A Promised Land by President Barack Obama (2020. Crown. ISBN 9781524763169)
I’ll be upfront. I am a Liberal reviewing a memoir penned by one of my favorite Liberal politicians. But I’m not here to evaluate President Obama’s politics (though I deplore those who simply call him “Obama”). I’m doing a review of his latest book. So on with it.
A Promised Land’s early pages take you behind the scenes of lawyer Barack Obama’s formative years, highlighting his time as an organizer, his romance with Michelle, his beginnings in politics, and his affiliations with noted iconic figures such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The book’s beginning is concise, well written, reads at a fairly brisk pace, and leaves the reader waiting to turn the page.
The middle section of the memoir, wherein President Obama chronicles his leap from a single, unfinished term as a United States Senator to the Oval Office, begin with the same fevered, can’t-stop-reading, pace. But when the storyline merges with the administrative and legislative agendas of the first term of the Obama Presidency, the narrative gets a bit into the weeds, leaving the reader wanting the pace to pick up and return the story arc to its earlier adrenaline rush. Despite this slight lag in the memoir’s narration, the final chapters, when President Obama places you in the Situation Room as Navy Seal Team 6 breaches the security of Osama Ben Ladin’s Pakistani compound (the mission having just slightly better than fifty-fifty odds, memories of President Carter’s failure to rescue the Iranian hostages and Blackhawk Down (a rescue mission in Somalia under President Clinton)) are riveting. You’ll want to cheer aloud again when the madman behind 9/11 is found, killed, and dropped into the sea after his DNA is confirmed. At the book’s conclusion, the storyline is pulsing, swift, and uniquely hard hitting.
One thing I will add here is that (and this is coming from my Liberal bias) it’s amazing we once had a two-term president who actually can spell, write elegantly, and publish a fine piece of history without the need of a ghostwriter. That trait alone makes this book a winner and makes me wish the man who wrote it had come out stronger against the fraud who succeeded him in office.
4 stars out of 5. Every Faux News aficionado should be placed in a locked room and forced to read this book.
Longtime friend, Scott Mork, passed away on September 12, 2023, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Many of you likely didn’t know Scott. The first thing I’ll say about Scott is that he was an Eagle Scout, attaining Scouting’s highest rank with his West Duluth BSA Troop back in 1973. I start with this bit of “Zork”-that’s what pal Bruce Larson called him-trivia because the Scout motto, “Be Prepared”, was part and parcel of who Scott was. Even in his last days, when he refused medical interventions to prolong his life, Scott followed the Scout motto. How so? He texted me a few weeks before he passed away and asked me to write this Facebook piece for his Duluth friends and neighbors.
Scott grew up the son of John Willis and Marge Mork. He was raised in West Duluth (no “Spirit Valley” nonsense for Scotty!), attending Laura MacArthur Elementary, West Junior High, and Duluth Denfeld High School (DDHS) as a proud member of the Class of ‘74. His sophomore and junior years at DDHS, Scott participated in both speech and debate. His senior year, Scott was elected vice-president of his class and to Pyramid (student council). He was also selected to be a Junior Rotarian. Scott was a proud member of “McLoughlin’s Marauders”: an intramural basketball team at Denfeld. Playing for the Marauders, Scott achieved notoriety-if not Hall of Fame status-as the most foul-prone hack on a team full of hacks (earning Scott the beloved nickname, “Hatchet Man Mork”). In addition, Scott was a star in numerous vignettes and movies written and directed by his buddy, John McLoughlin, including two of the three “Quegley” flicks (most notably as a Fung Yu monk); a shockingly risqué aftershave commercial; and other hilarious McLoughlin film projects.
While attending Denfeld and UMD, Scott worked at the West End Bridgeman’s until his generosity (he gave little kids and his pals “too much ice cream”) ended his time as a soda fountain jerk. At UMD, Scott hunkered down to serious study and also pledged Alpha Phi Omega. He graduated in 1978 with a BA in Business. He then began a lengthy business career, finding work in the Twin Cities, and it was while working there that Scott’s life was forever altered.
Involved in a near-fatal car accident, Scott was rendered paraplegic. But, after completing months of grueling rehab at Sister Kinney and learning to drive a hand-controlled automobile, Scott’s indelible Moxy shone through and he continued on with life. Following rehab, Scott revisited his McLoughlin’s Marauders days by becoming a fierce competitor in wheelchair basketball. He ended up traveling throughout Minnesota to play in tournaments, never the star, but always eager to play. In addition, Scott’s demeanor and dedication to his rehabilitation earned him “Sister Kinney Patient of the Year”, an honor of which he was very proud and which led him to serve on the Sister Kinney board of directors.
Scott spent 20 years in the Twin Cities and Indianapolis working as a Sales Manager and Marketing Services Manager for ITT/Cannon. During his employment with ITT, Scott completed the University of St. Thomas-Opus College of Business MBA program. For the remainder of his work-life, Scott held various administrative, management, human resource, and other business-related positions, including serving nearly 8 years as the Business Manager of Geist Christian Church of Indianapolis, retiring in April of 2020.
Along his life journey, Scott maintained close contact with a group of friends from Duluth, getting together with them whenever he was in town and, on one occasion, joining them on a Caribbean cruise. Everyone on that cruise fondly remembers Scott’s grit and determination-as the group visited various islands-to be part of it all even though many tourist destinations were nowhere near wheelchair friendly. He also enjoyed co-piloting a tourist van filled with his Duluth friends during a trip to a volcano, never blinking an eye as the rattle-trap van careened around unguarded bends on a narrow, gravel, mountain road. But the image of Scott his cruising pals will never forget is the night Scott danced late into the evening at the ship’s disco with a half-dozen nurses on vacation: twirling and bobbing and weaving his wheelchair to the music and to the delight of his female companions (an incident fondly remembered as “Nursecapades”). Scott always did love the ladies!
Recently, Scott began to struggle with his health. Even so, through numerous hospital stays, procedures, confinements, operations, and medical interventions, Scott fought to remain the same happy-go-lucky guy I first met in Mrs. Minter’s kindergarten Sunday school class at Holy Apostles Episcopal Church. That church was the center of my relationship with Scott. We spent Sundays together. We attended Christian Sex Education Class together (at our mother’s insistence!). We were confirmed together. And as part of a small cohort of Episcopalian teenagers, we attended many, many youth group events together. Through it all, he was a boy-and later, a man-of faith who tried his best to live the Christian creed he professed.
Two summers ago, a mutual friend (and fellow Quegley) Dave Michelson convinced me to tag along with he and his wife, Lail, to visit Scott in Indiana. It was a quick trip, just a few nights in Indianapolis to see our buddy. I was truly amazed at Scott’s prowess as he drove around Indianapolis in his conversion van (the kind with the lift installed for a wheelchair), weaving in and out of freeway congestion. We spent a lovely day at the zoo, had a fine Italian meal (Scott insisted on paying), shot the breeze at Scott’s condo, had breakfast the next morning, and said our goodbyes. That was the last time I saw Scott. Dave and Lail Michelson and Bruce and Jan Larson saw him earlier this year in Indiana after Scott experienced another health setback. Those visits proved to be the last occasions his old friends from Minnesota got to witness Zork’s great smile and see that he was still, despite the curveball’s life had thrown at him, the same, slightly gawky, very smart, ready-for-fun kid from West Duluth we all came to know and love.
Scott was predeceased by his parents, and is survived by his sister, Kathryn Nelson; niece Chris Horvatich and her son Wyatt Thompson; Aunt Marilyn Anderson; and other members of the extended Anderson and Mork families. In addition, Scott is missed by many life-long Duluth friends and a huge group of Indianapolis friends, including Chaleen Stevens and her daughter Faith¾with whom Scott shared many holidays and who also comforted Scott during his hospitalizations and his final days.
Memorials are preferred to the Greater Denfeld Foundation Scholarship Fund, the Sister Kinney Institute, or to a charity of the giver’s choice. Funeral arrangements in Indianapolis are pending and this post will be updated as to those arrangements. It’s anticipated the service will be live-streamed to accommodate folks not able to make the trip to Indianapolis.
Peace, my friend.
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Where do you hang your hat, the place you call home? How is that location connected to Finnish American or Finnish culture, heritage, and history?
I don’t actually remember being born, but I (never) “grew up” in Palo Minnesota far “north of ordinary,” as we say on The Iron Range. Now my proverbial hat hangs in Duluth … but I’m really not much of a hat guy. Lol. And as far as Finns go, they got more Finns in Palo than in an Aquarium! The basic history of Palo in a nutshell, is that it was mostly all homesteads built by former iron ore miners blackballed by the mines for unionizing. Somewhere along the line the Norwegians showed up to keep us from going insane.
There’s still a handful of folks that Feak Spinnish there too.
Was Finnish spoken around you? How about your early connections to Finnish heritage?
Yaya, the Grandparents knew a handful of words (mostly the swears) but really my Finnish language came from Duolingo and YouTube. Plus, the Berlitz Learn Finnish in Sixty Minutes CD I “long term borrowed” from the Mt. Iron Library. It’s been a LOOOOONG sixty minutes: eleven years, I think.
I’m about as good as I can get in terms of speaking Finnish without a teacher, friends, or investing hours a day into it. Maybe halfway fluent. The vocab is there: grammar not so much. And ya, heritage has been all over my life. Saunas, Mölkky, breakfast foods. I grew up near the Laskiainen Festival in Palo, so that was always something to look forward too. I’ve even competed in Wife Carrying a few times!!!
Plus, we still have some Finnish Tunes in the hymnal at church! I’ve been the organist for a few years. And even in childhood I remember hearing “Jeesus Mua Rakastaa”
Knowing you to be a gifted, professional musician, where did your interest in music come from?
Music from my childhood? My mother shoved ABBA down my throat, classic rock constantly, and country too. I honestly never liked music … still don’t! Just kidding: To me, music is a vehicle for the deep thoughts of an artist. I prefer listening to Rodney Dangerfield’s Stand-Up Highlights to gentle pop music. Most of my songs have a surface meaning as well as a deep one. It gets so creative even the artist can’t understand it! But the jokes make it easier to digest.
When I was in high school, an uncle played a Bobby Aro CD for me: Finn-glish Fun! That changed everything! I wasn’t forbidden to be a musician. But there wasn’t much urgency to support that choice either. I remember my first couple of trombone lessons as a fifth grader. My step-dad said something like, “One of us needs to bring Steven to horn blowing class.” When I played accordion, the folks looked at me like I was about to bomb the property: it wasn’t the best environment for a musician to start off. But disappointing everybody, now that’s what’s made it fun!
Step-dad was a miner and mom worked in a hospital. They were up early. As a high schooler, I’d be sauntering in from a gig when the step-dad was going to work. I had a cheap little keyboard. I’d take an extension cord and a lamp into my closet and stuff clothes under the door to mute it. I’d shingle roofs or work fast food during the day and practice music at night. I would have traded years of my life to have taken piano lessons earlier. But it was not to be. Nevertheless, my dreams could not be dissolved by the circumstances of my life. And they still can’t now. I’ll outwork any competition: it’s terrifying what I’ll put myself through to entertain.
I love my folks, and I always will. But supportive families can be a double-edged sword. To be honest, I think I got better in music because I honed my skills in introverted, rural silence. I’d play my accordion for the cows when no one was home. They always cared and they always listened, though they never bought a ticket!
Explain your musical training. I note your bio says you attended Rowan University.
I never didn’t start piano lessons until 2015 (when I was eighteen). I was a late bloomer. I had to be forced into choir and theater by peer pressure. Even though I was a courageous youth, playing trombone abnormally well in band was really a nerdy, inside joke. I may have had dreams back then, but I never saw a future in music until I started making money. A lot of the motivation honestly came from shutting up all the people telling me to get a real job. “A simple-minded farm boy like you is best be fit for the mines or in military.” That quote lives rent free in my mind. I won’t mention who said it, but he motivated me by saying it!
Another character from my Musical Mt. Rushmore is Veda Zuponcich. There’s a documentary, Iron Opera that reveals in depth her impact on my life. From troubled youth; to hostile teen; to confident college kid; Veda deserves a lot of the credit. She’s responsible for me going to college and validating the existence of art in my life. I grew up very tentative in art. I’m so glad she found me and that I found art. It saved my life. But that’s another story.
Rowan University made me twice the man I am (and eight times the musician!). I got to be a little fish in a big pond. Six hours a day on piano, skipping parties to compose and rehearse: it didn’t last long. I played trombone in the pep band: my first instrument, and first love. Played piano, even accompanied a little. Got into church organ a bit. But the accordion was my breadwinner. I played the Hurdy Gurdy in a medieval music ensemble. Got a harp somewhere in there. Bagpipes too. I play over twenty-four instruments. But remember gang: it’s not about the number, it’s about the memories!
Then the rise started (if you can call it a rise.) Two engineering buddies signed me up for the battle of the bands competition as a one-man band. It was a joke. They knew I could play instruments with my feet AND my hands. Their pressure caused me to assemble a ragtag one-man band out of duct tape and prayer. The rest is history. The passion, the niche, the confidence, the creativity: it was all unique, and the future was bright as the sun.
Presently, you tour as “Steve Solkela’s Overpopulated One Man Band”. Could you tell the readers of FAR what went into your decision to become a solo act, one that not only includes music but a hint (just a hint) of self-deprecating humor?
God forbid someone shakes up this earth with humor!
What kind of nerd is a “serious musician” anyway? Humor is the purpose of life. You can still do a few sensitive pieces and arias amongst the laughter: help people be removed from their daily woes and trials at your shows. That’s my advice to any musician confused about his or her purpose. Life is complex: you are simple. Make things better by being you! Even Mozart was known for his bold sense of humor. Quit licking the salt shaker and live a little!
As far as the one-man band, it’s a product of my environment. I tried to collaborate with people. I learned the lesson, OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN, that people don’t care, and will never be as passionate as I am about music. I’ve started fourteen bands. Only six have been profitable and only three had everyone pulling their own weight. You have to pick your battles. I learned the hard way that I was the only one who’d show up when it mattered.
It started as accordion practice on the farm. I’d get paid gigs and try to share it with drummers, bass players, piano players etc. … but they would flake. “Collaboration is key!” Flake. “I’m getting lonely here with all these gigs.” Flake .”I’ll send you video clips of the bass part if you’re having a hard time learning.” FLAKE. I’d type up music, get gigs, advertise, take photos, do social media, incur most of the costs, handle all the phone calls and confrontation … and they’d flake! Four-digit gig in Michigan, three months’ notice and my bandmates couldn’t get off work at Walmart. Flake. Start a band, set weekly rehearsal times convenient to their work schedule. FLAKE! Go to their house to rehearse and the doors are locked. FLAKE!
So, yes, the One-Man Band started out of pure anger and hatred for liars. Now, I make my living from music: doing over two hundred gigs a year and selling my T-Shirts and CDs. I’ve performed on five continents. And contrary to my resentment to flakers, I hope they all eat. I hope they find fulfillment through music, and I hope they find the courage to not only accept a challenge but attempt it. The standards I set for myself would crush an average man. I’ve never found the healthy work/life balance. I gave up the life portion to pursue greatness with all my ability.
As for scaling back, I flaked on two out of over two hundred gigs last year. One because I went in the ditch on my way to that gig and once due to a massive snowstorm.
Long story short, flakiness is a pet peeve of mine. If you work with a musician like me, bring your A game.
I know you tour quite a bit, having just come back this spring from traveling that included a jaunt to Florida.
I’ve been quite the globetrotter. I believe I’ve performed in over twenty states and five countries. Sometimes I just fly with an accordion and leave all the one-man band instruments and trinkets behind. Whatever the gig calls for. Some of my absolute favorite places are New Jersey; UP Michigan; Milwaukee, WI; Jerome, AZ; Lantana, FL; Oulu, Finland, Kaleva Hall on the Iron Range; and good ol’ Duluth, MN.
My repertoire is diverse. I keep the Finnish stuff to a minimum unless it’s requested. Comedy goes over best. I do a lot of covers: I’m better than a jukebox! When I was in Finland, it was before my prime as an entertainer. I really hope I can go back now that I’m entering my prime. Maybe the summer of 2024? Start a rumor! Finland is a very different world but I can’t wait to see it again. Maybe I’ll bring my unicycle …
Could you given the readers an idea of your recordings, where they can be found, and what else might be in the works?
I’ve made seven CDs in my lifetime. One a year since 2015. Sold out the first 3 but I’ve no interest in pressing more. I’ve improved so much since then: every musician hates their past work. You know you’re doing it right when you’re regularly crushed by your own standards. There’s nothing easy about it: so many sleepless nights.
I owe much of my success to a fella by the name of Rich Mattson at Sparta Sound in northern Minnesota. He recorded six of my albums and was able to harness whatever you want to call this caffeine-fueled-tidal-wave-of-creative-rage that is “me” into something beautiful. That man is also on my Mt. Rushmore. My music can be found on Spotify Apple iTunes YouTube, or on CDs purchased from me at gigs.
Are you available for events? Is there a Solkela YouTube channel?
Youbetcha there’s a YouTube Channel. It’s called “Solkelamaniax” check it out!
I’m comically easy to get a hold of. Facebook is easiest: I post my schedule on my page monthly. But I do the Insta, Snappychat, and even telekinesis! Plus, the website (which I need to update) but you can reach my team at www.stevesolkela.com .
My schedule is packed, but like every working-class person, my time and talent is available for purchase.
Last question. Do you think your accordion skills will ever rise above “average”? (Your word choice, not mine!)
LOL! Humility is a weird thing. If you talk to an old accordionist who knows the standards from the 50s, I suppose I might appear weak in repertoire. At least, before I started the Polka Band and learned most of the old stuff. But the truth is, there’s over 6000 songs in my repertoire. If I ask that same old accordionist to play the metal, rap, Finnish reggae, or classic rock I know, the tables would turn. The creative and committed server (my brain) rivals a robot! Come to a show: I take requests and can do just about anything, including playing my accordion on a unicycle.
The truth is, I’m an incredible accordionist (gosh, I hope so). I skipped so many social events to practice and compose. The discipline I possess isn’t humane but I won’t allow my ambition to be tarnished. Humility works hard to make sure you never get credit for your work. I’m glad I started believing in myself more after college. So much time was wasted with the self-deprecating stuff that was deemed safe by my conditioning.
It’s a great show I’ve conjured up. Music, comedy, stunts. A twenty-three-piece one-man band! Humor. Danger. Even time travel (musically). I’m proud of it and folks are going to love it! I wish I’d have ignored all the comments weighing me down earlier in my life. It took years, but I gave myself permission to be myself when no one else did. I’ve given my life meaning through sheer focus of will and the desire to amount to something. We’ll all confront death. Will you be proud? I, for one, am proud of what I’ve been able to do artistically in the short time my hourglass sand has been falling. In the end, I believe I’ll be remembered as the hardest-working entertainer of all time.
Thank you so much for interviewing me!
(This interview originally appeared in the August 2023 edition of the Finnish American Reporter)
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My Finnish heritage stems from my father. My great-grandfather, Alfred, moved from Vaasa, Finland to Toronto in 1903. He fled Finland as a young husband and father because the Russian army was kidnapping young Finnish men to serve in the Russian army. He sailed to Toronto, moved to North Dakota, and then to Virginia, MN to work in the iron mines. Great-grandfather Salminen then moved his wife and four children from Finland to Virginia, where my grandfather, Bernhardt Veikko Salminen, was born. He grew up speaking Finnish and English and taught his parents English. Eventually, my great grandparents received their citizenship, of which they were very proud. My grandfather then met my Swedish grandmother in Denver, CO. He’d been drafted into WWII and stationed in Denver. They married and settled in Mahtomedi, MN.
My mother’s mother was Swedish. Growing up with a robust Scandinavian heritage was a defining element of our family. Ancestral reminders came from nursery rhymes sung by our grandparents in Swedish and Finnish, from the food they made, the slang they spoke, the sauna’s they stoked, and the stories they told. It came from the artwork on the walls and from the napkins on the table, from the needlework and the candy dishes and the glass birds sitting on their shelves. It came from the morning kahvi and pulla bread and from the salty black licorice I’d sneak from the glass dish besides my grandpa’s arm chair. Although my grandpa did not teach my father Finnish because they were “American”, the pride of that heritage was clearly felt and celebrated.
