birth in Hancock (the hospital is now part of Finlandia University) connected me to the history of the Suomi Synod.

My grandparents spoke Finnish and/or Swedish but didn’t teach my parents those languages. In the ‘40s the trend was “We’re Americans so speak English,” though I heard Finnish around me, and my home church had Finnish language services. 


As a child, were you steeped in Finnish history and culture?

JR: Finnish identity is part of my family narrative. My cousins and I grew up valuing it highly. My relatives had saunas and we enjoyed Finnish coffee bread, and Nordic artwork and home furnishings. In the late-90s I connected to cousins in Finland, and they sent me Finnish folk and pop music CDs. My wife and I visited Finland in 2001 and return every five years or so.


How did you become a touring musician? 

JR: As a teenager I dreamed of being a musician. In high school, I had paying gigs playing folk/rock music and Lutheran church music. I graduated at seventeen but instead of attending college, I hit the road playing music. My career started in the late-80s, just as CDs became popular. Then, as the internet emerged, advances in technology allowed independent artists like me to build national touring careers. Playing on NPR’s Mountain Stage was a highlight! The show is taped in West Virginia, but occasionally they take the show on the road. They scheduled a taping in Minnesota and wanted to feature regional musicians. Producer Larry Groce was familiar with my album Public Library, so I was thrilled to be invited to perform, especially since as a teenager, I was a huge fan of The BoDeans from Milwaukee, the headliners on the show!


Were any of your immediate family musicians?

JR: I have aunts on both sides who were church organists. Music was a huge part of my childhood. I took piano lessons, immersed myself in the Top 40 hits, and drew inspiration from MTV. I started writing songs, inspired by Paul Simon and folk-flavored rock bands like the Rainmakers, the Silos, John Mellencamp, and the Hooters.


Was there an evolution of your music where your Finnishness became part of your writing, singing, and performing?

JR: The first time I played Finnish music was 1989. I was part of a band performing Pekka Simojoki’s Finnish African Gospel Mass. I included a selection from this liturgy “The Prayer of the Church” in my new book. In 2000, I released an album—Sound Theology—featuring my arrangement of a Finnish hymn called “Arise, My Soul, Arise.” That song also appears in the new book. I got caught up in a whirlwind of activity, playing Finnish fiddle music with Kaivama and Arto Järvelä. I didn’t know anything about the pelimanni tradition. It was a bit overwhelming to be thrown into touring in a new genre. But it was great fun and I continue to play Finnish folk music in my concerts. I have two teenaged kids who are excellent fiddlers. I’m proud to pass down the tradition to a new generation. 


Talk about the transition from touring musician to seminary student.

JR: I’ve always been an active Lutheran, but never thought I’d become a pastor, because I was into my musical career and had no college degree. I was the guest musician for an event at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA. While there, Rev. Dr. Kirsi Stjerna sat me down and said, “I think you should go to seminary.” No one had ever said anything like that to me. I replied, “Thank you, but I can’t because I didn’t go to college.” Kirsi replied, “There are now pathways for non-traditional students like you to go to seminary.” She gave me suggestions of people to call. I entered candidacy in the ELCA, was accepted to Luther Seminary, given a full scholarship, and in 2018 became a student! After 30 years as a touring musician, I was pleased to be home with my wife and kids. I’ve enjoyed the challenges of the academic life. I’ll graduate in 2022 and be available to take a call as an ELCA pastor. That next chapter will be an adventure!


You’ve been working on the book you mentioned, Lost Songs of the Suomi Synod?

JR: Research began while performing at Nordic events where people shared Suomi Synod material with me. I also explored archives at Finlandia’s Finnish Heritage Center. Whenever a new hymnal is published, the previous edition becomes obsolete. Songs get lost and are never sung again. Where a song hadn’t appeared in English, I translated it. For example, I based my translation of “Pium Paum” on English interpretations, the Finnish original, and the Kalevala. For “Psalm 100” and “Psalm 150” I used my seminary skills to translate from the Hebrew and then Finnicized the images. Elias Lönnrot, the collector of the Kalevala, first brought Martin Luther’s German hymn “Holy Spirit We Pray” to Finland in the 1800s, and “rebuilt” it on a Finnish folk tune. I had great fun taking Lönnrot’s structure and crafting it into English. Hymns are metrical and mathematical, so it was a challenge to take images and ideas from Finnish and adjust them into English.