I recently interviewed watercolorist John Salminen and he confided you’re not related …
It’s wild that John and I aren’t related given our shared surname and love of art. I met him at my first solo show in the George Morrison Gallery in 2005. I was honored he attended. He told me that when I was in high school, he received many phone calls at his house looking for me! We’ve crossed paths at other events. His work is a true gift to our community and the world.
How did you become involved in art?
I wasn’t overtly artistic as a child but I always had a very, very strong aesthetic conviction. In kindergarten (ask my mom!) I had an eye for design and beauty. In both middle and high school, I was blessed to have Tom Rauschenfels and John Harder as art educators at Hermantown. Their encouragements became confirming voices. As a young person, I formed the image that artists were selfish, solitary beings, who were out of touch with their realities and communities. After a few years of international travel, I pursued a BFA from UW-Superior and worked as a studio assistant for Jay Steinke and Lisa Stauffer. Even so, I still didn’t want to be an artist. But I knew it would be the only thing I’d enjoy pursuing at UWS. Timothy Cleary was my sculpture professor at UWS and he sang the same beautiful encouragements I’d heard earlier. His mentorship was also paramount to my artistic unfolding.
After more travel, I met two accomplished artists in south Florida, Clyde and Niki Butcher. They mentored me and helped me get started as a professional, working artist. My youthful idea of what an artist is matured while witnessing their lives. They worked hard and hand-in-hand with their community, as well as with conservation agencies around the country, to document “the last of wild Florida.” Their example gave me the vision of the arts at work I needed to see embodied.
I’ve been continually inspired by fellow artists and supporters. When someone is willing to invest in you, when someone believes in the work you’re doing, there’s no greater agent for motivation and living out one’s purpose.
What have been the disciplines in art in which you’ve concentrated?
My BFA concentrations were ceramics and oil painting. I love the physicality of ceramics, but the color that came from oil painting was the language I wanted to speak most. I also began exploring encaustic medium: a marriage of physicality and color. Encaustic has become a primary medium for me: its versatility is mind-blowing. It’s an ancient medium of beeswax, damar resin, and pigment, fused by heat. Encaustic is created by painting in layers. Within each layer, the wax may be carved into, sculpted or have mixed media embedded. The possibilities are endless. (The Egyptians painted funerary portraits with encaustic: it’s impervious to moisture. These Fayum portraits are still with us today, almost 3000 years old!)
My studio is multidisciplinary. I work in both two and three dimensions, incorporating printmaking, sculpture, oil, encaustic, mixed media, collage, photography, and haiku poetry.
My current passion is my forever passion – which is to follow my curiosity. Wonder is my creative fuel! I’ll never not be amazed. I’m grateful that I’m able to follow what intrigues me and work out these ideas in whatever medium communicates the ideas best. I truly love what I do. And whatever I seem to be exploring – whether the work of the Finnish design house, Marimekko, or of the late French sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, and his work on the sociological impacts of technology, writing fables celebrating the North Shore of Lake Superior, or creating encaustic paintings of the BWCA to pair with the writings of conservationist and author Sigurd F. Olson – all of these explorations are nuanced and layered, just like my work. I want to be a bridge builder and draw more people to see their own place within the arts. Creativity is everyone’s birthright.
What a gift this humble poetry has become for me! Haiku is an ancient Japanese literary form that traditionally follows the form of three lines in seventeen syllables – five, seven and five, respectively.
I started writing haiku to go along with photographs I was taking. Haiku captures an essence, a moment in time. In my studio practice Haiku has become a doorway to so many things! I had a brick-and-mortar studio and showroom in Hunter’s Park a few years ago, aptly named Studio Haiku.
a poetic atmosphere
for creative acts
With all the clanging cymbals and noisy gongs that fill our cultural climate, haiku gives us space to think upon one idea slowly, contemplatively.
like a small smooth stone
rolling thoughts around with care
quietly, I see
And isn’t that what we crave more of today amidst this hectic pace? Start writing little poems with your higher power and see what happens! Here’s one for the Finns amongst us:
to be determined
commitment sans flamboyance
is haiku Finnish?
That one made me laugh out loud! Reminds me of the Finn who loved his wife so much he almost told her!
Have you been to Finland?
In 1993, my great aunt invited me to Stockholm where she and my great uncle lived. She also took me to Finland. I was struck by the similarities of landscape to my Minnesotan home. I remember thinking to myself, “This is why all my ancestors moved to Minnesota! It looks exactly like home!” We visited many in Helsinki as well as Turku and traveled mostly by ship and train. I was so at peace in those familiar woods and waters. In 1997 I traveled to Norway. I’d love to return again to Scandinavia. I’d like to visit Finland to explore the strong Finnish-Japanese connection and investigate how haiku fits into that relationship. I’m so curious to explore how the Scandinavian and Japanese people express of their strong love of the natural world through art and design and to explore how this cross-cultural love affair began.
What Finnish heritage themes did you experience as a child and growing up in NE Minnesota?
Sadly, I don’t write or speak Finnish but Finnish heritage was something we were brought up to be proud of. On my father’s side, we heard our grandparents speaking both Finnish and Swedish and my grandparent’s home was full of culturally significant items. Everything had a story. Everything had meaning. Textiles, glasswork, portraits, maps, needlework, jewelry, food. Each artifact told me a little bit about who I was. At their home we ate krupsu for breakfast and mojakka for dinner. And of course, there was kahvi and pulla every midmorning. We grew up with sauna: it was a cultural, familial rhythm not only at my grandparent’s home but also in my own childhood home. Now, in my own home, I share that heritage with my children. Keeping my last name was also critical in terms of staying connected to my heritage. It has brought wonderful Finnish connections in art and I’ve been able to participate in a host of Finnish-American exhibits. For example, I recently exhibited work for Finlandia University’s 31st Contemporary Finnish American Artist Series and I’m looking forward to participating in Finn Fest here in Duluth at the end of July.
You’re the mother of three, your husband is a pastor, and we just came through a Pandemic. How did that affect your kids, your art, your ability to create?
We have three phenomenal children who all needed to be home at some point during the pandemic. Josh works as a pastor, a chaplain, and owns Glørud Design: a woodworking design studio. There was so much upheaval for us, like there was for most people, but the pandemic was also illuminating. For me it has been the Great Exposition of sorts. It’s been difficult, but cleansing. It steered me towards celebrating our humanity (and our limitations) and continues to steer me away from dehumanization.
The beginning of Covid was the end of my retail energies: I knew I was being called to part ways with the “hustle” culture. My shop was doing well but I wasn’t making much art. I just didn’t have the bandwidth for it all. Covid came at the perfect time for me to make my exit from bending to the demands of the market. I knew that if my authentic studio practice was to survive, I’d have to say no – even to good things.
I also chose to take that first year (2020) away from the internet and social media. It wasn’t until I stopped the online noise that I was more able to hear my own thoughts.
You collaborated with Jordan Sundberg on a book, Fables of the North Shore.
The Fables of the North Shore has been a joyous riot. Jordan Sundberg and I were asked to collaborate on an exhibit. When we talked about what we wanted to do, “play” was the word we both heard. We took that call to play and joy ensued! We had so much fun working together. Initially, we wrote five fables that highlight the treasures and lore of all things North Shore. These are timeless stories for all ages and all lovers of this amazing place we live in.
After we wrote the stories, we made any art that came to mind in terms of illustrating the fables. It flowed easily. Jordan and I had both wanted to stretch our studio muscles so we explored new mediums. We created seagull mobiles and dioramas complete with (encaustic) thimbleberry candies, Glørud canoe paddle collages, lovely drawings of the harbor in Grand Marais, paintings of smelt tacos with a side of blueberries, and a rouge taconite pellet … it was just pure visual delight.
We had an amazing response. Many requests were made for a book. We self-published the fables along with photos of the art work. The book was ready by the closing of the show in September. There was such an amazing energy and joy around the project, we just kept going with it – and in the end, we commissioned eight talented puppeteers to perform the fables live at the book release and closing party. You can find the book in many places: REI (their Bloomington location); Zenith Books and the Bookstore at Fitger’s in Duluth; Duluth shops (Frost River, DLH, Siiviis Gallery); up the Shore in Lutsen, Silver Bay, and Grand Marais; or on my website.
Where can folks see your art?
I’m excited to be a part of a group show of Finnish American artists for Finn Fest this summer. Our show, “Inspiraatioita: Finnish Art and Design in Minnesota” will take place at the Nordic Center in Duluth from July 26th-30th, with an evening reception date of Friday, July 28th from 7pm-9pm. All are welcome! I will be showing prints from work I created for Finland’s 100th year of independence that celebrate the Finnish design house, Marimekko, and the creative women at its helm.
I also show my work on at Lizzards Gallery in Duluth. I sell art giclée prints, books and haiku at www.nataliesalminen.com. I’m working on a new painting series for a show at the New Scenic Cafe, as well as work for a multidisciplinary show on technology that I hope to bring to Chicago in 2024.
(This interview first appeared in the July 2023 issue of The Finnish American Reporter)
Strangers in a Strange Land by John B. Simon (2019. Hamilton. ISBN 978-0-7618-7149-1)
I had never heard of this author or this title until I found myself invited to be part of a panel at this year’s Finn Fest in my hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. I did a quick Google of my other panelist and the moderator and that’s how I came to know this book. John B. Simon and I will be sharing our experiences regarding Finnish and Finnish American fiction in Duluth at the DECC on July 28 at 10:30. The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Suzanne Matson, Finlandia National Foundation’s Lecturer of the Year for 2023. I’m humbled to be in such company. But being asked to participate made me want to know and understand Mr. Simon’s work, which includes this title. So I ordered a copy of Strangers and dug in.
Three young Jews, Benjamin, David, and Rachel, all full citizens of Finland at the beginning of the Winter War, form the key characters for the fictional portions of what Finland’s Jews experienced during the Winter War, the Continuation War, and the Lapland War, spanning 1939-1944. I say fictional portions because the format of this book is not simply another war novel. Interspaced with Simon’s depictions of the day-to-day lives, loves, travails, and successes of the three fictional characters (and their families) is a non-fiction historical narrative that educates the reader, in a very flawless and succinct way, about the Jews of Finland: their history, struggles, and enduring legacy. Never more than a few thousand souls, it would be wrong to judge the importance of a religious minority such as the Jews of Finland based upon size alone. This is especially the case when, as Simon portrays things, Finland’s Jews appear to be pawns in a tripartite political game of chicken between Finland, its traditional backer, Germany, and its former imperial master, Russia in the guise of the Soviet Union.
At first, as I struggled to get my bearings in this unusual book, I found myself questioning the author’s artistic choice, to create a hybrid of story and history, rather than a book that was one or the other. But as the narrative of the non-fiction unfolded and the lives of the three protagonists came clearer into focus in relation to events being depicted, I thought, By Jove, he’s done it! What was very interesting to me, as a writer, was the fact that many aspects of my own historical novel, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, are set in the same time frame as this work and cover much of the same ground, including the choices made by Finland and Estonia before and during the wars depicted, as well as the fate of eight unfortunate, foreign Jews who were dispatched from Finland to the Gestapo. We are vastly different writers and yet, I came to respect Mr. Simon’s retelling of that story in ways that I had not expected.
If you are interested in history, Judaica, Finnish history, or the less-well-known aspects of WW2, and are also a fan of well-drawn characters and fictional narratives, you will like this book. I certainly did. I look forward to meeting the author and trading stories about writing fictional accounts of Finns and their history.
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith (2017. Audible. ISBN 978-1439140246)
So, this was another book I “cheated” on as a book club assignment. I listened to most of this while walking the track at the local YMCA and finished it listening in my car. The seminal question, given I’m in the process of tackling my own Holocaust novel set in Slovenia during WW2 (with scenes set in Croatia, Poland, Norway, and Austria as well) is this: Does the world really need another novel about the destruction of Europe’s Jews? The answer is a qualified “yes” and this book meets my qualification.
Smith has given us a story set in Venice, and unravels an uniquely interesting and unexplored peek into the Holocaust during the last days of German rule during the time-frame of Mussolini’s fall, capture, and death. The story’s main protagonists are as follows: Cenzo a reluctant Italian soldier who comes home to resume his life of a fisherman after being discharged for refusing to use poison gas on African villagers; Guilia Silber, the always in jeopardy, obligatory Jewish beauty; and Giorgio, Cenzo’s actor brother who is at times, his brother’s foil and at times, his savior. There are a host of other minor characters who populate the tale but the plot rests upon the well-muscled, strong shoulders of Cenzo. The plot is engaging. The historical details are well researched, well placed, and don’t bog the story down. And the action is unrelenting. My only critique is that Cenzo, supposedly a somewhat downtrodden, ignorant fisherman, speaks and thinks more like a college professor, making him Giulia’s equal, than like a peasant. But that aside, I loved the read and would recommend this book to other book clubs not exhausted by the plethora of Holocaust books (hopefully, mine included) that have been released in the past decade.
My qualification for a new read based upon the Holocaust to be worthy of a read is that it cover new ground regarding that topic in engaging and riveting fashion. This book meets that requirement.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5
The Long Norwegian Night by O.M. Magnussen and Kaare A. Bolgen (2013. Fern Hill. ISBN 978-1-48403244-2)
This book is actually an English translation of a memoir by Norwegian POW O. M. Magnussen, a member of the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation of Norway during WW II. Bolgen includes Magnussen’s original artwork, drawings done on scraps of paper by Magnussen in various prison cells and concentration camps where he was interned during his long incarceration. The main reason I purchased this book was as background for a novel about the Holocaust and its aftermath in the Balkans that I’m currently researching and writing. One of my characters in my novel is transferred from Croatia to Norway, arriving at the Falstad Labor Camp, before being sent to Grini, another concentration camp run by the SS and its Norwegian counterpart, and a camp that Magnussen spent time at.
I’ll be candid: I tore through this memoir in a few days, reveling in the details and the storytelling that make it a very captivating read. As with my review of The Girl From Venice (above), as I write a fictional rendition of what Yugoslavians went through during. the war, including brutality against Jews, Roma, Serbs, Communists, and others by the Ustaše (Croatian Fascists), the seminal question I ask myself is: Does the world really need another Holocaust novel? The answer, so long as it covers new and unique ground is “yes”. This book satisfies that requirement. It’s also well written and engaging though, given it is one man’s experience at the hands of the Gestapo and the SS, it’s of limited scope. For my purposes, it was a fine addition to my research and anyone who has an interest of what took place in Norway during the war would be well served to pick up a copy and read it.
“INCREDIBLE book. As a Minnesota gal with Finnish ancestry and relatives from Michigan that moved to Minnesota. It felt as though this could have been one of my ancestors. Beautiful storytelling and realistic representations of life during the era of the book. Lovingly careful with the personalities and immigrant stories. I loved it! I gave it to my mom to read, she loved it. I gave it to my dad to read, and he loved it!”K. Ferrier
Hope to sell a few of these, along with the other two installments in the Finnish American Trilogy, at Finn Fest! See you there.
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The Kids Are Gonna Ask by Gretchen Anthony (2020. Park Row. ISBN 978-0-7783-0874-4)
My title says it all. I did not toss this novel in the trash as I did one of John Irving’s worst. I did not stop reading 100 pages in (though I should have) as I did with one of Stephen King’s worst. I soldiered on, despite my doubt at where the plot and the characters of this read were headed. I shouldn’t have plowed ahead. I should’ve stopped.
This is the tale of two adolescents who, having lost their mother to a horrific accident, and never having known their father (the family lore is that they were the offspring of a one night skiing trip/romance that took place when Bess, the mom, was in college), use modern technology (a podcast) to search for Dad. Along the way we learn that these kids ain’t starving, uncared for, unloved, underprivileged kids. No. They live with their maternal grandmother Maggie who really doesn’t know much more about Dad than the kids do. Maggie is a person of means. She has a chef who prepares all the meals for the household. Let that sink in. How in God’s name are we supposed to have any sympathy or find any empathy for two orphaned kids when they have it all, they live as One Percenters and don’t really, other than sadness over their mother’s death, have a care in the world.
This is, in a word, a terrible read. I didn’t find the plot structured or compelling. The issue of absent dads is, for sure, a real issue in modern-day America. But it turns out that Jack, the father, isn’t a deadbeat or an asshole: he was just never told by Bess he was the father of twins. The two main protagonists, the twins Thomas and Samantha aren’t endearing, or memorable, or really even crafted in a way one cares whether they find Dad or not. Same thing for every other character in the book, including the “antagonist”, Sam, a get-rich-off-the-kids-media mogul who isn’t really scary or evil or anything much other than annoying.
I stand corrected. Jack, the dad, is somewhat interesting, at least as it concerns his occupation as a charter fisherman, being a drunk, and as a lost soul. In fact, come to think of it, this would have been a much better book if it was told from his frame of reference throughout. Then, perhaps, maybe, there’s a story to captivate readers and tackle modern day issues of absent parents, privacy, and instant media.
Sadly, this book, a book I “won” during the dice game at Christmas, should have stayed in it wrapping paper.
2 stars out of 5. Don’t waste your time like I did.
Pedaling on Purpose by Ken Rogers and Steve Anderson (2008. Inspirit. ISBN 978-1-60461-634-7)
Another “read” loaned to me by my friend, Ronaldo. It’s actually not his book but one he borrowed from mutual friends. The book is personally signed to those folks so I’ll need to get it back to Ronaldo so he can return it.
The authors, Rogers and Anderson, decided, really on a whim, to support the Minnesota chapter of the Make a Wish Foundation (an organization that funds wishes for severely ill children) by bicycling into (not through) all 48 contiguous states of these United States of America. The authors pedaled through rain, snow, sleet, heat, cold, bugs, dogs, and assorted other challenges on the way to completing a trip that exceeded 10,000 miles. Rogers had zero previous long distance biking experience and purchased the Trek he rode throughout the arduous journey only weeks before the pair departed the Twin Cities. Anderson had some experience in long-distance biking but nothing remotely close to what the duo engaged in during this ride.
Though not especially well written in a literary sense, this book has a lot going for it, from the audacious decision by both men to quit their jobs and bike around the nation; to their persistent banter and less-than-helpful minor squabbles; to episodic kindnesses the pair received from complete strangers in terms of lodging, food, donations, and support. I enjoyed this tale immensely and, though I was a bit put off by the use of bold type to differentiate Anderson’s contributions to the book (it was mildly distracting), I got over that criticism to read on. It was especially helpful to see more photos chronicling this incredible ride towards the end of the story: I wish there’d been more snapshots taken in the beginning, especially the portions involving the American West where the riders were challenged by wide open spaces, mountains, and arid deserts.
Throughout the “read” the authors, Rogers in particular, share their Christian faith with their audience and explained how, in some instances, faith communities opened their arms to receive and house the pair, and, at least on one occasion (when a Catholic priest slammed the door to the rectory in their faces) didn’t. The inclusion of religion in the story made sense given the toil and hardship and sheer determination of will that went into completing the trip so that money could be raised to make children’s dreams, if only for a moment, come true.
Truly inspiring and well worth the time spent accompanying two brave men on their quest.
C,S,N,&Y by David Browne (2019. Hachette. ISBN 978-0306922633)
They are my Beatles. And, in some ways, the rise and fall of this great American band, the band I grew up listening to through covers of their best stuff played by my buddies at high school dances, mirrors that of the Fab Four. What do I mean? Well, Browne lays it all out: the jealousy between the fabulously talented guitar licks and songwriting of Neil Young versus the sometimes brilliant and often times mundane contributions of his other three bandmates to the legacy of their work (think John and Paul versus Ringo and George). Steve Stills, whose career started with Young in the Buffalo Springfield, shot his wad, in many ways, very early on in BS and through his early contributions to C,S, & N. “For What It’s Worth”, “Love the One You’re With”, and “Carry On”, are some of his most important contributions to our musical heritage and they all were written very early in Stills’s lengthy career. Crosby (kicked out of another supergroup, the Byrds), always the best of the band’s voices, was never a great or prolific songwriter, tending to moody, strange, off-the-cuff tunes that, while very personal, didn’t really sell beyond his initial solo offering, If I Could Only Remember My Name, a cult classic. And Nash, the sensible, intelligent, former member of the Hollies, hit the mark as well with his early solo album, Songs for Beginners. But after that, the mule carrying the egos of the quartet was all Neil, plain and simple.
This was another ’round the YMCA track “listen” for me. And it was a gem. Granted, those of you who aren’t big fans might get bored as to the detail Browne invests in telling the stories of these four talented musicians. But for anyone who possesses and cherishes the original C,S, & N album, Deju Vu, the two later-in-career studio reunion albums from the full quartet, or, my personal favorite, a glimpse of the band at its peak despite its flaws, Four Way Street (the clunky piano mishaps on “Chicago” notwithstanding), or have followed Young’s mercurial career and his oft-misfiring journeys away from the sound that made him a legend, this book is a must read.
The chronicling of Crosby’s addictions and near-death experiences; the frail ego of Stills when his work is compared with Young’s; the snappy comebacks of Nash to criticisms of his and the band’s work; and the on-again-off-again participation of Young in group projects; are all here for you to discern, consider, and apply to your own view of the band’s importance to American rock and roll. Though the story ends short of Crosby’s recent death, this is as complete rendition of the band’s sad, joyful, filled-with-jealousy complexity you’ll ever encounter.
A great book about good to great singer/songwriters who rarely saw got along.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tocarzcak (2019. Penguin (Audible) ISBN 978-0525541349)
My book club, the Greater Mesabi Men’s Book Club of Hibbing, Minnesota, is located over an hour from my rural NE Minnesota home. Some time ago, I was invited to join the club after the guys read a couple of my novels, a snippet of the more than 450 works of fiction the club has read and discussed over its thirty-plus years of existence. As the Club’s newest (and youngest) member, what I love about this club is that the mix of members is so eclectic, you just never know what the next selection will bring. Drive Your Plow is a book I would never choose on my own but I’m glad I read it.
Janina Duszejko, the book’s first-person narrator, is a retired civil engineer living in the mountainous region of Poland along its border with the Czech Republic. She is working, after her career in construction has ended, as an English teacher in a local Catholic school. It’s an intriguing read insofar as language because the author, a Nobel prize winner, writes in Polish and must await translation of her work into the wider-read English language. I loved the woman who narrated the audio version: her accent alone called to mind a babushka-wearing older woman, whose health is plagued by a mysterious illness, and who is suddenly surrounded by dead bodies, all of them men, all of them neighbors. While critics (and the author) bill this novel as a crime thriller/mystery, that’s not really a good fit in terms of labeling. This is more of an introspective, literary reflection chronicling the narrator’s singular, loveless existence in the hinterlands, including her affection for and dedication to living things. She abhors hunting. She has lost her two “girls” (dogs) and that loss figures into the solving of the murders and the storyline.
In the end, this was not a great tale. Nor was it especially suspenseful or thrilling in its pace, story, and unfolding. Rather, it’s a good read from a talented author and I enjoyed it, despite some dragging points here and there, to the very end.
4 stars out of 5. She’s a Nobel winner not for this book but for her body of work.
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien (2011. Audible. ISBN 978-0767904421)
This is a read that was actually a listen. Again, as I try to stave off low back surgery by working out and walking the Hermantown Y track, I listen to novels and biographies and what have you, all of them provided by Audible. Being a fan of O’Brien’s work (he’s a Minnesotan so what’s not to like?), I selected this novel for my workout routine. I wasn’t disappointed.
This is unlike any other war novel you will ever read. If you are trying to replicate the internal angst and fear and combat weary feel of Matterhorn ( a great novel of the Vietnam War in its own right) or O’Brien’s slender, much loved The Things We Carried or If I Die in a Combat Zone, you’ll experience some of the same reactions and emotions you encountered reading/listening to those books while listening to/reading Going After.
But this book is far more experimental, far more cerebral in its conception and execution than simply a straight-on, tell-it-like-it-is war novel. You simply have to experience it to understand what I mean. Without giving away the store, all I can say is there is magic and mysticism in this tale. There are also imagery and longing and fear to be gleaned from a listen or read, all of which ring true despite the format and the narrative license the author engages in to tell the story of one squad, sent to find a deserter, as it heads west, out of the war.
A fine book. I’m not sure if it deserved to be book of the year or not but it is a dandy read.
(Kid Cann (middle figure) the man behind the killing of Walter W. Liggett and the inspiration for Muckraker: A Novel Noir)
If you are willing to take a slight risk, pre-order my novel, Muckraker, by clicking on the “Buy Stuff” tab above and selecting Muckraker in the items offered. You’ll be able to pre-order a copy (or copies) of the book and help get it edited and published! You have my promise the book will be in your hands by 10/1/2023 if I reach my goal of 200 pre-sold copies.
If you have any doubts about the quality of the story or the research or the writing, you will find a review of the book here:
I was born in St. Paul while my Dad was in law school. Kip was, too. My Dad was born and raised in New York Mills which used to be a very Finnish town. You could hear the language spoken on the street, at the creamery and in the restaurant and barber shop. By the time I was four and a half years old we had moved back to the Mills area for a brief stay at my grandparent’s farm, then to nearby Wadena. My brother and sister and I often spent time at the farm in our younger days and would go into town with Grandpa where we heard him talking to his friends in Finnish. We also went to the farm for sauna. Grandpa sang songs to me when I was younger, but the Finnish side of the family were Apostolic so we didn’t hear much from them. They did have an old cylinder record player with some Finnish cylinder recordings. Later family friend Irja Hanson properly introduced me to Finnish songs and gave me songbooks from Finland. My Dad read to us from an English translation of Kalevala.
Like being a real estate novelist (my apologies to Billy Joel), choosing a career in music is a pretty risky endeavor.
When I was out at the farm, I often went through my Grandpa’s dresser so I could see his WWI medals and silver Colt revolver. He was a wounded and earned the Silver Star. My mother never knew, but he let me shoot the pistol when I got older. One day when I was 11 or 12, I crawled under my grandmother’s bed and discovered an old Sears mail order guitar in a dusty case. My Grandma told me it was hers and that she used play in a family band with her sister on fiddle and her dad on pump organ. They weren’t Finns but used to play ‘old timey’ country music at house parties and barn dances. Grandma’s mother was from Scotland so they also played Scottish songs like “Annie Laurie.” I tinkered with the untuned guitar every time I was at the farm and one day, she just gave it to me. My best friend got an old guitar from his grandparents, as well: his older brother already played and taught us how to tune the strings and showed us chords. We began playing old-time country: songs by Eddy Arnold, Ray Price, and others, and we were off to the races. Eventually, we played fairs, town dances, and appeared on local radio and television. We liked all kinds of music: early rock, doo-wop, folk, and started writing songs. We later got into old country blues artists, singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, and some of the British Invasion bands.
Was Finnish spoken at home? What’s your proficiency in the language?
My mother wasn’t Finnish so it wasn’t spoken in the home. She was Swedish and Norwegian, although if she had lived a little longer, Ancestry.com would have showed she was also part Finn. Kip and I only heard Finnish from our grandfather, his brothers and friends, and the little bit of what my Dad knew. Finnish as a language was already disappearing. Our local music store in Wadena had a large section of albums imported from Finland and we bought a copy of every one of them. I started picking up Finnish from those songs and took Finnish classes as well. I have never been strong as a Finnish speaker. I was at my peak back in the 1990s and 2000s when I was in Finland more often. I’ve lost a lot of it in recent years, but when I go to Finland to hang out with my friends, comes back a little.
Watching the great Finnish film Ikitie (about Jussi Ketola) I noticed you wrote a song for the film, “Punainen”. Talk a bit about that song and writing songs in Finnish.
I didn’t write “Punainen” for the film. I’d written it in the 1990s in response to first hand stories of historic persecution and prejudice against Finns. I may have only sung it publicly a couple of times, but while in Finland, I taught the song to my friend Hannu Saha’s son, Topi, who began singing it. The song supervisor for Ikitie was Karri Miettinen and he happened to hear Topi sing it. He played it for producer Ilkka Matila and director AJ Annila. They loved it and asked me if it could be part of the film. After getting my OK, they decided I should be in the film, too. The scene in the film with the song wasn’t in Antti Turri’s novel, but he also loved the idea of creating a scene for the song. AJ, Ilkka, and Antti were great people to work with. The film is about a very dark chapter of Finnish, Finnish American, and Finnish-Canadian history in Karelia. But the film was expertly written, directed, and acted by some of Finland’s, Denmark’s, and Estonia’s best actors. It was shot mostly in Estonia and I had a ball doing it!
In the late 1980s or early 1990s, Finnish folklorists toured the UP, Wisconsin, and Minnesota recording Finnish Americans singing Finnish songs. Someone turned them on to me and they came to my house to record me, which led to me recording an album of Finnish and Finnish-themed songs for EiNo Records in Helsinki. The theme of that year’s Kaustinen Folk Festival was Juuret Suomessa, so they brought a whole bunch of us over to sing and play at the festival.
I’ve been back several times, touring clubs and playing festivals. It’s kind of my second home and, honestly, I think I have more friends there than I do here! Finland is a very natural place for me demographically and culturally. It also happens to be ranked as one of the top five societies in the world.
An online biography indicates that, after honing your musical skills in the area you were raised, you migrated to folk/rock music and played in several bands, including Trova, Suomi Orkesteri, and Trova Ystavineen.
I like playing solo and with bands equally. I like the interaction with other musicians, but playing solo allows you to dive deeper into a song. I left full-time playing with a band to focus at Red House Records which was demanding more of my time. But I wouldn’t rule out playing in the right group again. In 1969, I’d been in college, but not very focused in my studies (I mostly played music in coffeehouse). The Vietnam War was on and I got tired of renewing my student deferment so I enlisted in the Air Force. To my surprise, I was rejected from the services as 4F. I immediately dropped out of school, headed to New York City, and started to play my songs around Greenwich Village. There has been no looking back.
You’ve worked in musical theater, writing music and lyrics for the stage. I note that one of the most influential works you had a hand in, Ten November (working with playwright Steven Dietz) not only drew regional accolades for the work but the music from the play became an album featuring yourself and some great regional names in folk music: Prudence Johnson, Ruth Mackenzie, Peter Ostroushko, and others.
Writing songs and music for film and the theater differs only in that I’m more often writing about something specific to the plot or general theme; the tools and skills I have accrued over the last 60 years are the same. I’ve never written a theatrical song for an already existing plot. I’ve always been a full partner working side by side with the playwright creating the play.
Ten November was a life-changing experience–very meaningful to me and probably the highlight of my career. Its Great Lakes theme dealt not only the Edmond Fitzgerald story, but with other shipwrecks: the power of nature and loss. It also examined potential causes of the sinking, the legal ramifications, and the human components. I met people who’d lost a family member on the Fitzgerald and other wrecks. Their positive response to the show was a humbling experience.
In addition to all your creative work, you took over the reins of one of the most beloved (at least by me!) folk/Americana labels in the music industry, Red House Can you give the readers of FAR a short history of Red House and its work in promoting musicians that aren’t always household names? I believe the notion of an independent label headquartered in St. Paul, MN started as idea that Greg Brown, another legendary singer/songwriter, shared with Bob Feldman.
After going to New York for a couple of years as a performing artist, my management moved our operations to Los Angeles. While there I had a day job working for an artist studio that designed many of the iconic LP packages of early 70s rock and pop music. I was just a lackey there but I picked up a lot of skills relating to the music business. After LA and a short time in San Francisco I moved back home, got married and had a child on the way. I decided to stop actively performing then and focus on the album production side of the music. I produced two albums for Flying Fish Records in Chicago and a well-received album for Spider John Koerner. In the course of the Koerner project, I met Bob who had recently started Red House Records with Greg Brown. Bob was a terrific entrepreneur but was doing all of the label work from his dining room. He wanted the Koerner project at Red House. I agreed and we became friends. At some point I noticed I was actually working at Red House and had become the first employee. My skills and Bob’s skills complimented each other, and due to a convergence of many factors, like the emergence of A Prairie Home Companion (our national platform), our artist roster and own talents, Red House grew into an internationally-distributed record label earning Grammy Awards.
Red House promoted and sold music written and performed by some of America’s best: Jorma Kaukonen, John Gorka, Eliza Gilkyson, Lucy Kaplansky, Spider John Koerner, and many others. What was your day-to-day role in signing performers and supervising the production of their music at the label?
I either produced a recording session in the studio myself or interacted with outside producers we brought in for a specific project. Originally, everything was recorded in the Twin Cities. But soon our artists were being recorded in New York, Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, Canada, Scotland, and England. Part of my job was trying to make sure we got the best results we could, without running up too much cost¾a lot of time on the phone and staring at a computer screen! I also interacted with artists at the recording stage, discussing their projects and what they hoped to achieve. Finally, I coordinated designers around the country commissioned to design album packaging.
One of the founders of Red House passed in 2017 and eventually, the label was purchased from his estate by Compass Records, a Nashville, TN label. Talk a bit about that process and what led to you leaving Red House? What have you been doing to keep your own creative juices flowing since Red House was acquired by Compass and you left your post as President of Red House?
Bob died in 2006 and I became president of the label with the mission of carrying on our vision. I stayed on as president for over ten years but longed to get back to my own creative work. The record industry was changing, and I thought the label could use some younger leadership. I took a sabbatical and went to Spain. My wife’s family is from Spain; most of her relatives are there. I spent time with them and walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage by myself. It was a fantastic experience and when I came back, I’d pretty much decided to retire from Red House. The label carried on for a couple more years, and then Bob’s wife Beth decided to sell it to Compass. Garry West and Allison Brown, who run Compass, are old friends and have a similar mission so it was the perfect hand off.
Any chance we’ll see you and/or your musical brother, Kip, performing at the upcoming Finn Fest in Duluth? Where can folks find your music?
Kip and I will both be there, though not performing together like we often do. I’m looking forward to it. I hope folks can come.
As for my music, my Finnish albums are out of print. The only two recordings currently available are my solo English-language album, Songs of Sad Laughter and the cast recording of Ten November. Prudence Johnson, Ruth MacKenzie, Claudia Schmidt, the late Peter Ostroushko, Dan Chouinard, Jeffrey Willkomm and I toured a concert version of the play’s music three times around the Great Lakes states under the name “Gales of November” to differentiate our concerts from the actual play.
Like the shoemaker’s children who go barefoot, I’ve been slow to make new recordings (COVID partly being to blame), but I have some new stuff in the works that might be ready by Finn Fest. I also love doing house concerts. Folks can Contact me if they’re interested in producing such an event at [email protected] !
(This interview first appeared in the April 2023 issue of the Finnish American Reporter.)
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I’m at it again. After spending two decades exploring Finnish, Finnish American, and Finnish Canadian culture; and after writing three historical novels from that experience and research (Suomalaiset, Sukulaiset, and Kotmaa); I’m returning to my maternal grandfather’s roots in hilly, southern Slovenia. My first novel, The Legacy was part historical novel set in WW II and part present-day murder mystery/thriller. I’m following that pattern in my present manuscript (working title, Slovenec: The Slovenian) and crafting a very rough draft of a fictional story while researching the Slovenian Partisans, the Croatian Ustashi, the Serbian Chetneks, and the Holocaust as it happened in the former Yugoslavia. That’s the projected first half of the book. The second half will take the characters (those that survive!) from the war to present day.
The Heretic is a fine biography of Josip Broz’s (Tito’s) life from birth through the book’s release (1957). This extensive volume takes the reader through the war hero’s formative years as a young Communist, to his break with the Soviet Union (after WW II), and ends analyzing the upset caused by Poland’s and Hungary’s challenges to U.S.S.R. Marxist-Leninist primacy during the late 50’s. Maclean, who ended his career in the British Army as a brigadier general (and also served in Parliment) parachuted into Yugoslavia during the war to meet and work with Tito and the Partisans. Much of his writing about the Field Marshall of Yugoslavia comes directly from Tito’s mouth through the leader’s personal stories and the interactions between the two men. In addition, the geopolitical aspects of Yugoslavian story are well-researched and based upon Maclean’s exhaustive review of Balkan history. The book is well-written, gives a fair and balanced view of Tito’s faults and talents, and will be the cornerstone for my writing about the post-war situation in the reformatted Yugoslavia.
A must read if you are interested in a fascinating man and nation, no longer in existence, with a tortured past.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Not to be confused with movies bearing the same name, this novel is not a book I would have purchased for myself. I’d never heard of it despite the novel being on the NYT’s Bestseller list. I’d also never heard of the author. But someone gave The Matrix to me as a gift, it was in my “to read” stack for quite awhile, and I finally plucked it from fictional purgatory and to give it a read.
Marie, the protagonist and heroine in this tale, is a tall, strong, strapping and not-so-very-pretty young woman when the novel begins. She’s infatuated (likely sexually) with Eleanor, a Queen of both France and the rough and unruly hinterlands of England. There is only one Christian faith and church during the story’s timeframe (approximately around the time of the last of Crusade) and ultimately, because Marie is a bastard (the product of the rape of her mother by a nobleman) and unmarriageable, the girl is sent to live in a convent across the English Channel. This is, in essence, the life story of a girl turned nun turned force of nature who transforms her dreary existence as a novice to become Abbess, eventually wielding great power and authority; a standing in the world that the Queen herself cannot break or harness.
Written in a tone and style that reminds the reader of the best fairy tales and ancient legends, it is easy to respect and admire Marie’s pluck, resolve, and grit. Harder is the task of grasping exactly what her faith is, the basis of her beliefs, and whether she is actually, deep in her soul, a good Catholic or a heretic. In one very moving scene, when there’s no opportunity for a priest to make his way to the Abby to conduct Communion, Marie puts on priestly vestments, hears confession, and conducts Mass, all to murmurs of apostasy and horror amongst her most ardent followers.
I liked this book’s style, story, and pacing a great deal and found it a hard tale to put down despite my early reservations that it might not be, as the English say, “my cup of tea.”
5 stars out of 5. A great bookclub read!
Another one of my Audible “listens” while working out at the local Y. Also a book club pick by a member of my book club. I will be frank. I would have never read this novel, one filled with speculations about life’s origins, meanings, astrophysics featuring a fairly unlikeable father and his savant/genius autistic son. But because it was selected by one of my book club guys, well, I gave it a listen to fulfill my duty.
Guess what? I actually enjoyed the story. It challenged me in ways similar to how I’d been challenged as a young college student when I reading Ursula LeGuin as part of a political science course on utopias. LeGuin, a fine, fine literary writer who chose to write fantasy and science fiction, is my bellwether when it comes to speculative fiction like Bewilderment. I thoroughly enjoyed following Robin’s, the autistic child’s, meanderings in and around genius and his emotive angst regarding the status of our fragile Earth. I was less enthralled with the character of Theo, the father, who, to my tastes, was a cardboard cutout of a man. Oh, I’ll concede that he’s dedicated to his son, having been made a widower by a car accident that claimed his wife and Robin’s mother, and spends every moment when not at work trying to mentor and father his child. But he is one angry, unpleasant, self-centered, mess of a human being. In addition, the ancillary characters don’t really add a whole hell of a lot to what is, at it’s core, a rumination on planet Earth, human existence, faith, science, and the unknown.
Good writing, not great writing, a passable plot line (though be warned, the ending is very predictible), and one memorable character who will stick in your mind in the manner of Owen Meany.
4 stars out of 5.
That’s it for now, folks!
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Another of my listens while exercising at the local Y. Here’s my pitch: Don’t be swayed away from this great piece of writing by those who have panned the book, including Bill Steigerwald’s “exposés” concerning the narrative and timeline that form this travelogue. This is an exemplary piece of “road writing”, one that lays out an America Steinbeck encountered when he packed up his pickup truck and its camper, placed his standard poodle Charley in the cab’s passenger seat, and set off to explore his native country.
Steinbeck spent his youth and much of his adulthood in California and New York. The journey he depicts in Travels starts on Long Island and ends there as well. In between, the author navigates two-lanes, and the occasional expressway, from Maine to the West Coast, through Texas and the Deep South, before returning home. The ending will bring a smile to your face so I won’t spoil it here. But the storytelling to be found in Steinbeck’s greatest prose, Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men is on full display here. Critics, like Steigerwald, who pan the itinerary and factual basis of these terrific essays, miss the entire point of the book. Who cares if Steinbeck met or didn’t meet the folks he portrays? Who cares if he spent more nights in motels and hotels than roughing it in his camper? The yarns he tells and the landscapes he paints give us a glimpse of the America he discovered along the way: the beautiful and the ugly; the kind and the racist; the confined countryside (New England) and the breadth of the West (especially Montana, his favorite state).