Let the readers in on the process used in creating new music for the book that fits in with original Suomi Synod hymns.

JR: It was important to let people know that hymnody is a living tradition. This is not historic preservation, like a Civil War reenactment or a Beatles tribute band. Music is always evolving. Finns love music and Finnish composers continue to create inspiring work. I included my own material, some which also appears in All Creation Sings (published by Augsburg Fortress). I’m  pleased to continue the legacy of Lönnrot, Runeberg, and Sibelius. I would love it if Finnish-Americans could send new music back to Finland!


What parameters went into curating music that’s included in the book?

JR: A few Nordic hymns are beloved … such as Sibelius’ FINLANDIA (often sung as “This Is My Song” or “Be Still My Soul”), and classics like “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and “How Great Thou Art.” I didn’t include these because they’re not “lost”.


Describe the editorial choice to include synod and musical history in the book.

JR: I read dozens of books and articles. I found no clear, concise Suomi Synod timeline or history of Lutheran hymnals. Most of the published material dates is from the 1960s (or earlier) and is out-of-print. I hope my book is an accessible resource, not only for musicians, but for historians. 


Are you performing?

JR: When I started seminary, I decided to retire from showbiz. I knew it’d take all my brainpower to finish my schooling. As COVID restrictions loosened, I was offered opportunities, so I’ve been touring with Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos and working on his new recordings. I’m also recording songs from the book to be released via streaming services. My debut single is a new arrangement of Runeberg’s “Paavo the Peasant”. People can listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. Coming up, there’s a book-release concert at Luther Seminary in St. Paul on September 21 at 7:00pm (free and open to the public). I’ll be a part of Finlandia University’s 125th Anniversary Celebration in December. I’ll be performing at the Luther500 Festival next summer in Wittenberg, Germany. Folks can also book me for their town, church, or Finnish heritage event to hear songs that haven’t been heard in North America for a century!


With the book being released on September 7th where can folks find it?

JR: Amazon will have it, but the best way to get it is to order directly from me at Folks can also email me at  

Kiitos, Jonathan! Readers can find out more at: and




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An Afternoon in the Sun Well Spent!

In the Hands of the Fisherman by T. J. Swanson (2016. Northloop Press. 2016. ISBN 978-1-63505-357-9)

Someone handed me this book, signed by the author, at my retirement party back in January of 2019. Not particularly interested in reading what looked to be a self-published or vanity published religious novel, I placed it on my “to read” stack and it sat there until this past weekend. Looking for something short and to the point to read while I sat in the autumn sun and hoped for rain (our river, the Cloquet, is still very low), I was pleasantly surprised to find a well written, can’t-put-it-down regional novel that, while there are elements of faith within its pages, is not preachy in the least.

The story is really two stories in one. There is the contemporary tale of Bob Sorenson skiing a Minnesota state trail in the dark with only stars and meteorites to guide his way towards waiting high school pals (the men are all middle-aged by the time the story unfolds) until he stumbles upon tragedy. I won’t spoil the plot by giving away what Bob encounters on the prairie other than to say his discovery leads to revelations about himself that Bob was, as he skied in the dark, struggling to uncover and address.

There’s an additional plot line, essentially a series of flashbacks to Bob’s youth and time spent fishing with both his father and his uncle. The title of the book reflects Bob’s love for and connection to Uncle Art and the kind, yet manly way Art taught the younger version of Bob life lessons centered around a family cabin on Little Hanging Horn Lake near Barnum. That’s where Bob grew up. With Uncle Art at the helm of an old, wide-beamed wooden row boat powered by an ancient three-horse two-stroke, the older man made it a point to guide his young nephew in search of sunfish for the frying pan, all the while teaching Bob life lessons. It’s those glimpses of wisdom that manifest to middle-aged Bob as he skies through the dark, eery night.