In particular, his depiction of the sadness and the anger he witnessed in the Deep South, where he drove smack dab into the midst of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, are touching, telling, and fist-wrenching. Steinbeck’s recounting tale of watching a young Negro (his term, not mine) girl, a “mite of a thing” as he puts it, being escorted from a federal marshal’s car by big, burly, serious white men who are there to protect her from “the Cheerleaders” (white mothers and grandmothers who scream at the little girl) inside a formerly all-white elementary school in Louisiana) is the best of the lot. Whether the event happened exactly as depicted, on the day depicted, or whether it’s a collage of what the author read in local newspapers or saw on the local news during his travels isn’t of interest to me. I’m interested in the larger story, real or imagined, placed upon the page by one of our greatest 20th century writer commenting on America and the Americans he may have (or may not have) met and distilled.
Readers and Steinbeck scholars who attack the “facts” contained in this work need to understand: this is memoir, the blending of fact and lyrical narrative that may or may not be exactly so. In my own memoir, Duck and Cover, I have hundreds of conversations in quotations and recount a similar plethora of events I believe I experienced during the beginning stages of my life. That such dialogue, settings, and events portrayed may not have happened exactly as I recall or depict doesn’t diminish the truth of my story. In similar fashion, the larger truths of Steinbeck’s travel memoir must be read with the same eye.
The fact that Gary Sinese is the narrator of the Audibile version of the book only adds frosting to this finely baked cake of a travel story.
Given F. Scott, the husband of Zelda, is a Minnesota author, I’ve always had a certain fascination for his work, his life, and his marriage. So, when I was in need of an audio book to listen to while walking the track and working out at the local Y, I used some of my Audible credits to load this novel into my phone.
The tale Zelda writes here is supposedly her own take on her marriage to Scott and mercurial the time they spent in France during the 1920s and 1930s. Save Me is seen by some Fitzgerald scholars as a preemptory strike against her husband. How so? The faintly autobiographical Tender is the Night was in the process when Zelda, after heavy editing by her husband to remove passages that painted him in an unflattering light (he’s the model for the husband in Zelda’s tale), found herself a publisher and launched this book into the world. There are many experts of the Fitzgerald legacy who decry Save Me the Waltz as limited in scope and value due to its fairly mundane plot and pacing. Others claim that F. Scott borrowed many of the themes from this novel (boredom, infidelity, the rigors of child birth and child rearing, and so on) and adapted those to his purposes for Tender. I’m no Fitzgerald scholar but what I will say, having listened to both books, Tender is by far the more complex and more completely executed tale.
Save Me is, in the end, mildly interesting, decently written, but never captivating in the manner of the author’s husband’s best work.
Someone gave this book to me as a present. Likely for Christmas. I don’t know for sure who gifted it to me but I am grateful. Here’s my take.
Farrow is the son of actress Mia Farrow and the step-son of Woody Allen. His sister, Dylan, rocked the world in 1992 with allegations that Allen had sexually abused her as a child. Ronan is Dylan’s brother and, though he originally disbelieved her version of events, he ultimately took her side in things. That case was investigated by local authorities and was the subject of a lengthy custody trial, which included testimony about Allen’s affair with the couple’s adopted older daughter, whom he ultimately married. The family court found no credible facts to support Dylan’s allegations but she has maintained it happened and Ronan has supported her. That’s the backstory for Ronan’s work on allegations regarding Harvey Weinstein’s rapes, assaults, and sexual misconduct against young models, actresses in films he produced through his company, Miramax, and similar incidences of conduct involving female staff at Miramax.
At the time he received tips regarding Weinstein’s behavior, Farrow was a reporter for and contributor to the Today Show on NBC. With the support of a co-worker at NBC, Rich McHugh, Farrow began interviewing the women whose names he heard or learned were allegedly abused by Weinstein. In the mix of his investigation, he ran across connections between Weinstein and David Pecker, editor of the scandal sheet, The National Enquirer, as well as snippets of information involving Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, including the story of Stormy Daniels that’s now playing out in Trump’s indictment. Many of the names he discovered as having had nonconsensual sexual interaction with Weinstein are not well known but he was able to confirm the producer’s conduct with Mira Sorvino, Roxanne Arquette, and Daryll Hannah amongst others. The writing in this nonfiction exposé that details the length and breadth and determination of Farrell’s investigation and reporting is tightly drawn, tense, and in places, reads like a James Bond script. As women begin to open up, as new sources come to light, the author begins to believe he is being followed; that someone attached to Weinstein is tailing him, sending him false leads, and trying to infiltrate confidential sources in hopes of intimidating them. Turns out, he was right to be suspicious. A notorious Israeli security firm known as Black Cube was investigating the investigator and even hired a couple of folks to pose as sympathetic ears to lure Farrow and one of his interviewees into relationships meant to undermine the investigation.
Fun stuff, this spy angle. But the real meat of the story is narrative regarding the hierarchy of NBC; from the director of news operations to the highest levels of 30 Rockefeller Plaza; and efforts from inside the network to kill the story. What is striking about the tale, when one finally closes the back cover and sits in reflection, is the fact that if NBC, with is history of brilliant, all-hands-on-deck reporting, can be swayed by one powerful predator to walk away from a story, what else have the major networks (and perhaps even PBS) been manipulated into ignoring?
Besides Ronan Farrow and his partner at NBC, there are other heroes in this tale, most notably, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC who didn’t bow to an order from on high not to ask the fateful question: What did the hierarchy of NBC know about Weinstein and when did the bosses know it? She bluntly, and bravely asked that question and, to his credit, Farrow answered it, costing him his job.
A brilliant piece of nonfiction writing. My only criticism is that the Matt Lauer story, though important because it shows the culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” within NBC, doesn’t really belong in this book to the depth it’s included. It’s tale that deserves its own telling in a separate book.
I “inherited” this hardcover (JPEG and ISBN above relate to the paperback version) from my maternal grandfather’s collection of outdoor books. I found it when I was pulling books from my 94-year-old mother’s shelf, getting things ready for an estate sale because she was moving from her lovely townhome on the St. Louis River into assisted living. Hard move, for sure. For all concerned, especially for Mom, who grew up skipping stones and catching frogs at the family resort on Bear Island Lake between Babbitt and Ely. Anyway. It’s a signed copy (by both the author and her illustrator/husband) but lacks the dust jacket, making it less a collectible and more of a family heirloom. I’d never read Hoover but had heard of her writing in the context of outdoor/wilderness writers such as Sig Olson and put the reclaimed book on my “to read” shelf, promising to get to it. And I did.
This is a bit different from say the writings of Olson or Sam Cook or Doug Wood, writers who spend considerable time exploring the spiritual value of wild places, hunting, fishing, camping, canoeing, and the like. Here, we are gifted a more domesticated view of living in a rustic cabin/home “off the grid” in the 1950s and early 60s. Hoover is quite clear that neither she nor her artist husband hunt or fish. The scenes painted by the author involving wildlife, from fisher to bear to deer mice to ruffed grouse to deer to black bear involve interactions between the animals and the human characters on rustic property up the Gunflint Trail. (I believe; she never really tells us where the cabins are) and do not involve stalking and killing animals for sustenance. This remains true even when the couple becomes snowed in, witnesses the dwindling of their food supplies, and things appear dire given they have no vehicle, no phone service, and no real neighbors close enough to assist them in times of need. But despite this personal reticence towards hunting and fishing, Hoover recognizes that such pursuits are part of the north wood’s heritage and doesn’t object, for example, to rendering aid to a wandering fur trapper who needs a place to stay, a warm fire, and food for his belly.
The writing is easy to follow, though at times, the author’s digressions to her past life in Chicago as a scientist intrude upon the meat and potatoes of the storytelling: which is essentially the tale of two city folk trying, without much experience or knowledge, to make a home and live their lives in NE Minnesota’s rugged and remote Arrowhead country. When she gets down to describing the sights, smells, and surroundings of her adopted land, she is every bit as good a writer as the others I’ve mentioned. The fact she writes with a more, as I’ve said, inward-looking, domestic eye, is not pejorative towards her gender: her perspective as a professional, a woman, and a wife simply gives us a different perspective. And that, in my view, makes this book well worth reading.
The concluding scenes (I won’t ruin it for you here) are riveting and leave a reader (me!) wanting more. Isn’t that what good writing, nature or otherwise, should do?
4 stars out of 5.
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I cheated again. I listened to this biography of Steinbeck while doing my walking/work out/stretching (in that order!) at the local YMCA (thanks, Audible!). I’m a huge fan of Steinbeck, placing East of Eden in my top ten of favorite novels. And, as a novelist and writer myself, I always enjoy peeking under the tent to see how it’s done. Here goes.
Souder’s book is as literary as it gets. His writing style is immaculate, precise, concise, and well, just plain marvelous. The portrait he paints of the tortured life of one man, banging away at the keys, trying to write stories that others will enjoy, stories that will carry a message-for certain-but entertaining and well-received, is masterfully told. We journey with the author of Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charlie, Grapes of Wrath, The Red Pony, and countless other novels and short stories, from his humble California upbringing, to Stanford, to LA, to San Francisco, back to the Monterey area, to NYC, to Europe, and elsewhere all the while being a witness to the difficulties confronting those who write with an eye towards publication.
The personality quirks of Steinbeck, including his abhorrence at, yet pursuit of, fame; his seemingly manic-depression reeling from the pinnacle of happiness to the well of despair; are all chronicled here in bold and honest fashion. His loves, his friendships, his connections to other writers, his fear of rejection, his seeming lack of pride in his success (including his blasé reaction to being awarded a Pulitzer and a Nobel) are well described, detailed, and explored.
For me, a struggling author who has now lived a longer life than the greats I admire (Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald) how others deal with the pain of literary rejection and/or criticism is in my wheelhouse and Souder does a fine job of laying out the tortured path John Steinbeck trod in this regard.
My only criticism of the book is that, in the end, after Steinbeck’s passing is chronicled, the author doesn’t explore the man’s legacy, his current standing amongst other significant writers of the 20th century. I would’ve appreciated learning what, if anything, current academics and scholars and critics think of the man’s body of work. I have my opinion but I would have liked to have heard from other readers of the man’s classic works as to what his legacy is some fifty years after his passing.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A biography all writers need to ingest and digest.
The Contested Country by Aleksa Djilas (1991. Harvard. ISBN 0-674-16698-1)
Diljas answers many of my questions about why and how the relatively new nation of Yugoslavia emerged from the aftermath of WW II. And while he doesn’t enlarge the topic to include why and how that same nation disintegrated a decade after Marshall Tito (the titular head of the country from 1945 until his death in 1980) ended his long reign, the seeds of understanding the nation’s demise are indeed reflected in the political history chronicled by the author.
I ordered a used copy of this scholarly work not for my reading pleasure or on some whim of trying to understand my own Balkan heritage (I’m one-quarter Slovenian) but because the writing bug has me pointed in the direction of my first novel, The Legacy. In that story, I somewhat innocently beatified Tito and his prowess in forging an army and a nation. I did not, for example, delve into the reasons behind Croatian and Serbian atrocities against each other during WW II nor explore the massacres, murders, and heavy-handedness of Tito towards the vanquished once his Partisans (Communist guerrillas) emerged as the clear power during their war against the Germans, Italians, Croat Ustashi (Fascists aligned with the Axis Powers), and Serbian Chetnik forces. That history, I think, is a fine setting for, if not a sequel, than at least a sequential novel, which I’ve just begun to work on. Research, as Mitchener has taught those of us seeking to write fictional truth, forms the bones of a historical novel. And so, this book became a “must” read.
The Contested Country is a scholarly read. By that I mean Diljas offers a plethora of footnoting to support his essential argument: that both Croatia and Serbia, the larges components in terms of the population of what became Yugoslavia, harbored nearly magical thinking when it came to interpreting the importance of their history. The medieval kingdoms of Serbia and Croatia were never world or regional political powers when they did exist as independent nation states. Ultimately, both were absorbed by larger empires; the Croats into Austro-Hungry and the Serbs into the Ottoman body politic. Serbia managed, before WW I, to wrest itself free from Turkish control and, at the end of the war, as a member of the victorious alliance, carved out the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (the South Slavs), leading to the imposition of Serbian monarchs, who, on the cusp of the 1930s, turned the constitutional monarchy into a dictatorship. Imposition of Serbian rule against the Croatian national will, coupled with traditional Croatian animosity towards the Serbs (not based upon language, culture, or even religion but ethnicity) led to an explosion of intraSlav terrorism and slaughter, the extent of which, given the mists of history, remains largely difficult to document even today.
Anyone who is seeking to understand the Balkans as they exist in the 21st century should start here. The book is not a pleasurable read but it is succinct, well drawn, and sets the stage for what took place once Tito died.
Confession time. I supported Senator Klobuchar when she was a candidate for the presidency in 2020. I cast my primary vote in support of her by mail only to have her announce her withdrawal ahead of the primary. So it goes. Any way, my daughter-in-law gave me this book a Christmas ago and it’s been sitting in my “to read” pile for over a year. I finally got to it. Here goes.
The first half of the book, chronicling Amy’s childhood, schooling, family woes, law school education, courtship, marriage, birthing of her only child, and her private legal career is very well written. Often, the senator lets her hair down and even cusses a bit, which, given her father’s Iron Range roots and lengthy career in the newspaper business, makes abundant sense. I was especially taken by her description of working at Dorsey, a law firm I spent two years at (working full-time days as a litigation legal assistant while attending night law school), and her appreciation for our mutual mentors (and later, Dorsey lawyers) Fritz Mondale and Warren Spannus (former MN AG). Both men are exemplars of what was once the pride and joy of public service: dedication to the people who voted you into office, their concerns, and the greater good. There’s a lot of those two men in the way the author ran for, won, and managed the Hennepin County Attorney’s position: her springboard into politics.
Klobuchar’s discussions regarding the justice system, as seen by the chief prosecutor of the largest Minnesota county (in population), the cases that came before her, the decisions she made, including the decision to prosecute Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Roland Amundson (who taught ethics, of all things, to my Baby Judge class in 1999) and seek prison time for the judge’s financial thievery (from a disabled person he was supposed to be protecting) was riveting. Those passages displayed her ability to lead her prosecutorial team “without favor” (her words). Her run for the senate, the parades, the decisions about campaigning, and the fervor of seeking one of the most powerful offices in the land, is also enlightening and educational without being dull or preachy.
The only failing in the book is that it came out four years too early. What do I mean? The later portion of the book, where the senator details the bipartisan bills she worked on and passed with the assistance of her Republican mentor, John McCain, while recognizing DC gridlock and a trend to making law only when pushed to do by crisis, still rings with optimism, a “we’re all in this together” cheeriness that, sadly, disappeared with the 2016 presidential election. I wish she’d waited a bit longer to discuss and digest what the Orange Prankster means to our nation and its future. She couldn’t have known and yet, reading her optimistic end chapters, her belief that there will be many, future opportunities for the two sides of the aisle to come together and do great things had the opposite effect on me as I closed the book. She intended positivity concerning our collective future; a commodity I believe impossible in a political world that includes Faux News, the Orange Imposter, Little Kevie, and the Turtle Man. Yes, there are some good people in politics on a national level. Senator Klobuchar is one of them. But other than a handful of old-style, moderate Republicans (Romney and Collins come to mind), the other side of the aisle is full of lunatics and crazies and those who seek power, not answers to national problems. Not her fault. But the ending to her story has yet to be written.
Minnesotan. Iconic member of the Paris scene from the days of Hemingway, Stein, and a host of other ex-pats. Husband to Zelda, whom some claim was the real, if tortured, genius in the family. I’ve listened to this classic novel through Audible now at least three times and despite the familiarity such usage brings, even the third trip through Europe at the head of F. Scott’s pen was worth the time.
Love triangles tend to be, in real life and in literature, messy affairs (pun intended). In this, one of Fitzgerald’s most autobiographical works, Dick Diver, M.D., an up-and-coming psychiatrist from the States who survived WW I’s horrific trenches, becomes infatuated with Nicole, another American ex-pat who is being treated at the Swiss Clinic where Diver works. Originally, the scheme of the author’s storytelling included much back and forth, past and present, which, to the critics, made the storyline confusing and didn’t help sales of the book when it debuted in 1934. A later revision of the novel (the one I was listening to) was completed in the 1940s by a friend of the author’s using Fitzgerald’s notes to create a more linear piece of fiction. This later version of the tale is listed as one of the great novels of the 20th century.
The tortured romance between Diver and Nicole, whom the doctor eventually “cures” and marries, profiles Diver’s plunge into alcohol abuse and Nicole’s re-emergent psychosis (either schizophrenia or manic-depressive disorder), as well as the doctor’s brief yet destructive affair with young American actress, Rosemary. Though Dick is the mature one in the tryst, it is Rosemary’s strength of character, and Nicole’s eventual recovery and affair with soldier-of-fortune Tommy Barban that convinces the disintegrating doctor that his marriage, and his time with Rosemary are over. The writing is crisp and moves with rapidity, mirroring the “Jazz Age” vintage of the work. One comes away from the tale’s ending wishing that, someway, somehow, Fitzgerald’s friends could have saved he and Zelda from disaster, a disaster foreshadowed in this novel. But such was not to be …
5 stars out of 5. A classic tale of hubris, lust, longing, and downfall.
I’ve not read Mary Evans (pen name, George Eliot) before so I thought I’d give a listen. This is a very long audiobook: coming in at over thirty hours, perfect for listening to when walking the track at the local YMCA. Eliot weaves a comprehensive tale of life in the fictional English village of Middlemarch during the early-19th century (circa 1820s-30s), a time when, despite having lost the United States as a colonial territory, the Brits rule the waves and most of the world. In this lengthy, sprawling, domestic novel, Eliot centers her prose on a fairly remarkable young woman, nineteen-year-0ld Doreathea Brooke, who marries a man of means, Rev. Edward Casaubon, a codger nearly thirty years her senior. Casaubon is the most unloveable of the myriad characters Eliots sets upon her stage: an old fuddy-duddy who, given his youthful bride’s beauty, is convinced Doreathea is in love with a vagabond traveler, Will Ladislaw, a distant cousin of her husband’s. Though those suspicions are not, at that point, based on fact, Casaubon’s vitriol forces him to include provisions for disinheriting his wife should she remarry Ladislaw upon the old man’s demise.
There are many other subplots and minor and major characters woven into the privileged, gentrified life of the plot’s principles. In its setting and characters, a reader might consider this to be the gentrified equivalent of Dickens. Each personage in the tale has his or her own story to tell and Eliot does a masterful job of merging varied storylines into a coherent, conclusive plot. While the language is, given the time period, somewhat foreign to today’s ear, and the setting of the tale in an English village is somewhat limiting in terms of the social and economic backgrounds of the characters, I found the book, as a whole, very satisfying, and well worth time spent walking the Y’s track to find out what happens to Doreathea and her companions.
4 stars out of 5
Finally, to prove I still actually read the written word, there’s this collection of essays written in the late 1970s and early 1980s by former newspaper and Door County (Wisconsin) resident Norbert Blei, to consider.
Last fall, as the leaves on the maples, oaks, aspen, and birch turned to glory, my wife René and I towed our travel trailer to a destination we both had never explored: the tourist mecca of northern Wisconsin, Door County. We camped at the KOA just south of Sturgeon Bay, the largest municipality on the peninsula, and by bicycle and car, explored the apple orchards, vineyards, fishing villages, and eateries of the storied county. At the infamous Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, I picked up this book while perusing the restaurant’s gift shop while waiting for a table. I was not disappointed by the food nor Blei’s prose.
Each chapter in th book is a vignette of someone whom Blei became acquainted with when he moved from Chicago to the county in the late 1960s. Some, like painter Charles “Chick” Peterson, a watercolorist, are internationally known. Others, like neighbor Charley Root, are simply, in the truest and kindest sense of the word, characters who the author became close to before his death in 2010. Many of the pieces were published as newspaper articles or profiles during the author’s lifetime but only later were compiled into a comprehensive volume with the assistance of editor and publisher David Pichaske. I always love buying quality local fiction or creative non-fiction when I travel. It allows for a more in-depth inquiry into the places that René and I visit. In that respect, this collection is well worth reading by anyone traveling to or staying in Door County.
Throughout Blei’s essays, the theme of inexorable progress, the gentrifying of a water-contained thumb of land thrust into Lake Michigan, surrounded on three sides by Green Bay and the vastness of the lake, is a constant refrain. But it’s not only the landscape that is changing, day by day, acre by acre, as more restaurants and condos and shops squeeze out fishermen, dairy farmers, orchards, and ordinary working folk living in the place:
The specifics of melancholia Chicago set in. How do I look these days? Strange, strange. That’s one of the last changes to take effect, though Door worked on the dress of the former Chicagoan from the very beginning. Back-t0-earth can play havoc with a man’s manner of dress-a whole wardrobe goes to seed. I hardly recognize myself these days …
If you are at all interested in the changing of rural America into something folks who passed on just a generation ago might not recognize; if you have any interest in visiting Door County; or if you’ve been to this still somewhat (despite the progress lamented by Blei) removed and rural piece of Wisconsin to fall in love with the God-painted leaves, flights of noisy Sandhill cranes flying overhead and landing on neighboring fields by the thousands, or platoons of grim, serious fishermen and fisherwomen lining the lazy rivers of the county in hopes of latching on to gigantic Chinook salmon during their fall spawn, well then, these stories are for you.
As the newest member of the Greater Mesabi Men’s Book Club (GMMBC), I was charged with providing the book, treats, and beverages for this month’s meeting at Dr. Rich Dinter’s home outside of Hibbing, MN. Given I’m of Slovenian ancestry (one-quarter) and given my first novel, The Legacy, was about Tito and Yugoslavian Partisan resistance to Fascists during WW II, and given I’m attempting to work on another historical novel set in post-WW II Slovenia, I scoured the Internet for a novel that might be of interest to my fellow book club members. Necropolis is the book I settled on.
I’ll admit to making a slight mistake in selecting the book. GMMBC reads exclusively novels, which, on many websites, Necropolis is considered to be. However. In reading the book and checking other sources, it turns out the book is more correctly denoted as “autobiographical fiction”, i.e., memoir. So right out of the gate, I violated the intentions of the club I’d just joined. Ugh.
Anyway, the members were kind and, to a reader, appreciated Pahor’s effort to illuminate an aspect of the Holocaust that gets little attention: the plight of non-Jews who opposed Fascism and found themselves in various Nazi-run concentration camps in Europe. Pahor, who was Slovenian but born and raised in Trieste, which became part of Italy after WW I (remember, Italy spent that war on the side of the Allies; territory including Trieste was Italy’s reward for opposing Austria), was drafted into the Italian army in 1940 and served in Africa. After the Allies cleared the Axis from north Africa, Pahor returned to Trieste and joined the Slovenian Partisans, a group opposing not only the Italians and Germans but Tito’s communist Partisans as well. That stand, one voiced in his writings, got the man into hot water and ended with him being sent to Natzweiler Concentration Camp in France. Given his language skills, Pahor ended up working as a camp medic and that’s where his journey to hell begins.
Pahor’s prose is lyrical and, as one of my book club members pointed out, reminiscent of Ulysses in it’s non-chaptered, stream of consciousness style. In describing the heroism of a young athlete who attempted escape by improvisational pole vaulting over an electric fence, only to be recaptured and executed, the author writes:
A quarter of a century had passed between that “damn you” and the moment when the young Russian spat at an SS commandment here, but the essential qualities of the players had not changed. Slavic pride, Germanic ruthlessness. Indeed, except for love, which indisputably holds first place, high-minded resistance to injustice is the most we can contribute to the salvation of human dignity.
The Russian did not escape Germanic ruthlessness but the image Pahor paints with words is timeless. My only criticism of the book is that, in attempting to ramble through the horrors of Nazi evil in a very personal re-telling of his experiences, coupling history to revisiting the camp (wherein he describes present-day tourists viewing sites he lived through in pain, agony, and dismay), the author leads the reader on a somewhat confusing journey. The retelling is very non-linear and takes some getting used to.
That said, in the end, this is a classic story of the Holocaust, retold by one who survived.
4 and 1/2 stars. The book prompted much in-depth examination by members of my book club.
I picked up this book at a local arts and crafts fair here in Duluth. I’ve met and chatted with the author, a professor at a local college, on a number of occasions and, having enjoyed his poetry (insert the author’s name in the search bar on this site to see other reviews) so I thought I’d give his prose a try.
Boelhower uses the faith traditions of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Confucianism, and Hinduism) to craft a model for both joint (institutional) and individual decision making in a modern world. To do so, he culls five key wisdom principles common to our major faiths to create operating principles and judgmental criteria to assist readers in coming to wise and clearly-thought decisions. The five tenets cited (and used) by the author in crafting his model include:
Respect for all persons;
Appreciation of the wholeness of being human;
Recognizing the interconnectedness of all reality;
Valuing inner wisdom and personal experience;
Attending to preservation and transformation.
The book often times seems directed more to institutional and corporate collaborative thinking than individual problem solving, which is my main criticism of the work. However, Boelhower’s organization and elucidation of his salient points does transfer from group institutional decision making to family, personal, and smaller group transformation through careful discussion, planning, and implementation.
All in all, I came away with, I think, a more thoughtful and kind approach to working with others, both in my family and in my greater world.
I rarely read genre fiction but when assigned this book after my very recent acceptance into a local men’s bookclub, I plunged in eyes wide open. I was hoping, given that Ms. Coel chooses to write Arapaho-inspired crime fiction due to an encounter with the late, great master of Native American detective/police stories, Tony Hillerman, I might learn a bit and also be entertained as I had been by Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn books. I wasn’t. Here’s why.
As described by the book club member giving us a mini-tutorial on Coel’s life and writing career, the author is a historian by trade who, after listening to Hillerman at a gathering of writers, turned her love of the Arapaho people in Colorado into a series of novels. That background was interesting but what struck me most is that Coel considers herself dedicated to character rather than plot, a departure for most genre specific authors. Generally, writers of mystery tales, detective stories, or police procedurals are driven by a crime and the resulting plot and only briefly touch upon character. So I was surprised to hear that this writer views herself more interested in studying and illuminating the folks who populate her stories. That may be her ambition, her intent, but that’s not how this book played out.
There are two stories here. The first, a present-day murder that takes place on the reservation, leads to speculation by the protagonists, lawyer Vicky Holden and Catholic priest Father John O’Malley that Robert Walking Bear’s death wasn’t an accidental drowning but a murder related to the second story: the legend of a fortune buried in the Colorado hills where infamous hoodlum Butch Cassidy buried loot back near the turn of the 19th century. It’s the historical fiction contained in the Cassidy sections that’s tightly drawn, spurred my interest, and kept me engaged in the book. One of the main issues with the story is that Vicky, a local attorney, is a poor choice to be the foil for the obligatory evil surrounding Walking Bear’s death. She is not a DA, not a criminal defense lawyer, not someone who would naturally be tossed into the mysterious death of a local. She’s a civil attorney and seemingly, as the plot plods along, really doesn’t do all that much in terms of solving the crime other than placing herself smack dab in the killer’s clutches. I disagree with the author: she is not a writer of complex, deep, interesting characters, at least not here. Here, she is the creator of a formulaic genre crime story populated by paper dolls.
Unlike Hillerman, who delved deeply into the culture of the Navaho to explain and detail his plots and characters, Coel doesn’t do a great job of giving the reader insight into Arapahoe culture as it relates to her fictional story. In the end, I agree with a couple of my other book club buddies: this is a beach read, though even in that context, I’ve read better.
Too coincidental and ordinary to compel me to read others in the series and that’s too bad because I do so love Hillerman. Not horribly written but not something that makes a reader go “wow.”
Here’s the thing. I’m not going to quibble too much about the author, a trained trial lawyer like me, setting up a death penalty case in Mississippi circa mid-1970s without an alternate (or two) on the jury. Maybe he inserted that detail and I missed it while listening to this novel via Audible while walking the track and working out at the local “Y”. Maybe not. There were a couple other instances (like the fact that the District Attorney’s second-in-command, a witness to a fatal bombing, sitting as co-counsel at the bomber’s murder trial) that didn’t ring true. But it’s fiction, right? So I’ll give the dean of trial thrillers a pass.
But what I won’t give the author a pass for is the lack of any real suspense, surprise, or tension within this long saga of the Delta underworld. Oh, I was interested in Jesse, the protagonist DA’s battle to bring sanity, values, and peace to his birthplace by taking on the Dixie Mafia. I also was intrigued to an extent and by some of the antagonists and other supporting characters. But after spending much time setting up the characters for the anticipated twists and turns inherent in Grisham’s best work (e.g., The Firm) once good and evil squared off, other than one unfortunate death (no spoiler here!), this tome plods to a very dull, unsatisfactory conclusion.
The narration is typical for this author and is acceptable genre prose. The dialogue, read by the narrator, is fine. But what this story lacks is heart: a deep-seated, emotional bond created between the book’s fictional characters and the reader. Readable (or listenable) for certain but nowhere near the best of this author’s legal thrillers or those of others in this category. I recently re-watched the movie version of TheVerdict, a faithful rendition of Barry Reed’s classic courtroom drama. That story and The Firm, both on the page and on film, are what we who write legal fiction should strive for. Sadly, this effort falls short of reaching such a such lofty perch on the library shelf.
3 stars out of 5. Not sure if book clubs want to tackle this one or not.
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From this month’s Finnish American Reporter: writer Mark Munger interviews Finnish-Canadian filmmaker Kelly Saxberg.
MM: I’m assuming, given all the work you’ve done to preserve Finnish Canadian history in your documentaries, that you’re of Finnish descent.
KS: My Finnish heritage is on my father’s side. My great-grandfather, Kustaa Saxberg, immigrated at the end of the 19th century to Fort William. He first started working at Silver Mountain as a miner. Then he met his wife Ida, who was from Himanka and they lived out at the mine site and she was a midwife. When they moved into Fort William (now Thunder Bay) my great-grandmother would host Finnish women from rural communities and helped birth hundreds of children. She was the main midwife for the east end of Fort William, which was home to many immigrants in those days. My great-grandfather, because of his mining experience, helped build the water tunnels from Mount Mackay to Fort William. My grandfather was the youngest child of eight. I made a film about his oldest brother, Alfred Saxberg, who was a veteran of the first World War.
MM: Can you fill the readers about you, about Thunder Bay, and what it means to be a person of Finnish heritage in Thunder Bay in the 21st century?
KS: I was born in Cornwall, Ontario, but my parents moved back to Thunder Bay when I was just a baby so my mother could finish her nursing degree. Then we moved to Brandon and later to Winnipeg, but my family never missed a summer out at Lake Shebandowan, where my grandfather Jack Allen built a log cabin in 1928. When I started in the film industry, my first company was Shebandowan Films now shortened to Shebafilms. Somehow fate brought us back to Thunder Bay in 1996 when my husband Ron Harpelle got a job at Lakehead University teaching history. I had been working in the film industry but since there were no jobs for me in Thunder Bay, I decided to try making my own films. Not long after our success with a few, Ron joined the filmmaking and later, when our children grew up, they too joined the family business. One of the first films I made was “Letters from Karelia” about Finns from North America who were recruited to build a socialist utopia in Stalin’s Karelia. I then made the film “Under The Red Star,” which tells kind of a prequel and is the story of the Finnish Labour Temple.
MM: As a non-Finn, I loved the neighborhood surrounding Hoito and the old Finnish Labour Temple. Tell a bit about the building’s history and the effect of its loss.
KS: My husband and I started Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple as a charity when we were both on the board of the Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay. As the treasurer, I knew how fragile the state of finances were; however, by careful sales of some parking lots, the Kivela Bakery, fundraising, and, new management of the Hoito and its renovation we were able to get everything back in the black. Sadly, a group of people with other agendas were voted in and they had other plans. Within a few years, almost every organization that had helped raise funds for the hall were no longer welcome. Bad management finally led to bankruptcy and the building sold to an outsider who gutted the hall to build condos. A fire started accidentally that winter and it destroyed 110 years of Finnish and labor history in a few hours. Miraculously, the owner was able to demolish the entire building two months later and get every permission to build condos in a building five times the size of the original historic landmark. They claim that they will rebuild the façade, but it just won’t be the same. The owner was the same person who gutted the inside and sent hundreds of historic artifacts to the landfill.
On a positive note Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple is more active than ever. We continue to collaborate with the Finnish community. We have organized two Finn Festivals Canada events and three virtual Juhannus festivals.
MM: One thing I loved about sitting in Hoito was listening to the Finnish voices around me. Do you speak and/or write Finnish?
KS: the first thing I did when I moved to Thunder Bay was to sign up for Finnish language course at the University of Lakehead. I did really well, and now that I have been back-and-forth to Finland and working on several films in Finnish, I have a pretty good ear for the language, but I will never be fluent. I do feel however, a strong connection to my roots and I’m very proud of the countless hours of footage captured of events that I documented over more than a dozen years at the Finnish Labour Temple. My hope is that I will create a virtual website that will rebuild a virtual Finnish Labour Temple.
MM: I recently watched your short film, The Hoito Project. Give the readers some insight into the film.
KS: It was the composer for my film Letters From Karelia, Ari Lahdekorpi, who got me involved in the Finnish Labour Temple. He is an amazing jazz musician, and he was very active in the Finnish community, and had just been elected to the Finlandia Association, when we proposed our very first film festival to be held in 2005 in Finnish Labour Temple. … I have been involved in literally hundreds of fundraising efforts for the Finnish Labour Temple. I don’t regret any of it and we were able to bring Finnish musicians, filmmakers, artists to Thunder Bay to experience the Hoito and the magic of the Big Finn hall and all its legacy.
MM: Describe your background, training, and desire to make films. Where did that passion originate?
KS: I became a filmmaker because of my dad who was a local DJ here in Thunder Bay in the 1950s and early ‘60s. He was the on-air sports Director at CKX in Brandon then got his teaching degree and got a job teaching broadcasting at Tech Voc high school in Winnipeg. As a 12-year-old I was able to go and play with all of the equipment and make videos. I had a babysitting job when I was 14 which allowed me to buy a film camera and projector. When I was 18, I got a job at the local television station doing studio camera for the nightly news and TV show. Later I did sound for the newsroom and learned how to edit. My boss there, then connected me with Lara Mazur at the National Film Board who hired me as an editor trainee. Eventually I started editing NFB films and when I moved to Thunder Bay I decided I wanted to be a director and cinematographer as well. Because we live in a small, isolated community far from Toronto, I also had to become a producer, grant writer and promoter. We helped build a filmmaking community here with our not-for-profit organization, Flash Frame Film and Video Network.
MM: Talk a bit about Under the Red Star and your work with Ron as a collaborator on your films.
KS: “Under The Red Star” was really Ron’s idea and Michel Beaulieu’s research. We wrote up a proposal quickly to the Ontario Arts Council and a new organization that funded films to build an industry in Northern Ontario gave us a grant that enabled us to shoot on 16 mm film and create an amazing historical docudrama that was supported by almost the entire community. The film is also about politics so the people who are on the right-wing spectrum obviously never supported the film, or went to set foot in the “The Big Finn Hall,” which was built by socialists.
The same divisions between red and white are still alive and well in Thunder Bay. Part of the reason for this is because, the most recent Finnish immigrants were obliged by the Canadian government during the Cold War to pledge that they never had been nor ever would become communist. The halls during the war were closed down, because in fact, Canada was at war with Finland, which was a co-belligerent with Germany, and had invaded our ally, the Soviet union. Amazingly all these politics still tend to play out.
Ron was the producer, production manager, actor and helped write the narration for the film. It was a huge project and meant that we had to gain the trust from the local Finnish community. The working title for the film was “Big Finn Hall.” When we showed the film in Finland people were absolutely amazed by the number of Finnish speaking local actors we were able to feature and hire.
MM: Another of your Finnish-themed documentaries is Letters from Karelia. What prompted your interest in the reverse migration of Finns from Canada back to Karelia?
KS: When I first moved to Thunder Bay, I started researching my Finnish heritage and found the story of Rosvall and Voutilainen, and found a book by Varpu Lindstrom called “Defiant Sisters.” I phoned her up and told her I was interested in telling that story and I would like to meet Taimi Davis, who she had been interviewing and documenting for years. I went to Toronto and Varpu gave me all of her research and was keen to help me make films about Finnish immigrants in Canada. It became a labor of love because we didn’t get any positive response for any of our project ideas so we decided we would just make a film about Taimi. Then the letters arrived from her brother, who had gone to Karelia in the 1930s. We learned his fate and in investigating it, we found out the fate of so many others. The project was not really about making a film. It was about telling the stories of people who had been disappeared and murdered.MM: Most readers will likely be familiar with the somewhat pejorative terms, “church Finns” and “hall Finns.” In Under the Red Star, you explore the more radical elements of Finnish political thought.
KS: Varpu Lindstrom‘s work in Defiant Sisters told the story of radical women, Finnish immigrants like Taimi, her mother and Sanna Kannasto. Their stories and struggles were so incredible to me. I felt I needed to shed light on them, and the contribution they made to our country.
My Finnish family were in fact, quite conservative and leaders in the church; however, my great-grandfather and my grandfather were union men and they knew how to fight for workers’ rights. You don’t inherit your politics, and I would say I was drawn to these stories as a historian, and also as a feminist. Looking over my entire career as a filmmaker, I have to say that the majority of my work focuses on strong women and stories that are seldom heard and rarely celebrated.
MM: How do you select a topic for a film? What goes into writing, filming, editing, and distributing documentary films in Canada?
KS: I have a master’s degree in history and my thesis was “Women in Power Structures in Cuba and Nicaragua.” My husband is a Latin Americanist and we have spent a lot of time travelling and living in Latin America. We are both historians and we are both fascinated with labor history and social history. Most of the films we have made stem from the kind of research that we are doing. We are getting old now, and someday might even retire however, we have trained up a dozen or so young filmmakers and artists in Thunder Bay, who will be able to carry on the tradition that we have started.
MM: I recently interviewed your friend Ava Karvonen. She’s working on a feature film and then, likely, looking towards retirement. What are your future plans in terms of projects and life after filmmaking?
KS: I would love to show any of my films at Finn Fest 2023. I am the current chair for the Finnish Canadian Cultural Federation which organizes Canadian Grand Finn festivals. We have had to go virtual for the past three years, so we are really looking forward to participating in a live Finn Festival once again! Right now, Ron and I are on sabbatical in France where we are trying to complete three films which were delayed due to the pandemic, but are nearly complete. We have funding for three more films which are now starting in production. Another huge project connected with Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple has been the digitization of our local 16mm nightly news footage from 1956 to 1979. We created Reel Memories of the Lakehead on Facebook and streaming on www.ResearchTV.ca and are now working on another series called the View From Up Here.
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (2021. Viking. ISBN 978-0-7352-2235-9)
Love it or sort of like it. No one I’ve talked to who’s read this very long, winding epistle from the road, actually hates it. Readers appear to fall into two distinct camps: those who adore the book and those who can take it or leave it. After spending inordinate time slogging through this lengthy tome, I find myself in the later camp.
Towles begins his story in southern Nebraska, not far from the Kansas state line, in the little farming community of Morgan. In the first chapter, we’re introduced to Emmett Watson, eighteen years old, traveling in the back of a car driven by the warden of the reformatory where Emmett did time for manslaughter. At the Watson farm, we meet Emmett’s eight year old brother, Billy, a precociously strange child who is, in a word, a savant genius and wise beyond his years. Shortly after the warden deposits Emmett on the family farmstead, we learn two other inmates from the reformatory; the troublemaking yet lovable Duchess and his affable and nondescript (at least to me) sidekick, Woolly; have hidden themselves in the warden’s car trunk to escape their youthful prison. The patriarch of the Watson family is dead, having failed miserably as a farmer, and so the two boys decide to set out in search of their mother who left the dusty plains for San Francisco years before.
What transpires is a convoluted, unexciting, mundane, slow-moving trip, not west, to California, but east to New York City. I quickly became uninterested in the boys’ journey (the two escapees being part of the drive east on the book’s namesake highway), finding little to pique my interest beyond the insertion of Sally, a local gal who may or may not be Emmitt’s love interest, and the mysterious Preacher, a Black tramp the Watson boys befriend after hoping a train (their car having been “borrowed” by Duchess). It’s not that Towles can’t write. He clearly can. But as a storyteller, the principle job of an author dabbling in fiction, I found the boys’ journey, both literary and descriptive, to be unduly tedious. It took three hundred pages into this long, long saga of nuance for me to say, “OK, there’s enough here for me to see it through.” Not what I’d call a sterling endorsement.