This is not high-brow literature. The language that Swanson uses to tell is simple, succinct, and direct. But there was, despite the simplicity of art and story, enough “meat” to compel me to devour this slender volume (less than 190 pages in trade paperback) in one sitting. That says a lot for the power of well-crafted prose that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. In the Hands will not likely make any bestseller lists nor achieve any lasting fame. It will not change your life or cause you to ponder your existence beyond, perhaps, kindling your own reminiscences of youth. But it was a welcome surprise to find a regional author who tells a tale in such terse, fine, and complete fashion.

My only criticism has to do with the fact that there are a number of layout and printing issues in the copy I received. On page 10, there’s an entire narrative paragraph printed in bold for no apparent reason. Then, at the conclusion of the story (p. 186), the publisher/vanity press/editor (don’t know who made the decision) inexplicably placed “Author’s Notes” on the same page as the tale’s conclusion rather than placing those notes in a separate section of the book. Not major issues and I didn’t find more than a handful of other typos or grammatical errors in what was otherwise a very enjoyable read. Having now published 13 books on my own, some with major flaws, others with only a typo here or there, I can let such small insults to my readerly eye be. They are, in the face of a pretty darn good yarn, inconsequential.

4 stars out of 5. This would be a great book club selection for a men’s book club (of which there are so very few!)



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Severely Disappointed

With You There is Light by Alexandra Lehmann (2017. L & L. ISBN 97800997826111)

Here is the thing. One can be an accomplished writer of nonfiction prose, possess a Masters in Nonfiction Writing from a prestigious American University (Sarah Lawrence), have engaging historical events and characters to build upon, and still not be a great storyteller. That, in essence is why this book doesn’t pass muster.

The story of the White Rose, a group of students who tried to upend Nazi Germany from within, much akin to the plot to kill Hitler envisioned by disheartened military men, is one of supreme courage. It is no secret that three of the university activists involved in distributing anti-Nazi literature paid for their deception and perceived treason by being beheaded. That fact alone should be sufficient to build upon and, if you are trying to enter into the hearts and minds of the protagonists and antagonists of the story through fiction, create a plot and characters to remember. Ms. Lehmann, despite all of her training and education and the blurbs on the back cover and inside the front of this novel fails at the essential job of a novelist: to tell a story that strikes a chord with the reader.

When folks set about trying to write fiction and are cautious as to applying the historical record to their storytelling, what readers are gifted is boring, uninspiring narrative and dry, unrealistic dialogue. That’s what the first two-thirds of the story of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and Sophie’s love interest, German soldier Fritz Hartnagle,yields in the hands of this author. The use of excerpts from the letters of the participants, actual part and parcel of their communications during the war, is handled not with deftness and creative impetus: it is handled as an intrusion into story. There are no sparks, there is no, despite the title, light between Sophie and Fritz until the very end of the tale. It is in the last portion of the book, after Sophie’s arrest and detention, that the author hits her mark. But, by then, it’s too late to save the overarching narrative of the tale.

I think much of the book’s deficit comes from this truth: the author considers With You to be “narrative nonfiction” (see page 311) and yet, those supplying blurbs for the book consider it to be “historical fiction”. This confusion of genre is the likely cause of the book’s inability to inspire, enrapture, or move the reader. The book, quite frankly, attempts to be a memoir hiding in the guise of a novel. But the book wasn’t written by a participant to the events and hence, cannot be considered a memoir or autobiography. This literary schizophrenia, in my humble opinion, dooms the exercise.

As a writer of historical fiction, I so wanted to love this book. I cannot. I find myself, at the end of the day, lamenting that I did not read Frank McDonough’s nonfiction account of Sophie’s life, The Real Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler. That would have been a far better use of my time.

2 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



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STERLING, COLORADO ((c) 2021 Mark Munger)

he was a plain looking girl with an extraordinary mind living an ordinary life.