After that, I found myself digging in and enjoying the storyline as all four boys scurried around New York City trying to figure out their collective or separate destinies. But then, in supremely disappointing fashion, as if the writer of this long, meandering road journey ran out of gas, I came to an ending that left me thinking, “What was the fucking point?” Sorry to swear but that’s what I actually said when I closed the cover on this one, folks.
Love it or tolerate it. I didn’t end up hating this book (despite my rant) but the invocation of an eight-year-old genius protagonist began this tale’s long, slow descent into disbelief. From the book’s onset, I couldn’t buy into the character of Billy, one of the four main actors on Towels’s stage. He seems, as I think about the book, a weak attempt by the writer to avoid writing in the guise of a child by cloaking Billy with wisdom, intellect, and insight that, as a dad of four sons, doesn’t ring true no matter how smart the kid is. That strained depiction of character started my questioning of this story, questioning that briefly abated but then became full-blown skepticism when I reached the novel’s uninspired conclusion.
Maybe you will see things differently. Maybe not.
2 and 1/2 stars out of 5. Book clubs seem to love this novel and I can’t figure out why.
Having traveled to Venice with friends (at the end of a 12 day Mediterranean cruise) and spent three days taking it all in, I wish I’d read this book before making the trip. While Crowley’s primary emphasis is chronicling-sometimes in agonizingly lush detail that slows the narrative, the military history of an enigmatic republic-he weaves within that storyline enough politics, culture, art, and science to flesh out Venice’s rise and fall as an Adriatic naval power to keep things well-rounded.
Written in a largely crisp and sequential style, the author carefully reconstructs the history of Italy’s most magical and independent city-state from the Crusades to the fall of Constantinople and beyond. Along the way, we are treated to character studies of scoundrels, leaders, admirals, artisans, traitors, and thieves that enrich the overall story arc and strengthen the narrative.
A fine piece of historical writing.
4 stars out of 5
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Hello, John. Kiitos for doing this interview. I first encountered you as an art teacher at Duluth Denfeld High School.
My interest in teaching dates back to the 1960’s. When I declared myself as an Art Major, I realized that, in the name of practicality, I would need to consider earning a living, and teaching seemed a good insurance policy. I was hired after graduation and discovered I really enjoyed working with kids. I retired after 33 years, and I can honestly say I enjoyed my job right up to my last day. I spent, roughly a decade at each of Duluth’s 3 public high schools, and while each school had superficial differences, the constant factor was the relationship I maintained with the art students. In the twenty-plus years since I last taught, I still derive great pleasure from emails and Facebook contacts with former students and it’s gratifying to know their time in the art room meant a great deal to them, as it did to me.
How did you come to specialize and become known primarily as a watercolorist?
In the early 1980’s I was introduced to Cheng Khee Chee. Fellow East art teacher, Mel Kumsha and I took a series of Continuing Education watercolor classes from Chee, and I realized I’d found my medium. Chee is an excellent teacher and I soon found myself focused on learning as much as I could from him and from the larger realm of contemporary watermedia. I had no idea at the time that I would become a significant contributor to modern watercolor medium.
With a surname of “Salminen”, you obviously have Finnish heritage.
I’m Finn on my Father’s side and Dutch on my Mother’s. My dad grew up on a subsistence farm in Florenton MN. His upbringing was difficult and he spoke no English until entering the Virginia, Minnesota public schools. Like many first-generation Americans, he wanted to put his immigrant upbringing behind him and become “American”. He left Northern Minnesota and never looked back.
As a result, my brother and I were not very aware of our cultural ties to Finland. As I began to wonder about my Dad’s growing up and our Finnish heritage, his recollections had begun to fade. Given Finland’s global contributions, its high standard of living and top education system, I’m proud to have a Finnish surname, but my contact is primarily vicarious.
I’ve seen your paintings in galleries and online and it seems you love depicting the hustle and bustle of cities.
As an artist, I’m best known for my urban landscapes. John Salminen, Master of the Urban Landscape (published by Penguin Random House) is an excellent overview of my work. I think my fascination with city scenes comes from the fact that my wife Kathy and I live in a log home situated on one hundred and ten acres of Northern Minnesota real estate: in the deep woods. To me, big cities, the vibrant hustle and bustle and visual chaos is exotic and very exciting.
Once I decided I wanted to make my mark as a professional painter, I realized I needed to hone my skills ( practice, practice, practice) and establish credibility within the profession. This occurred in a couple of ways.
First, attaining signature membership in national professional organizations, which is accomplished through acceptance in competitive exhibitions. After my signature on my paintings, I display the initials of two top organizations: AWS ( American Watercolor Society) and NWS ( National Watercolor Society). These are hard-won distinctions and I display them proudly.
Additionally, publication in national magazines enhances one’s artistic credibility. The route to publication includes having work displayed in national exhibitions. These exhibitions are competitive. Over the years the acceptances began to outweigh the rejections, and eventually, publishers noticed. It’s through involvement in highly competitive shows and achieving high-profile awards that my work came to the attention of the international art community. As a result, I’ve been invited to represent the United States in numerous international forums. This is something I never dared to imagine from the perspective of a public-school teacher.
You’ve exhibited your work and painted all over the world.
International travel has been a wonderful perc of being part of the global art community. I’ve just returned from a trip to Scotland. I was invited to teach for a week and also spent several weeks visiting Edinburgh and the remote Northwest coast. I work primarily from photos I take on location, and I’ll be devoting my studio time to painting Scottish scenes for a while.
You remain active as a mentor to aspiring artists and as a judge in international competitions.
My career as a teacher has continued uninterrupted since I left the Duluth Public Schools. I now teach week-long workshops throughout the country. My students are adults and are highly motivated to expand their skills and understanding of painting. I find I still love teaching. After twenty years of traveling for workshops, I’m about to slow down and spend more time devoted to my first love … painting! I also judge competitive exhibitions and I find this is a good way to keep in touch with my painting peers. Folks always wonder how you judge artwork, and the answer is simple: pick your favorites. Of course, my definition of “favorites” has been honed over the years and results from the willingness of generations of students to generously share their work with me. Thanks to each and every artist, from high school students to International Masters who have shaped my vision and enabled me to continue to contribute.
This ginormous book was, like the experimental novels written by its subject, a bit of a slog. But I made it through Ellmann’s revised biography of the great Irish novelist and man of letters. Eventually. A scholarly tome, the book’s narrative covers 745 pages. Footnotes and endnotes add an additional 200 pages, none of which I investigated, read, or scanned. I couldn’t bear it. I was done in by the minutia of detail the author incorporated into his study of a man, though quintessentially Irish, who left Ireland in his twenties never to return. That I guess was the biggest take-away for me. James Joyce left his father and mother and home island to chase his dream of fame and notoriety as an erudite man of letters, never to return. Not for his mother’s funeral. Not for his father’s illness and death. And not to spread the gospel of A Portrait, Dubliners, Ulysses, or Finnegan’s Wake up and down the coasts and byways of the Emerald Isle.
In addition to being struck by Joyce’s recalcitrance at returning to the place of his birth, Ellmann’s detailed accounting of decades of his subject’s failure to be recognized and published, including years of trying and failing to place Dubliners in the hands of readers both at home and abroad, complicated by years of reluctance by agents, editors, and publishers to chance prosecution for obscenity, struck a chord with this self-published author. To a far lesser extent, I too have tried and failed to attract an agent, editor, or mainstream publisher to work with me: to bring my words to a broader audience. But unlike Joyce, I’ve maintained, for the thirty-odd years I’ve been at the poet’s game, gainful employment so that my family never experienced the poverty and desperation James Joyce foisted upon his mistress/wife and two children. My wife would have never, even on the promise of my work becoming chosen for greatness by the powers-that-be, stood for what Joyce put Nora, Georgio, and Lucia through, including the period when he was finally recognized as a literary genius shortly before his death.
In the end, this book assisted me in understanding the driven nature of Joyce’s obsession to write and be published; marks of character I know intimately. But reading this mammoth work did not bring me closer to understanding that unattainable, virtually unreadable whale of a novel Joyce labored over in his attempt to re-write Homer. I still don’t understand Ulysses and this book did not tempt me to attempt a second read of Joyce’s masterpiece. There are too many other great books to read.
Still, as an in-depth, exhaustive study of a famous scribe, this book is indeed the ultimate repository of all things Joyce.
My novel, Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh was researched and written between 2002 and 2004 as an attempt to highlight, explain, and fictionalize the mystery of Finnish immigrant Olli Kinkkonen’s disappearance. The question I’m often asked, as a non-Finn writing about Finnish Americana, is “Why?” Here’s the answer.
While working as a District Court (trial level) Judge in my hometown, I was asked to participate in a serial reading of Michael Fedo’s book, The Lynchings in Duluth, at a local bistro. The event was an attempt to raise money for a memorial to the horrific lynching of three Black circus workers accused of raping a white woman in 1920. In reality, the purported crime was a false report by a daughter frightened to tell her father she’d been out “on a date”. But that truth didn’t stop a mob of angry white men from hanging three innocent men.
That backstory is important because, in preparation for the public reading of the Fedo book, I researched the lynchings on a Minnesota Public Radio website. There I found a short rendition of the “other” Duluth lynching; one that took Mr. Kinkkonen’s life. Given I’d grown up with friends of Finnish heritage, given I’d spent many nights in a log cabin my high school friends and I built on an old Finnish farmstead in northern Minnesota, and given I was innately curious as to why the Finns tried to farm such an inhospitable land, I was drawn in by Olli’s story and went to work uncovering what I could about the man, his times, and his death.
I planned to write a fictionalized biography of Mr. Kinkkonen’s life story. But as I dove into the historical record at the Duluth Public Library (a wonderful treasure trove of newspaper clippings, articles, maps, photos and the like) I felt it was not my place to speculate about a real human being. Tell his story, sure. But there is so little known of Olli Kinkkonen beyond articles surrounding his death, a circumstance where he was dragged from his boarding house in Duluth’s “Finn Town”, and disappeared, it simply didn’t “feel” right making him the protagonist of a novel. I should note that, three weeks after his abduction, Olli’s tarred (not feathered) body was found hanging from a birch tree in Lester Park. After a cursory inquiry, the Duluth Police concluded he’d committed suicide. Despondent, they theorized, and embarrassed at being tarred, he’d hanged himself. As a former prosecutor, trial lawyer, and sitting judge, I thought that conclusion convenient and nowhere near the truth.
My skepticism regarding the “official” record made it even more important to me to tell the story, but not further tarnish the man’s memory. And so, Olli became a character in Suomalaiset, but only a minor one, allowing me to still tell his story but to do so in a broader context of immigration, love, the Great War, the Influenza Outbreak of 1918 and the Great Cloquet Fire.
I chose this approach for two reasons. First, as I’ve written, I didn’t think it was my place to invent a life for a victim of tragedy. In addition, there is so little known about Mr. Kinkkonen, meaning most of what I would’ve been included, if he was the central figure in the story, had to be invented. What is known about the man is that he immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, worked as a logger and laborer, and was an opponent to compulsory military service during WWI, which drew the attention of some folks who abducted and likely murdered him for his “unAmerican views” in September of 1918. That is essentially all the public record includes regarding the man. Far too slender in detail, I determined, to make him the protagonist of a novel. So, in an effort to educate, entertain, and enlighten, I invented Anders Alhomäki, a Finnish “everyman” and friend of Mr. Kinkkonen, to carry the fictional tale.
In working on the book, I was cognizant that a retired Duluth police officer was also researching Olli’s death with an eye towards writing a non-fiction book. I knew that I had to work diligently and with speed to be “first” in getting Olli’s tale into the hands of the public. I plowed ahead; cognizant I was wading into unfamiliar waters. What if the Finns hate what I’ve written? I mean, it is one thing to follow your high school English teacher’s adage “write what you know”: it’s quite another to write about an ethnicity and a history not your own. Still, Olli’s story needed telling and I was, I hoped, the man who could tell it with grace and dignity.
Since 2004 when the book was published, I’ve received positive feedback from Finnish Americans, Finnish Canadians, and Finns who’ve read not only Suomalaiset, but my sequels to Anders Alhomäki’s story: Sukulaiset: The Kindred, and Kotimaa: Homeland. My willingness to explain Olli Kinkkonen’s murder (and the larger story of Finnish migration) in historical context has brought me to Finnish festivals, allowed me to form valued friendships with folks of Finnish ancestry, taken me to Finland and Estonia, compelled me to write articles for this and other Finnish American newspapers, and is, quite simply, the best decision I ever made as a writer
In late September of 1918, Olli Kinkkonen was buried in Duluth’s Forest Hill Cemetery. For nearly a century, his remains occupied an unmarked, pauper’s grave. In 1993, the Työmies Society installed a marker at the gravesite to remember the man, his abduction, and his death.
(This essay first appeared in the Finnish American Reporter October 22, 2022 issue.)
The Torqued Man by Peter Mann (2022. Harper. ISBN 978-0063072107)
Here we go. I was privileged to be asked to join one of Minnesota’s longest running male only book clubs, the Greater Mesabi Men’s Book Club (GMMBC), for their annual summer retreat. I have been the featured author at two of their meetings in the distant past and have developed a friendship with some of the group’s members (including musician supreme, Colin Isaakson, who has sadly passed on) and so, when asked to join the boys for their summer retreat on Trout Lake, I readily accepted. The assigned book, The Torqued Man, was, at the time I ordered it, only available in hardcover. I dutifully ordered the book from The Bookstore at Fitger’s (one of two Indies in town) and set to reading.
Ugh. Where do I begin? Ostensibly billed as a WW II spy novel, this mishmash tale includes scenes set in the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Ireland, Germany, and other locales surrounded by a plot that was so confusing and unfulfilling, it was a struggle for me to finish the book and be prepared for the book club outing. The twin protagonists featured in the tale: Abwehr Agent and reluctant Nazi, Adrian de Groot, who becomes the second man’s “handler”; and Proinnsias “Frank” Pike, aka Finn McCool, did absolutely nothing for me as characters. So too the plot.
The gist of the tome is that, as Germany crumbles, two manuscripts, one involving each man, are found in the ashes of Nazi failure. The interwoven stories are the grist for the mill of the tale and, quite frankly, made for one very confusing read. Mann’s reliance upon Irish folklore (Finn McCool being the most obvious link) and references to classical literature seem randomly tossed into the book as a means to establish the intellect and erudite wisdom of the novelist and do little to move the story towards anything close to satisfactory comprehension. I was as confused reading this book as I was tackling Ulysses: a feat I will not revisit. Nor shall I, despite promises to give this novel a “second go”, spend time with Mr. Mann again.
When the GMMBC finished polishing off a fine meal prepared by our host and got down to digesting both our meals and the book, I was the outlier. Nearly everyone in the group gave Mann’s effort high marks for wit, plot, character development, and story. I refrained from commenting until asked to weigh in and let it all hang out. Once I dished the book, I figured it was the last time the GMMBC would invite me to participate. But, in an inexplicable act of kindness, the group held a vote that barely, just barely, made me a member. Go figure.
2 and 1/2 stars out of 3. I didn’t toss the book in the trash, as I did with one of John Irving’s terrible tomes (Until I Find You). But it was a close call.
Wow. Now that was well done. Ms. Casey explores the world of dolphins, from spinners to orcas, with a kindness, alertness, and keen appreciation for nature and truth. She chronicles, in a series of exploratory scenes, human affection, interaction, and abuse of these mysteriously intelligent creatures, traveling the earth in search of connections, both positive and negative, between us and the Cetaceans we became enamored with watching Flipper as kids on black and white television sets in the 1960s. In her quest, Casey shares reportage that includes tales of extreme (a group in Hawaii that believes dolphins are an alien life form possessing magical and mystical properties) dolphin lovers; alongside those (Japanese fishermen who trap dolphins in a secluded bay and slaughter them as “the enemy”) who despise these undersea miracles of nature.
I picked this book up at the Talk Story, the western-most bookstore in America (on Kaua’i), where I’ve been treated to displays by Humpbacks, spinners, and bottlenose dolphins and I’m glad I did. It was a fine, fine non-fiction read. The final chapter, where Casey explores humankind’s age-old connection to these intelligent mammals by visiting ruins in the Mediterranean (where dolphins were once deified) is simply the best. Excellent work.
Could you tell the readers of FAR a bit about your Finnish heritage?
My dad’s family migrated from Karjala to Canada. His father came in 1925, followed by his mother and sister. Dad was born in Canada in 1935. They homesteaded in Northern Alberta. My mom was born in Forssa, Finland in 1930, and in 1951, migrated with her family to Edmonton. Finnish is the first language for both of my parents.
We met while attending Finn Fest in Thunder Bay, Ontario. What’s the importance of ethnic festivals to Finnish American and Finnish Canadian culture, language, and history?
The Finnish Community in Edmonton, Alberta is not large. Many of us are the children of immigrants. When I was younger, my parents were more active in the Finnish community. Many of these people immigrated to Canada around the same time as my mom and remain her life-long friends. I was fortunate to have my Finnish grandparents (and aunts and uncles) in Canada. Many immigrants have no other family in Canada. These gathering places allow them to share their culture with their children, non-Finnish spouse, and friends. Members of the community take on roles of honourary aunts, uncles, and grandparents for people who have no extended family in Canada. Festivals allow me to better understand my own family and be exposed to new stories. For my parents, it provides them with opportunities to speak their first language. I love reading books and watching films that have Finnish characters. They feel familiar and help keep me connected to current events and my culture. With the current situation between Ukraine and Russia, I feel it’s extra important to know Finland’s history.
I think you’ve traveled to 43 countries. Do you speak and/or write in Finnish?
My website is dated … I’ve traveled to more than 60 countries! I speak and write very little Finnish. When my parents were in school, they were discouraged from speaking their mother tongue. Even my grandparents spoke to us in English. I’m the 4th of 5 children and my family spoke English at home. My mom spoke Finnish with my oldest brother and sister when they were young. I wish my parents and grandparents had spoken Finnish with me so that I could converse with them in their first language. I’m in my late fifties and have contemplated taking a summer language course in Finland.
What’s the importance of getting away from one’s home, culture, and comfort zone to explore the larger world?
It’s important to step outside of my comfort zone and the homogenous groups I often find myself in. Traveling and meeting new people helps me look at the world in new ways. I’m exposed to new ideas, new foods, new ways of doing things. I love traveling to countries where English is not the first language because I must learn a few words and put effort into communicating. When visiting India, I experienced new smells, sounds, food – and witnessed people practicing their faith. Canada is a young country: I enjoy traveling to countries that have older architecture and a different history.
How did your family preserve a sense of Finnishness?
I grew up just outside of Edmonton, Alberta. When my child was born in 1998, my Auntie Maija hosted a baby shower and invited ladies from the Finnish community. I’ve known these people my entire life and many of them immigrated to Canada around the same time as my mom. The Edmonton Finnish Society hosted events throughout the year, and I’ve found recollections of the Children’s Christmas party. When I was a young woman, I stopped going to these events. Many of the Finns from that era drank heavily: some of the men engaged in inappropriate behaviour. I was also of the age that I wanted to hang out with my own friends. When I had a child in my early thirties, I returned to participating in Finnish community events. I wanted to introduce my non-Finnish partner to my culture. I’ve reconnected with people I grew up with and have met new people, more recent immigrants to Canada.
Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
My mother is an accomplished filmmaker in addition to being a textiles artist/weaver. She started making her films in her sixties. My father made nature films. My mother made films about artists and her migration/cultural experience. “The People of Sointula” is one of my favourites.
I spent a lot of time in nature growing up. I completed a degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies, majoring in interpretation. I wanted to be a “Parks Interpreter”, but those jobs disappeared around the time I graduated. I tried to stay away from the film industry but got pulled back in.
I love hearing people’s stories and sharing them. I get to ask questions that one normally does not get to ask over coffee or dinner. I once interviewed more than thirty people about their migration experience. Most of them, I’ve known since I was a child but had never heard their migration stories.
Talk a bit about Reel Girls, your production company. I note that you’ve been involved with everything from a true crime series for television (The Lie Detective) to nature documentaries (Return of the Peregrine).