Lucinda Clark sat on a hay bale, the fibers dry and prickly against the bare skin of her ankles. Her hazel eyes scanned the valley of the South Platte River flowing meagerly through the drought-impacted landscape. The knoll she occupied was littered with several hundred bales of hay cut for the upcoming winter. The squares were strewn randomly across the stubble of a mown alfalfa field no more than two hundred feet above the river’s course. The land climbed from the river bottom to Lucy’s vantage point in gradual fashion.

She was dressed in denim jeans. Lucinda favored Lee’s, straight-legged and baggy despite her solid shape. She wore a long sleeved “Colorado Avalanche” sweatshirt, and beat-up discount store tennis shoes. Seventeen years old and a senior at Sterling High School, Lucinda Clark was amply chested, more so than she liked, boasting shiny brown hair with auburn highlights that, when they caught the sunshine, sparkled like rare gems under a jeweler’s lamp. The color of her eyes matched the hue of the prairie sky standing thin over the grasslands surrounding her family’s ranch.

It had been a tough day at school. No one understood her. She wished that her mother was still around but Gayle Clark was living somewhere down south, near Santa Fe or thereabouts, having met a man, a poet that she claimed to be in love with. They’d bumped into each other, leading, apparently, to a lot more serious bumping into each other, when Dale Eckhardson gave a reading at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Cherry Creek last February. Gayle began to sneak around, making more and more obvious excuses to escape the smallness of Sterling for the bustle of Denver at odd times, seemingly during the moments when Lucinda needed her mother the most.

The girl watched a herd of Black Angus mosey from one dry patch of grass to another. Though her eyes were locked on the cattle, her mind was on other things.

Harold Clark, the girl’s father, tried hard with Melinda, Lucy’s ten-year-old sister, and Lucy, tried to fill in the emptiness and the void left by a departed mother. He wasn’t much good at the empathy and soul- unburdening part of that equation, though he took a concerted stab at it when asked. Mostly, Lucy found herself turning inward or to God when she had questions. She tried to help Melinda out as much as she could, imparting whatever wisdom her seventeen years of life could impart.

The thing at school troubled her. For the first time it pitted her humanity against the Divine in clear and contentious ways.

“What do you think of President Bush’s response to the events of September 11th?”

Mrs. Blanchard, Lucy’s 12th grade civics teacher, had posed the question to Lucy’s class during second hour. The students were deep in the midst of hashing out what should constitute an appropriate military response to the terrible acts of Bin Ladin and his cohorts when the question came Lucy’s way. Up to that point boys in Lucy’s class had directed the discussion.

“We oughta nuke those stinking towel heads back to the Stone Age,” Benny Morrison had postulated.

“Benny, are you suggesting we use atomic weapons on Afghanistan, against innocent women and children?” Mrs. Blanchard interjected.

“Why stop there? I’d blast every last freakin’ Muslim country on the planet. Let ’em know who’s boss.”

“That’s bogus,” Emmett Carlson chimed in. “Some of the Muslim countries are our allies, like Saudi Arabia.”

Benny had grinned.

“Ya, but if we blew them to little pieces, we wouldn’t have to beg them for oil. Plus, that’s where Bin Ladin and most of the suicide guys came from. I say nuke ’em.”

The discourse centered upon military tactics, upon the necessity of sending in American ground troops, of what the public’s reaction would likely be to scenes of dead American soldiers coming home in body bags. Through it all, Lucinda Clark, the brightest kid in the senior class, and usually one of the first to join a debate, had maintained her own counsel.

When the question was finally turned in Lucy’s direction, she understood why the teacher wanted her involved. The Clark’s were Friends. Quakers. Pacifism was an integral part of her family’s faith. There was history here, in little Sterling: an invisible line ran between the three Quaker families located in and around the town and their neighbors. Mrs. Blanchard clearly knew that history and was drawing upon it to spur discussion.