Most of my projects are the result of personal connections. I love talking to people and hearing their stories. It helps me understand the world I live in and my own problems. I love traveling and new adventures. In 2006, I did a media embed in Afghanistan for a documentary that followed five military families for a year. Another project took me to China where we followed two childhood friends who were doing eco-rehabilitation work and knowledge sharing with scientists and farmers. People have such unique lives and when you meet them, you want to find out more. When people open up about their lives, I feel privileged, but also obligated to hold their stories sacred. I’m protective of the people I capture on film.
What’s the difference between being the producer of a project and being its director?
I often wear both hats. As a producer, I pitch ideas to investors and broadcasters to raise financing for a project and then oversee the execution of that project.
The director leads the creative team. She gives direction to the camera person, focuses the interview, comes up with ideas for scenes that assist in telling the story, and works with the editor to assemble the footage. At the end of the project, the director moves onto the next job while the producer works on distribution, marketing, and sales.
You’ve written for FAR highlighting your Finnish ethnicity. How did that start?
I received a grant to interview Finnish Canadians about their migration experience. I knew my parents, and many of the people in my community, were aging and I was running out of time. I also wanted to record my own family’s story. I interviewed over thirty people and the project resulted in eleven short films. The stories I write for FAR are as much for my subjects as they are for me. I’m proud of my Finnish heritage. And the reaction has been positive: my parents have my stories taped on their wall!
Your filmmaking explores environmental, social, and educational elements of modern life.
The stories I tell reflect my own journey (and in some ways the things I’m working through in life) and the journeys of people I meet along the way. Through stories, we learn about each other, get insight into each other’s lives, and better understand our world.
What projects are on your bucket list?
I’m working on a documentary, Lessons From The Sunflower (An ambitious man ascending the corporate ladder responds to a devastating cancer diagnosis). My mother’s going through her 3rd cancer diagnosis, and as Steven¾the film’s protagonist¾shares his story, it helps me understand Mom’s journey. It’ll be released later this year. I’m also working on a feature film with filmmaker Anne Wheeler titled When I Sing, based upon Anne’s life. The story takes us back to 1966. Dodie Spinner’s life seems perfect until she’s raped, left pregnant, and must fight for her future at a time when a woman’s choices are few. As a woman, the film’s subject matter resonates with me. I hope to get the film made in the next eighteen months. Then I’ll focus on retirement. I’ve been trying find more time for family, sauna, berry-picking, and hobbies. I also hope to travel more in the future, including a trip to Finland to see extended family.
Any chance we’ll see a Karvonen film at the 2023 Finn Fest in Duluth?
Any contact information you could share would be great! I’d be delighted to have one of my docs (or one by Mom or Dad) shown at the Festival.
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The title of this review? Recently, I had the great fortune to do an online interview with Grammy Award winning, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee guitarist (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and a lengthy solo career) Jorma Kaukonen for the Finnish American Reporter. My interviews for the paper are generally limited to 1,000 words but, in Jorma’s case, Dave Maki, the editor, made an exception. There was just so much to ask and answer given the man is now in his ninth decade of life. But to my point: I wish I’d have taken the time to read Jorma’s memoir before creating my questions. Had I done so, I would have been far more astute in what I was asking the man about his Finnish roots, his life, and his career in music. Anyway.
This is a nicely crafted work of nonfiction. It’s written in a breezy, easy-to-relate style that, if I ever sit down with the author over a cup of coffee, I’ll anticipate to be his matter-of-fact manner. There’s plenty here about Mr. Kaukonen’s fairly turbulent upbringing as the son of a father employed in foreign service (which caused frequent moves for the family) and a frustrated-by-her-limited-role (given the times and opportunities for women) intellectual mother. But Jorma doesn’t cast stones: he only tells his truth. Puzzling, more so than his reflections of his parents and his connections to them is the missing Kaukonen: brother Peter. Scattered within the work are references to his younger sibling and the distance between them. But while that wound apparently continues today, into both men’s old age, there’s no in-depth examination of the rift.
It may well be that, unlike discussing an abortion a former girlfriend experienced, an affair while married to his present wife that resulted in another pregnancy and the birth of a son, myriad bad choices the author made regarding his first marriage, or his affinity for substance abuse (all of which are explored with candor) the gap between brothers is simply too personal to bear detailed exploration. Whatever the reason, I found myself slightly perplexed, and certainly saddened, that the basis for the distance between siblings wasn’t more fully disected. That’s minor quibble doesn’t detract from the books’s overall “read”.
More difficult to understand is the decision, by the author, editors, and publisher to include lyrics from songs penned by Kaukonen in both the body of the memoir and as an appendix. There’s no question that Jorma Kaukonen is one of the world’s finest finger-picking guitarists on the planet. As I type this, I’m listening to his CD, River of Time, which not only features great licks but some fine, understated vocals as well. But Kaukonen is not Dylan or Springsteen or Browne or Chapin Carpenter. While it’s clear, having listened to songs he penned with the Airplane and Hot Tuna, his songwriting skills have matured, including lyrics within the work and then at the end of the tale doesn’t, to me, make a whole lot of sense. But hey, it’s his book, not mine.
This memoir takes you across America, riding on motorcycles and in cars that Kaukonen loves. You meet Janice and the Dead and a host of other luminaries in rock, blues, folk, and Americana along the way. More importantly, the man bears his soul to the world, exposing his faults, his travails, his loves, and his disappointments. He shows we mere mortals that even the greatest amongst us are flawed. Flawed yes, but capable of redemption.
It’s a fine journey, well written, despite the minor beefs noted above.
4 stars out of 5.
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Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, guitarist supreme, Jorma Kaukonen, for the August edition of the Finnish American Reporter. Here’s the interview.
Kiitos, Jorma, for agreeing to do this interview. Let’s start with your heritage. Your father is of Finnish descent. What’s your ancestry and how was Finnishness part of your upbringing?
A most interesting question. My maternal grandfather came from Ukraine, my maternal grandmother from St. Petersburg, Jaako (Jack) Kaukonen from Ylistaro, and Ida Kaukonen (née Palmquist) from Hanko. Jack (Jaako) and Ida settled in Ironwood, Michigan up in the UP and had a house on Garfield Street. Jorma Sr. and his two brothers, Tarmo and Pentti, were all born there in Ironwood. My father’s first language was Finnish. He learned to speak English at the local Carnegie Library. I didn’t meet Grandmother Kaukonen until 1956 when we toured Europe and went to Finland where we met all the Finnish relatives. I remember Grandma Kaukonen came and spent a couple of days with her sister in Hanko and decided that she felt more at home in Los Angeles. I remember she walked to the plane without looking back. A true Finnish response for that generation. Grandpa Jack died before I got a chance to meet him. Grandma Kaukonen seemed very old to me at the time, but she was younger then than I am now! Her English was broken and even though she was far from religious, she spent a lot of Senior time with Scandinavian church groups so she could speak Finnish and Swedish. Her favorite spot to eat was a Smorgasbord restaurant called A Taste Of Sweden. Dad, in his quest to be an “American”, never shared his Finnishness with me until much later in life.
What about other aspects of Finnish culture, music, food, traditions, and the like did you experience as a child?
In retrospect it seems that WWII separated the family until the late 40’s, I say this because after the armistice in the Far East, Dad found himself employed by the government doing who knows what. The Finnish Connection came in 1956. We were in Karachi, Pakistan from 1953 the 1956 when Dad was director of The Asia Foundation. On our way home from that posting, we drove from Italy to Finland, and I had a chance to meet my Finnish family for the first time. Back then, most of the roads outside of Helsinki were gravel and dirt. We traveled from Helsinki to Rovaniemi which was much smaller than it is today. I got a beautiful Puuko made by Lauri, which I still have today. I met Kaukonens, Rasis, Palmquists and more. This is when I heard Dad speak Finnish almost full time. The relatives lovingly chided him for having the vocabulary of an adolescent. I’m not in touch with my Finnish family as much as I should be, although I am in touch from time to time. My son Zach visited them several times as a teenager. I grew to love the food on that trip. What’s not to like about smoked reindeer heart? Piimä is good too! The relatives my age were more interested in talking about the evolution of American rock and roll back then, but Sibelius was always present. Kantele music was, and still is, fascinating, both concert and five string.
You began life on the East Coast, migrated to the West Coast in pursuit of a musical career with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, before ending up in the Midwest.
I moved the California to finish my college education. Staying in school was a predictable way to avoid the draft and gave me plenty of time to play the guitar. The concept of a career was totally unknown to me at that time. I was fortunate to be in the right place and the right time to be part of an artistic and cultural movement. I got into Jefferson Airplane in 1965 the year I graduated college and Hot Tuna would follow in the late 60’s. Though those halcyon days in San Francisco were historically notable, as an East Coaster, I missed seasonal change, fall foliage and more. When I got divorced from my first wife after twenty years, I returned the East Coast and lived for a while in Upstate New York. It was a homecoming in a significant way. Then, I bought a beautiful piece of rural property in Southeast Ohio in early 1990 and I’ve been here for the last thirty some years. With a dad in government service, our family traveled constantly. It’s just the way it was. I think my muse has always been life situation oriented rather than geographical.
Growing up, what sorts of music played in the Kaukonen home?
Dad and Mom had lots of intellectual pretensions. My love of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and the Coasters were an anathema to them…until much later when they came to regard the previously mentioned music as a legitimate art form. Classical music was always on the FM or on Dad’s turntable. They both played classical piano and I took lessons as well. The guitar came later: the evolution of guitar centric music in the 50’s told me that it was the instrument I needed to learn.
Wikipedia reports the name of Jefferson Airplane was a spinoff of a nickname given you by a musician-friend.
A bunch of like-minded musician friends were hanging out together in Berkeley. We were all goofing on blues names: Blind Boy Fuller, Peg Leg Jackson, stuff like that. For me, my friend Richmond Talbott picked “Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane”. In our defense, it was the 60’s!
Jefferson Airplane had the distinction of playing Altamont, Monterey, and Woodstock. To a kid growing up in northern Minnesota listening to the band’s Crown of Creation album, those festivals seemed like the crowning glory (pun intended!). Given the times, how did you make it out alive?
I know it’s hard to imagine, but we were all really young back then. We were pretty much fearless because, hey…at that age you know you’re going to live forever, don’t trust anyone over thirty, and all that nonsense. Arena gigs didn’t exist yet…not as we know them today, but the big shows of the time were part of our story. It’s going to sound self-serving and a little self-important, but when you’re bathed in success at a relatively young age you forget how lucky you are and tend to take It as your due. As for getting out alive, we were tough … and very lucky.
Jefferson Airplane, including you as its lead guitarist, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2016, it was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. Pretty cool, right?
Jefferson Airplane also received a Grammy Nomination for “White Rabbit” and Surrealistic Pillow back in the 60’s but I didn’t even know it until 2016, when we received the Lifetime Achievement Award. I didn’t dwell on accolades back then. Wasn’t aware of them. I am now though…and all these things are not only pretty cool, but a great honor. When I received a Grammy nomination for Blue Country Heart in 2003, I couldn’t believe it.
Have you played Finland?
Yes, on a number of occasions: Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna with Jack Casady, solo, and with Barry Mitterhoff. Barry and I played the Kaustinen Festival in the early 2000’s and it was awesome! I need to do it again before it’s too late.
You’ve had a long musical brotherhood with bassist Jack Casady. What’s the secret behind your relationship?
Jack and I have been friends since 1956 and played music together since 1958. We’ve always respected each other as individuals, artists, and men. We’ve never had a “Band Meeting”!
As a teen, my guitar hero was Leslie West of Mountain, who recently passed. You both played Woodstock. Did your paths ever cross so you could trade licks?
I never got to really get to know Leslie, but I did some work with Felix Pappilardi, Mountain’s bassist, who produced our Double Dose Album.
I’ve been listening to River of Time. I bought the album because of your rendition of “Trouble in Mind”, featuring the late Levon Helm of The Band on drums. You also did that tune live on Love for Levon to raise money for Levon’s pet project, The Barn. What was it like working with Levon and his pal, Larry Campbell?
As for Mr. Helm, I always loved Lee…and I miss him. When I moved to Woodstock in the 80’s, I became sort of a satellite to The Band’s family and did lots of gigs them. Loved those guys…toured Japan with them. Larry Campbell and I became friends a year or so before the River Of Time sessions. Working with Larry was a moment of marvelous synchronicity. Getting Lee to play drums on Trouble In Mind was the frosting on the cake!
How did you make the transition from lead guitarist to songwriter?
I started out as a solo performer and had to learn how to be a band player. In some ways, I’m still learning. Except for “Embryonic Journey”, which is an instrumental, I never wrote a song until my Airplane bandmates encouraged me to do so. I guess in “the-before-Airplane-time” being “the front man” was just how it was. That’s just what so many of us folkies did. It was easier than learning to be an accompanist.
River of Time, including the instrumental piece, “Izze’s Lullaby”,feels introspective.
When Izze came into our lives, I’d never been a primary caregiver to a child. That magical feeling, a sense of being the shelter from the storm for a young child, was amazing. The Song “Simpler Than I Thought” from the same album was inspired by the new father adventure. Izze is driving now, has one more year of high school, and then off to college. I still feel that honor. The mystery that accompanies those feelings still exists.
Sorry to say, I missed your recent show in Duluth. How was the vibe playing the restored West Theater in my hometown?
Totally awesome! It was great to be back up there. Spring hadn’t broken yet: snow and ice were everywhere, and I got to shop at Duluth Trading! Great theater: I hope it makes it and that I get to come back!
What role did your father and/or your mother play in shaping your creative path?
Mom was always supportive, artistically speaking. Had things been different, I think she would have chosen a creative path. Dad was somewhat disdainful of some of my life choices. But when Jefferson Airplane made the cover of Life Magazine, he finally embraced some of those choices: I’d become a bona fide success!
Levon had The Barn. You’ve got Fur Peace Ranch. How did Fur Peace get started and what do you hope to accomplish with the effort?
Fur Peace opened in 1998, in hopes of providing an unintimidating place to learn music and foster a like-minded musical community, all hosted in a beautiful environment. Levon talked to me about trying the same sort of model up at the Barn. Time ran out before he had a chance to act on it.
I’m reading your memoir, Been So Long. What prompted you to peel back the layers of the onion?
Something told me I needed to do that: I’m not quite sure what.
A few years ago, Finnish duo Ninni Poijärvi and Mika Kuokkanen played a benefit concert in Duluth. During a break, they referenced cutting their great album Powderburn, with Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter) at The Barn. Might we see a collaboration between Jorma and my favorite Finnish duo? Or with Amy?
I was just on a show with Larry Campbell, Amy Helm, and the Ramble Band. Hot Tuna drummer Justin Guip is Larry’s production partner. They produced and recorded Ninni and Mika’s project at the Barn. Justin will be out with Jack and myself on a Little Feat Tour later this summer. Anyway: collaborations¾count me in!
Another musician who performed at that benefit was Eric Peltoniemi, former head of Minnesota-based Red House Records. How did you get involved with Red House? Will that connection continue now that the label has been sold?
Eric is an old friend of the family. Red House was the right place to go for a lot of reasons. Without too much complaining, now that Compass owns Red House, it’s just not the same. Life goes on.
Gerry Henkel, former editor of The New World Finn, recalls meeting you backstage while you were performing with guitarists from different genres and you remarking what a great experience that was. Do you remember who you were playing with at the time?
That was the Columbia Artist Management Guitar Summit Tour. Kenny Burrell, Manuel Barueco, Stanley Clarke, and Steve Morse. It was back in the 90’s but it was a heady tour!
You recently collaborated with John Hurlbut on The River Flows.
John is a forty-year friend and the Ranch Manager at Fur Peace Ranch. We cut two albums in just two days. Justin Guip was the engineer. I wish all projects were that easy! I would’ve done the albums myself, but Culture Factory and I have a relationship. They’re a niche label and everything is limited-edition stuff. They do all the work and you’re pretty much guaranteed a sell-out. Love those guys!
Last question. After I’ve finished reading Been So Long, any chance I can stop by Fur Peace for a cup of coffee, some conversation, and a tune or two? I mean, as an ex-judge, lawyer, and music geek, I might have more questions!
Sounds good Mark. Just make sure I’m going to be home! Hope to see you somewhere. Stay Well.
Yes, I am a retired judge. Yes, from time to time in my role hearing matters in Minnesota District Court, constitutional issues arose that required me to research and apply principles of law handed down to us by the Founders in that most precious of legal documents, the United States Constitution. But in 14 years as a prosecutor, 18 years in private legal practice, and 23 years on the Bench (20 active; 3 on senior status) I was never called upon to research the history behind the Second Amendment, the so-called Right to Bear Arms addition to our Constitution as part of the original 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights. As a lawyer, historian, political scientist, judge and yes, gun owner, I thought it was time I learned the basics. This is the book I selected from the hundreds available on the topic of how and why the Second Amendment came to be. I am glad I took the time to breeze through this relatively brief tome.
Waldman takes us back to the debates surrounding the adoption of the Bill of Rights, zeroing in on the discussions held, both in writing and orally, amongst the Founders and Framers of our constitution. The gist of the beginnings of the Second Amendment are very simple: there was a faction of American men of power who believed that state militias, the essence of the new republic’s military force during its insurrection against England, had to be recognized and preserved against the Federalist forces supporting a national army and navy. Why so? The so-called Anti-Federalists, men like George Mason, feared that a central government controlling a national military would abrogate and erode states’ rights, perhaps to the degree where the republican dream of the American experiment would devolve into a substitute monarchy led by war hero, George Washington. The author makes the pointed and well-supported argument that there was virtually no discussion, amongst the opposing camps, regarding an individual citizen’s right to bear arms at the time the Constitution was written, or subsequently, when the Bill of Rights were adopted. If one looks at the original thirteen colonies that formed our “more perfect union”, the individual states had a plethora of regulations relating to arms; including the primitive firearms of the day. There were restrictions against carrying arms openly; restrictions against Blacks owning and possessing firearms; and a host of other regulations that were not, upon the passage of the Second Amendment, abrogated by federal power.
Waldman then takes us on a winding and tortured path beginning with the single sentence of the Second Amendment, A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed, to the first case to declare, by edict of our present Activist Conservative Supreme Court, that those words, originally written to allow states to be free of federal oppression via “well regulated militias”, somehow abrogate virtually all regulations or restrictions applicable to an individual’s right to own a gun. Heller, the case that turned what had been the commonly understood power of states and local governments to regulate firearms for the purpose of public safety, was not decided until June of 2013 when “originalist” jurist, Antonin Scalia, declared for the majority of the United States Supreme Court that there existed, for the first time in a decision of the Court, a virtually unrestricted individual right to own and possess nearly any type of firearm. It is the originalist label that Waldman critiques in great depth, making it clear, from history and the prior decision of the supreme court, that such a label is merely a subterfuge given the original debates over the Second Amendment did, in no way, support such an edict. Those, like Scalia (who has passed on but whose legacy lives in the present Conservative Activist majority of the court) who bemoaned and berated the advancement of rights and powers not enumerated in the Constitution or its Amendments (which would, be extrapolation, include privacy rights supporting the right to procure birth control, the right to marry across ethnicities, the right to marry a person of the same gender, and of course, the right to procure an abortion (which is now relegated to the various states); as well as the right to associate (to join groups such as the Boy Scouts or the KKK)) are no different than the philosophical stretch utilized by the Burger Court to legalize the right to abortion in its own time. In essence, what we are facing today is the blow-back by neo-conservative jurists who were and are affronted by virtually every progressive piece of federal legislation from the New Deal to Joe Biden. Making things even more depressing, the jurists taking such stands in federal courts across the land are appointed for life: They are not subject to the will of the people even when the decisions of the courts impede the right of the citizenry, by majority vote, to regulate gun ownership through legislative enactment.
Waldman leaves us with the observation that perhaps Congress can pass legislation to deal with the issues left unanswered by Heller in terms of gun safety and gun control. But of course, that optimism was penned before the present term of the court and the total polarization of American politics. Well written. Insightful. Damn depressing.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominigue Bauby (1997. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-375-70121-4)
Think you have it bad, Munger? You whine and complain about being a “semi-famous” regional novelist (a phrase coined by second son, Dylan) who never, at least in your own eyes, gets the recognition you feel you deserve. Well, Kid, here’s a book to put things in perspective.