Trouble was, Lucinda, normally eager to swagger into a verbal fray, wanted to shrivel up and disappear rather than discuss the finer points of America’s response to September 11th. The reasons weren’t complex. The reasons were simple. Somehow, what had taken place in the peaceful autumnal atmosphere over New York City on that fateful day was so vastly different, so incomprehensibly evil, when considered by a seventeen-year-old young woman from a Colorado ranching community, that the old guideposts and measures of her religion no longer seemed useful.

“Lucy?” the teacher had repeated, staring hard at the young woman’s face.

The girl’s eyes moistened slightly as she watched Beau Gunderson, the next-door neighbor’s seventeen- year-old son, lope across the dusty grassland on a spirited black and white paint towards the cattle. The Angus stood complacently, their heads turning in unison towards the on-rushing cowboy, the slope of their strong, thick backs appearing as dark humps against yellow ground.

She studied the far reaches of the valley, where newly turned soil appeared black. The dirt would eventually dry beneath the unfamiliar November sun and turn the color of coal ash; becoming nearly identical in color to the powder that settled over the horror-stricken faces of the people Lucinda watched escape the collapse of the Twin Towers on network television news.

“Yes, ma’am,” she had answered.

“I know you must have something to say about what’s happening in Central Asia.”

“Not really.”

The teacher’s eyes widened though her temper didn’t rise.

“Surely you have something to add regarding what will likely turn out to be the most memorable event of your generation,” Mrs. Blanchard coaxed.

“Come on, Luce,” Barton Morales, one of a handful of Hispanics in her grade, had chided. “You’re always ready to give an opinion, even if it’s bogus,” he added, a wide grin showing white against tawny skin.

Others added their derisions.
Lucinda drew a deep breath and thought of a response. “Let’s say that Bin Ladin, and maybe even the Taliban, is responsible for what happened,” she began.

“Maybe? Where you been hiding girl, in a cave?” Carla Morales, Barton’s twin sister castigated. “They’ve got old Bin Ladin dead to rights. All that’s left is the finale to his sorry little one-act play.”

Lucy had smiled. She liked Carla, liked her assuredness and her natural ability to cut to the chase.

“Fair enough. Suppose, instead of sending 50,000 Special Forces to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, we send a couple of hundred thousand civilians: men, women, kids like us, over to Pakistan. Then we all march across the border, unarmed, seeking a parlay with the Taliban. Do you really believe that they are so inhumane, so brutal, that they’d attack us?”

Missy Forestall, a cheerleader and a short, finely proportioned blond with athletic thighs and deep brown eyes set in an exquisite face, laughed.

“Carla’s right. You’ve completely lost it if you think those animals would be willing to listen. Especially to women. Don’t you follow the news? Don’t you understand how they beat, mistreat, and subjugate women?”

Lucinda frowned. Mrs. Blanchard attempted to reassert control.

“Keep your critique positive, folks,” she admonished. “I see you have your hand up, Edgar. Go ahead.”

Edgar Brewster, a slow thinking, large-boned tackle on the varsity football team cleared his throat. His voice was soft, at odds with his stature.

“I dunno. Maybe Lucy’s got something here.”

Noisy objections erupted from the class. The instructor raised her hand.


Thin strips of white, fingers extending two-dimensionally from a bank of high clouds resting to the north, up near Cheyenne, reached across the high atmosphere. The rancher’s daughter detected the beginnings of the foothills from her perch, gentle peaks immediately adjacent to Fort Collins, visible though seventy miles away as the crow flies. The spine of hills rose above the flatness of the western terminus of the prairie as a magnificent apparition.

“God, why did it happen?” she asked softly, a faint breeze beginning to stir. The answer, she knew, was in the hearts of men and not in the mind of God.

At the edge of the Gunderson pasture, Beau and his Border collie, Blue, drove cattle through an open gate towards a watering station. Several hundred yards away, a windmill spun violently despite the meager wind. A horse neighed from the ridge behind her.

“Obligation,” she murmured, turning her head, her hair jostling as she moved. She whistled to her horse.

A blaze of white broke across the drab landscape. Dust churned from beneath the Arab’s hooves as the animal raced towards the girl, its shoulders undulating as it ran, gray mane and tail trailing the effort.

Lucinda had formulated a feeble response to her teacher’s inquiry .

“It’s a puzzlement, to me, being Quaker and all. My faith tells me that war is something that, only in the direst of circumstances, should be engaged in by humankind,” the girl whispered weakly.

Mrs. Blanchard stood next to the young woman.

“Well, isn’t this such a time?” Barton Morales had challenged. “I mean, the son of a…excuse me, Ms.Blanchard…bee killed civilians. What we’re doing isn’t really going to war. It’s more like a police manhunt.”

There were murmurs of approval from other classmates.

“That’s one way to look at it,” Lucinda Clark demurred. “But what about all the Afghan women and children who’ll be killed or hurt? Dropping bombs indiscriminately looks an awful lot like war to me.”

“There’s no right or wrong to any of your positions,” Mrs. Blanchard had concluded. “But I do think that Mr. Morales has brought up an interesting approach. If the acts that were committed were against civilians, isn’t Barton right? Isn’t this really a case of a criminal act and not an act of nation against nation, an act of war? Lucy, does that make sense to you?”

The young woman regained her feet. Stroking the soft nuzzle of the Arabian, her mind wandered from the death and the destruction, focusing instead upon an image of her mother.

Gayle Clark’s eyes had been filled with sorrow and remorse as she sat behind the wheel of her Mazda 4×4, the vehicle’s off-road tires worn smooth and resting on the gravel of their driveway. Melinda clutched her mother’s hand, refusing to relinquish
her grip, unwilling to let Gayle leave. Lucinda stepped up and pulled her little sister away, the child convulsing in grief as the pick-up truck disappeared.

A strong odor of horse disbursed the memory. Lucinda stood quietly beside Obligation, massaging the horse’s velvety skin, inhaling the animal’s distinct musk. Lucy’s eyes steadied on the flatness of the land. Footsteps echoing off the wind-hardened surface of the ground interrupted her reflection.

“Thought I might find you up here,” her father said as he approached from behind the girl, his lanky form in marked contrast to his eldest daughter’s square stature. Harold Clark’s rugged face looked down kindly at his oldest child. His eyes, shadowed as they were by the brim of his Stetson, the off-white felt of the headgear worn and smudged from the business of ranching, looked diligently at Lucinda.

She pointed towards the Gunderson boy as horse and rider galloped across the plateau.

“I was just watching Beau and his dog work.”

“Looks like Obie was giving you some comfort as you eavesdropped,” the man remarked, dispensing a wad of chew into the warm air through tobacco-stained teeth.

Harold kept his eyes on his daughter. “I’m worried about your baby sister,” the rancher admitted, his words soft. Lucy patted the belly of her horse and sent the animal off to graze.

“How so?”

“She doesn’t seem to be coming out of her spin since your mother took off.”

There was no sugar coating it. Their mother, his wife had done simply that. Taken off, leaving them all to fend for themselves with only intermittent telephone calls as the singular connection between them. Gayle didn’t write or use the Internet. There were no letters, no emails, no photographs depicting Gayle’s new life in New Mexico as a reminder to the girls that their mother cared.

“I guess,” was all the girl replied.

“You seem troubled,” Lucy’s father observed, a task- roughened hand coming to rest on the back of her right wrist. “What’s eating you?”

Lucinda thought about dodging the issue. Instead, she met the question head on.

“Dad, why do we have to be Quakers?”

A look of mild injury crept into her father’s eyes. “Why would you ask such a question?”

She shuffled her tennis shoes over the soft topsoil. “Today at school we were talking about President Bush’s response to the Trade Center thing. Everyone but me pretty much thought going to war over what happened was well within our rights.”

The man’s hand loosened on her arm.

“I see. What did you say in response?”

“Some lame suggestion that we send a few hundred thousand pilgrims over to Afghanistan to show Bin Ladin and the Taliban that we’re peaceful, reasonable, God-fearing folk.”

Wind blew her father’s curly black hair loose of his neck and ears.

“Doesn’t sound lame to me. Sounds like something Christ would say himself. Remember your scripture:

‘To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Love your enemies, do good, hoping for nothing in return.’

Luke, Chapter 6, Verses 29-35.”

The young woman frowned and kicked at the ground. “And what if what happened on September 11th wasn’t an act of war but an act of murder?”

The man smiled. “You really do need to go to law school, young lady. I see your point. Your argument has an attraction. But aren’t you simply replacing the word ‘war’ with the word ‘murder’?”

She returned the grin. It was the longest they’d spoken since her mother had left. Her eyes studied the tanned outlines of her father’s profile against the glimmering sunset. Red, yellow, and gold tendrils ignited the western horizon. Shadows began to spread across the lowlands.

“Didn’t Jesus also say ‘render therefore to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s?'” she asked.

“Luke 20, Verse 25. But how does that relate to remaining a pacifist and steering clear of militarism?” the rancher postulated.

Lucy adjusted herself on the hay bale. Her father lifted his right leg and placed a well-worn cowboy boot on compacted alfalfa.

“If the law, which is Caesar’s, requires a penalty to be paid for a crime, an earthly sin, shouldn’t we then obey Caesar’s law unless it speaks against our faith?” the girl asked.

Harold stroked the haggard skin of his chin, his jaw thick and prominent, the only portion of his face that mirrored his daughter’s. He patted his child on the top of her shoulder.

“Girl, you really do need to go to law school,” the cowboy muttered through a devilish grin.

The rancher and the young woman watched the sun settle. Dusk descended. Twilight faded. Evening prospered and crept eastward until it enveloped the rancher and his eldest daughter in twilight.

(Sterling, Colorado appears in the short story collection, Ordinary Lives. You can find it above under the “Books” tab and, if you like what you read, order your own copy under the “Buy Books Direct” tab. But the point of this post isn’t to sell books: It’s to reflect on what that day meant to you, your family, our nation, and the world.)

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Simply Grand

Postcards by E. Annie Proulx (1992. Collier. 978002081185)

Sitting on a deck in northeastern Minnesota along the shores of beautiful Whiteface Lake, a serene and quiet environ, sipping a cold beer at height of waning summer, what could be better than to bathe oneself in pure, unadulterated literary brilliance? Get the point? This is Proulx at her very best. It is indeed worthy of all the accolades and awards and praise it received when it was released nearly 30 years ago.

Proulx frames her timeless story of love, loss, and family within a series of postcards, hence the novel’s title. Along this amazing journey, we meet Loyal Blood, his father, mother, sister, and brother and follow them across both time and the landscape as they seek to find relevance and companionship and a sense of belonging in mid-20th century America. There is no hero or heroine in this short, terse, quickly paced tale of angst and desire and longing. For the most part, Loyal is indeed the protagonist of the plot. But he is, as we quickly learn, not a good or kind or exemplary person. He is flawed, fatally so, as are essentially all the members of his immediate family and their neighbors. In the hands of a lesser novelist, that alone could lead one to conclude the book and seek solace in liquor stronger than a cold beer. But, and here is the key to enjoying this dark tale, in the hands of a master storyteller like Proulx, the Loyal family saga sings; if only in a somber, minor key.

If you haven’t read Proulx (The Shipping News, Close Range, and Brokeback Mountain being some of her better known titles), Postcards is a good place to start.

5 stars out of 5. A fine book club selection.



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It’s On!

The launch for the new memoir is set. Music, words, and a night of fun on October 7, 2021 beginning at 6:30pm. Hosted at the Theater of the North in the Fitger’s complex in Duluth by the Bookstore at Fitger’s, the evening will be moderated by former Mayor Don Ness, with music provided by Bill and Kate Isles. Free and open to the public. Here’s the link:

If you can’t make it, pre-order a book above!



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A Fine Bit of History

Stands Before His People: Enmegahbowh and the Ojibwe by Verne Pickering and Stephen Schaitberger (2020. Beaver’s Pond. ISB 978-1-6443-930-3)

Full disclosure. I’m a personal friend of the author, Rev. Steve Schaitberger. He and I worked together to form Trinity Episcopal Church in Hermantown, MN; consolidating two smaller mission churches in Duluth and Proctor. Steve and his late wife Margaret were also pre-readers of at least one, if not more, of my novels. And, if you read the blurbs on this biography’s back cover, you’ll see I gave it a big “thumbs up” before the book was published. That said, here’s what I think.

Enmegahbowh, or John Johnson, is a Minnesota historical figure that few non-Episcopalians have ever heard of. That’s a problem since the total population of Episcopalians in Minnesota is less than 30,000, making it a tiny sect of Christianity within the state. I was once a member of that church, rising to a seat on the Standing Committee, the controlling body of the Diocese of Minnesota. I am now an ELCA Lutheran. I write this history so that you understand my connection to the subject and the off-chance my review of the book may not be entirely subjective. But, after reading this tabletop biography over the past week, I have to say that the authors do an admirable job of detailing Enmegahbowh’s life and times; they have put together an exhaustive history of the interactions between the Ojibwe and the white settlers of Minnesota. That, in and of itself, is a service to anyone interested in Minnesota Native American history. In addition, Pickering and Schaitberger paint a complete portrait of the first Ojibwe to be elevated to the Episcopal priesthood in the state, including his attributes and character flaws as part of their work. The sections dealing with Enmegahbowh’s interactions with Bishop Whipple and Rev. Gilfillan are especially detailed and illustrative.

To be fair, at times, constant references to the various treaties and negotiations between the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the white “powers that be” becomes a tad tedious and drags the narrative. But this is, after all, a history and a biography and as I tried to do in Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story, because it’s likely the only book that will explore Enmegahbowh’s life, times, and relationship to the Episcopal Church in such detail, the authors have included anything remotely connected to his story. In particular, the early sections, dealing with the history of the Ojibwe’s eastward migration and their relationship to the Dakota is very well done and is needed to set the stage for the remainder of Enmegahbowh’s life story.

In the end, and this should be no surprise, despite Bishop Whipple’s steadfast support for Native rights (though always given with a paternal, condescending manner) and his priests’ hard work, the Ojibwe people were never supported by the national government in such a way as to achieve the successful Utopian dream the Bishop expected would take hold on White Earth and other Ojibwe reservations. The authors make this sad point very clear in the concluding chapters of this exhaustive work.

4 stars out of 5. A bit redundant but a must-read for anyone interested in Minnesota Native American and religious history.



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Always Willing to Learn

Writing the Novella by Sharon Oard Warner (2021. U of Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-6255-1)

I taught university courses for five years and I recognize that Ms. Warner is likely a very fine instructor. That having been said, when I bought this book, I was looking for something akin to Bird by Bird or On Writing: a more spiritual, pragmatic look at how to construct a novella. I wasn’t interested in reading a lesson plan for a college writing course. I am, as the title of this review suggests-as a self-taught writer-always willing to try new things, to learn from the masters, to stretch my abilities. But I am not interested in doing writing exercises or following a very rigid lesson plan to rework my creative craft. Maybe thirty years ago, this book would have been the key to me becoming a more successful author. Maybe if I had stuck to journalism at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, instead of bailing after a couple of quarters, I would be seeing my name in lights as a marquee author. I’m not sure. All I know is that, after slogging through this instructional tome, I came away slightly depressed and not really enlightened.

Ms. Warner uses three novellas as guideposts for the lessons she teaches. The constant reference to those three works as exemplars is helpful, for sure, as are the other examples given in the text. And the added quotations and insights from famous and not-so-famous authors regarding the size, format, and structure of novellas is welcome as well. But in the end, I was looking for, as I’ve said, a more cerebral, spiritual, organic look at writing. This book is not that.

2 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



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