Jean Bauby was the editor-in-chief of Elle’s French edition, meaning he was pretty much at the top of the publishing/editing ladder in terms of periodicals. Forty-three years old, father of two, married, and comfortable in his success, Bauby was stricken by a massive stroke such that he became paralyzed. He was rendered unable to communicate or move beyond swaying his head from side-to-side and using his left eyelid to indicate his needs and desires. This is no children’s bedtime story. There is no miraculous comeback or recovery for Bauby. He lived but a year, imprisoned in his own body in what is termed “locked in syndrome”. But in that year’s time, letter by precious letter, he left us this book as a precious gift to humanity. The sparse writing and breathy chapters leave little room for sentimentality as the author paints pictures that one hopes none of his readers will ever personally experience, but does so with humor and deftness. Here’s an excerpt from his chapter “The Wheelchair”:
As three orderlies laid me back down, I thought of movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer’s body into the trunk of their car. The wheelchair sat abandoned in a corner, with my clothes tossed over its dark-blue plastic back rest. Before the last white coat left the room, I signaled my wish to have the TV turned on, low. On the screen was my father’s favorite quiz show. Since daybreak, an unremitting drizzle had been streaking my windows.
To say that Bauby was courageous in crafting this slender (really not much longer than a novella) memoir is a mistake. The author never claims to be heroic or faithful or blessed as he lives a shortened life largely inside his own head. Instead, Bauby simply tells us what it was like. And that, in the end, makes for a uniquely beautiful elegy.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A very quick, yet touching, read.
Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho (2020. Flatiron. ISBN 978-1-250-80047-3)
Like President Barack Hussein Obama, the author of this reflection on race relations in the United States is the son of immigrant Blacks, not a descendent of slaves. In the beginning of the book. Acho ponders what this meant for him as a Black kid growing up in Texas and how his upbringing, by two college-educated parents who immigrated from Africa, was similar and/or different from those of other Black children he attended school with, played sports with, and ultimately, engaged in life after pro sports with.
Acho gives all of us white folks a basic understanding of the Black experience in America, tracing institutional, personal, and systemic racism to its roots in enslavement while trying, as best as he can, to instill in his audience why the bitter ravages of chattel slavery still haunt his community and in fact, all of modern American life.
Each chapter tackles an issue/problem that the author perceives needs addressing so that white readers can begin to understand. The slender chapters include an introductory narrative, continue with a section entitled “Let’s Rewind” (giving us the history behind what’s being discussed), followed by a dissertation that’s meant to challenge the reader (“Let’s Get Uncomfortable”, and end with a call for action (“Talk It, Walk It”). The format makes it a perfect learning tool for classrooms, book clubs, and political discourse.
For example, the first question addressed is “What Should I Call a Person of Color (POC)?”. Well, here’s a bit about that:
Black covers the descendants of the people who were brought over on slave ships and forced to work on plantations and also includes people like my parents, who immigrated to the United States. It covers all black people in the United States and joins them with people of African descent in Brazil, the Caribbean, Mexico (the diaspora), and other countries where the transatlantic slave trade brought Africans. It’s a descriptor of what black people had in common.
But it isn’t that simple. Just because the author prefers the demarcation, “black” (he, for whatever reason, doesn’t follow modern writing style and capitalize the word), doesn’t mean every BPOC (black person of color) is comfortable with the term. Some still prefer “African American.” Hence, his advice on the topic:
There’s no one label that will satisfy all (who knows, maybe there’s some old head who wants to be called “Negro”), but there is usually an opportunity to ask someone their preference.
Pretty sage advice, that. Ask. The book is filled with such common sense advice for white readers, including how to become an ally in the fight against racism. I found the book a great tutorial; a starting point for learning how to have uncomfortable, and maybe, just maybe, comfortable discussions with black folks about race.
4 stars out of 5. A little too short to achieve a 5 star rating but a fine effort.
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My pal Ken Hubert, a long-distance solo canoeist and adventurer, handed me this slender tome when René and I were at the home he shares with his wife, Vicky, in Faribault. Now, I have a stack of books in my “to read” pile on a credenza in my writing studio so I have to say, I wasn’t eager to add another book to the mountain of words awaiting my discovery. But because Mike Furtman is a FaceBook friend (whatever that means!) and writes such compelling posts, I ended up moving the book to the top of the heap. I’m very glad I did.
Furtman, his wife Mary Jo, and their Labrador, Gypsy were gifted, by stepping up as volunteer rangers for the U.S. Forest Service, a summer of working for no pay in the BWCA. They, like every other visitor to the Crooked Lake section of the wilderness, were required to do their work; maintaining designated campsites, replacing latrines, cleaning up messes left by discourteous campers, and the like; all from a paddled cedar strip and canvas canoe. No motors, no easy way to move from the legacy cabin they used as home base to patrol their assigned area, no mechanized tools or chain saws allowed in their arduous tasks. Their three month stay mirrors, in larger and expanded fashion, what most of us who’ve made trips into the BWCA (or its Canadian counterpart, the Quetico) experience: the first few days (or in the case of the Furtmans, weeks) involve getting accustomed to silence and listening and taking in the clear air and motor-less sounds of wilderness, which quickly, if you’re only in canoe country for a long weekend or so, turns to an easily accepted pattern of living, paddling, tenting, and eating that, in small ways, mimics the lives of the First People and the European Voyagers who called this place home or used its waterways as a transportation network.
Furtman’s writing is crisp and clear and, in not-so-disguised fashion, adopts and adapts the styles of other great outdoor writers, including Sig Olson, whose love of canoe country helped assist in its preservation. But unlike Olson and dreamier romantics, Furtman repeatedly cautions the reader that, in many ways, what we consider “wilderness” is only an illusion, a slight-of-hand of legislative protection that, with expanded visitation by well-meaning or unruly patrons, could easily be destroyed.
If you love good nature writing, pick up a used copy of this book. It is the perfect companion to a hot cup of coffee next to your summer fire pit.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
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Jodi Picoult has crafted an engaging read in her latest effort. Wish You Were Here is the first person story of New Yorker Diana O’Toole scheduled to spend an amazing vacation in the Galapagos Islands with her live-in boyfriend, circa March 2020. As the plot unfolds, the boyfriend, a surgical resident named Finn, is about to propose marriage but COVID begins to wreck havoc on the city, compelling Finn to postpone the big announcement, remain at the hospital, and urge the protagonist to “Go. You deserve this trip.”
And so, Diana travels to South America and lands smack dab in the pandemic which, once she declines to take the last boat off the island she’s scheduled to stay on, leaves her stranded in a place without luggage (lost by the airline) with no idea of how to speak the language, and, most important of all, without lodging or food since her prepaid hotel reservation has been cancelled due to the virus. The place is closed up tight, forcing a woman trained as an art expert at Sotheby’s to confront a world that she has little ability to negotiate. That’s the gist of the first half of the novel. I can’t, without divulging a major plot twist integral to the second portion of this fine read, tell you what comes next for Diana.
René and I listened to the audio version of the book on our drive to Arizona and loved it. Some commentators/reviewers on Amazon find the author’s pro-vaccine message too large a pill to swallow. I’ve faced similar criticism from readers regarding the last book of my Finnish American Trilogy, Kotimaa: Homeland where at least one reviewer wrote that he “enjoyed the book but the last third needs re-writing because politics has no place in novel.” Really? I’m certain you, as well as I, can recount any number of masterpieces of storytelling written throughout history that rely upon a political viewpoint to get a fictional story’s message across. As a proud believer in science over manipulation, I applaud the author for her insertion of common sense and medical truth into this fictional tale.
An enjoyable read.
4 stars out of 5
Courage, My Love by Kristin Beck
(2021. Berkley. Audiobook version)
Kristin Beck is writing here about a timeframe few of us consider regarding WW II: the period after Mussolini fell and before the Americans and their allies drove the Germans out of Italy. That alone intrigued me, a history buff and writer of historical fiction. But Beck does far more than give us the history of what transpired when El Duce abdicated his power.
In the most fundamental of ways, Courage is the story of two young Italian women. Lucia Columbo, a single mother whose husband disappeared in the post-Fascist era and who, though largely apolitical herself, eventually comes to terms with her nation’s failings and decides she can no longer sit on the sidelines while her beloved Italy is engulfed by the fierce evil of Nazi control.
Francesco Gallo, who, as a child suffered from polio leaving her with a distinctive limp, and who recognized early on the failings of Mussolini’s vision, is quicker to the realization that she, along with others, must stand up against the Germans. Rome is inundated with German troops, the hated SS, and the feared Gestapo when these two brave young women risk everything to oppose what Lucia’s parents, and other supporters of Mussolini and his German partner, consider to be Italy’s last chance to regain the glories of imperial Rome.
It is a curious thing to me, an author of two novels centered on the history, struggles, and heroism of World War II (The Legacy set in Yugoslavia; and Sukulaiset: The Kindred set in Finland, Estonia, and Russia) to see a resurgence of interest in the many facets of the world’s most deplorable and disastrous war. Perhaps this is occurring because eyewitnesses to such history are slowly fading to dust. Beck’s attempt to join clarion voices retelling stories from that time in new and enlightening fashion. If you enjoyed, All the Light We Cannot See, The Nightingale, and a host of more recent novels chronicling this period in history, you’ll enjoy Beck’s work here.
4 and ½ stars out of 5
On Hitler’s Mountain by Irmgard A. Hunt
(2005. Harper. ISBN 978-0-06-053218-5)
Confession time again. I didn’t buy this book. It was loaned to me by my buddy, Dave Michelson. He knows how much I love history and especially, WW II history, so he handed me the book in Arizona when we were camping together on the banks of the Verde River.
This rather slender volume doesn’t pretend to explain how an entire nation of relatively educated citizens was dragged into madness and the Holocaust. Rather, the author, who was born into the Hitler regime, focuses on her own personal understanding, as a young girl, of how her own family, including her mother and father, virtuous though not necessarily church-going German Lutherans living at the base of what would become Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, cast their lot with a brutal, sociopath who surrounded himself with like personalities to rule and, eventually, ruin, Germany. I applaud Ms. Hunt’s attempt but the problem is very simple: attempting to chronicle the mesmerization of an entire people by an intimate look at one particular family, while illuminating on the micro level, leaves one unsatisfied in the end.
There’s no doubt that, given the Treaty of Versailles and the ruination of the German economy that followed, Ms. Hunt’s family suffered poverty, hunger, and deprivation sufficient for her parents to turn towards Nazism. Her maternal grandfather, on the other hand, knew, from day one, who and what Adolph Hitler was. The internal struggles in the author’s family, how far to accede to Nazism, who to denounce, who to trust, who to protect, all make for a fine story of familial angst. But the broader, more important question of why no one possessing a sniper’s rifle or a hand grenade or a pistol tried to end the madness early on remain untouched. Oh, there’s a mention here or there of suspicious activity by the SS or the Gestapo: a neighbor girl who had Down Syndrome, rumors of maltreatment of Jews, that tie into the larger story of Nazi evil. But in the end, there’s simply not enough personal flagellation by the author, who immigrated to America and became a successful advocate for the environment, for this reader to find the book compelling.
3 stars out of 5. Interesting but not earth shattering.
Venice by Jan Morris
(1993. Faber. ISBN 0-571-16897-3)
Okay. This one, I actually bought in the title’s namesake city when we visited in 2019. I was surprised, when I began reading Ms. Morris’s slender guide to the history and places of interest in one of the world’s most romantic and mysterious cities, to find out I’d read the author before. A few chapters in, I decided to do a search the internet regarding Jan Morris’s background. Turns out, she’d once written the iconic history of Britain, Pax Britanica, a massive three-volume work I’d read years ago when I belonged to the Quality Paperback Book Club. (Googling QPBC it seems to be no longer in operation.) But that terrific series was penned by Ms. Morris when she was Mr. James Morris. Oh well, who am I to judge? On with the review.
Much of the book is a travelogue of Venice proper and the islands of the lagoon surrounding and, over history, protecting Venice from weather and invaders. The author candidly discusses changes she’s noted in Venice since her first visit in the early 1960s through the 1990s. Morris thoughtfully comments upon climate-related threats to the city, but does not seem alarmed over the survival of one of the world’s great historic locales.
I wish I’d read this volume before my trip. I would have appreciated what I was seeing all that much more. My only criticisms of the book are that it is, by its very nature, dated, and that it gets a bit sluggish in the middle sections where Morris hashes out all the comings and goings of the various regimes throughout history. Still, the book is a valuable asset to anyone walking the cobbled streets of this iconic city intersected by canals.
4 stars out of 5. Valuable if a bit behind the times.
How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith
(2021. Little Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-49293-5)
Simply the best book post-George Floyd to come along and tackle the sensitive and difficult topic of race in America. Not that talking about heritage and race and religion should be difficult in a land filled, with the exception of our Native brothers and sisters, immigrants. We all have a story to tell regarding where our ancestors came from. Except, in the case of most African Americans, their forefathers and foremothers did not arrive on the shores of North and South and Central America by choice: they were brought here as chattel slaves, a term I’ve never used but, after reading Smith’s excellent inquiry into where we are as a nation, will use from now on.
This is a journey, not only of place, but of heart. Smith, a well-respected essayist and poet, walks the grounds where chattel slavery began, flourished, had an impact, or left its indelibly sad and cruel imprint. We meet folks along the way, including white millionaire John Cummings who purchased Whitney Plantation in Louisiana as an investment only to decide, upon researching the institution of chattel slavery as it existed at Whitney, to turn the place into an interpretive center where folks of all walks of life, ethnicities, and origins can visit and obtain a fundamental understanding of slavery. Smith walks Monticello, not in search of the greatness of Thomas Jefferson, but to discover Jefferson, the man who penned the Declaration of Independence’s creed, “All men are created equal …” as a slave owner.
I could go on and on regarding the places this honest, candid, and at times, disheartening (such as when Smith interviews modern-day Southerners about the “Lost Cause”) read takes readers. But all that really needs to be said is that America has not healed, has not put the Civil War in its rearview mirror: not if millions of folks believe the South seceded to protect some vague notion of “states’ rights”. Smith makes it clear the Civil War came about, not as a means to preserve statehood independence, but solely and completely and absolutely to keep chattel slavery alive as an American institution. It’s as simple as the color of our skins.
5 stars of 5. Should be required reading in every high school in America.
The Fall of Richard Nixon by Tom Brokaw
(2019. Random House. ISBN 978-0-593-13440-5)
I’ll keep this short, like the book. I deeply respect Tom Brokaw as one of America’s sage, preeminent, television journalists. I’m happy to have a signed copy of this book as a commemoration of all the good work Tom has done over the airwaves throughout my youth and into my old age. However, this book really doesn’t add much, other than Brokaw’s personal connections to the Watergate story as he watched it unfold and reported upon it, to the study of Richard Nixon’s fall from grace. It’s a fairly breezy, easy to read refresher on a scandal that tore America apart and gave us, years later, Ronald Reagan and then, the Man Who Would Be King. Beyond that, it’s not the detailed, careful study of events I would have expected from Mr. Brokaw.
3 stars out of 5.
The Woman in Cabin Ten by Ruth Ware
(2016. Scout. ISBN 978-1-5011-3295-7)
I ran out of books to read while on vacation from retirement in Camp Verde Arizona, which required a trip to a bookstore. Only problem is: there isn’t a bookstore in Camp Verde or nearby Cottonwood. Which, to a book lover, is an utter shame. I was relegated to Walmart to find something to read and came away with this title.
The protagonist in this thriller/mystery is a travel writer assigned to voyage with passengers and the crew from Hull, England into the fjords of Norway on a new luxury yacht. There’s plenty of decent plotting and enough character sketching to hold one’s interest but this tale is, from the beginning, flawed by the fact, like Agatha Christie’s “killer on a train” theme, Ms. Ware must limit the number of potential murder suspects (a body is heard being tossed overboard in the middle of the North Sea) by creating a fairly implausible, very limited passenger list inhabiting an equally implausible diminutive vessel. I turned pages, for certain, and was interested in what was happening. But this is not great literature or even exceptional story-telling.
3 stars out of 5.
All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
(2016. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-5011-0797-9)
Another Walmart book to tide me over by the swimming pool in Arizona. This one, however, is markedly better than The Woman in Cabin Ten. This is a complex “whodunit” involving the disappearance of mercurial Corrine Prescott, sometime best friend of the protagonist, Nicolette, in rural Cooley Ridge. Nicolette, now living in Philadelphia and on the verge of marrying a young lawyer is summoned home by her brother to deal with their aging, dementia-riddled father and the family house. While home, another young girl, a quiet, shy and barely noticed teen, goes missing. It’s the unraveling of the fates of two young women who share the mystery of vanishing in the night despite a gulf of years that moves this tense, tightly drawn, very believable psychological thriller forward. A good read.
4 stars out of 5.
Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand
(2019. Little Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-42001-3)
The last of my desperation purchases from Wally World in Cottonwood, AZ, this is a typical Hilderbrand effort but one worth a beach read if you’re so inclined. The only major flaw, to my readerly eye, is the inclusion of the Ted Kennedy/Mary Jo narrative, a fleeting and not really needed bit of trivia that doesn’t add anything to the generational, familial tale being told. There’s plenty of sharp dialogue and a plethora of intriguing characters to keep the story moving despite this noted, minor flaw. If you’re expecting Jane Eyre or something classic and memorable, this is not the book for you. But if you are looking for a nice, cozy, easily read diversion from life, then this Hilderbrand is just the thing for poolside.
4 stars out of 5.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
(2017. Brilliance. Audio Book)
So, the world’s audience is divided on this book. According to Amazon’s Global Ratings, a majority of readers/listeners find this to be a 5 star “read”. But there’s a small, very vocal group of dissenters who give this effort minimal credit for bringing real-life Italian war hero, Pino Lella, to life. I won’t quote the bashers here. Not my place. But I will say I found it remarkable that at least one negative reviewer found this fictionalized version of the efforts of Italian partisans during the last days of Fascist Italy to save Italy’s Jews from the Nazis who replaced Mussolini, “worse than Nightingale”. Really? You hated that book as well, one of Kristin Hannah’s best works? Too bad. I loved that book. As I love this one.
Yes. I agree that the first few chapters of Beneath read like a YA novel. But in short order, the author extracts himself from a seventh-grade English class to write a riveting and well-researched story that, frankly, outshines its beginning. Those who find the heroics, daring-a-do mountain climbing, and juxtaposition of a seventeen-year-old Catholic boy alongside a German general as the officer’s driver didn’t bother reading or listening to the book’s ending, where Sullivan explains the arduous process of his research and documentation of Pino’s exploits and life. The characters, for the most part, are actual historic figures, right down to the Nazi general. Complaining the plot and characters reek of implausibility misses this hard and fact-checked truth: Beneath depicts, with some novelistic license, actual events that chronicle the cruelty, and the bravery, of humanity engaged in an horrific war.
Both my wife and I loved this book. You will too.
4 and ½ stars out of 5. But for a slow start, this is a 5-star read.
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First, let’s talk about your name. On your musical CDs, your name is “Diane Jarvi.” But in your poetry, including … swift, bright, drift … you’re known as Diane Jarvenpa. Could you tell our readers about that decision?
My name Jarvi is a shortened version of Jarvenpa which is really Järvenpää. Järvenpää is the name my grandfather took when he came to Ellis Island. Then his sons dropped all those umlauts and that last A. I discovered starting as a young child, nobody could ever pronounce Jarvenpa, so I used Jarvi to ease the way. I kept Jarvenpa as my writer’s name. I’ve really kept these art forms separate and only recently have come together at events.
We met through Gerry Henkel for lunch in Two Harbors, Minnesota. Out of that lunch came a collaboration to launch my novel Sukulaiset at Fitger’s in Duluth. Explain your upbringing, where you were raised, your parents, and your connection to Finnish and Finnish American culture.
I loved that event! I was raised in the Minneapolis area until age 15, when we moved near the University of Minnesota. My parents were children of Finnish immigrants. Finnish was spoken at home when they didn’t want the children to know what was being said. We visited relatives in northern Minnesota and quite often, only Finnish was spoken. It felt like we’d crossed a border. I was raised in a very American home, but as my parents grew older, they became involved in Finnish groups and re-embraced their heritage.
One of the tunes you played at the launch was “Rebel Girl”. And “Rebel Girl” appears on your CD, Bittersweet, the credits of which read like a Who’s Who of Finnish American music. Why those musicians for that album?
I thought that was so great you included that iconic song in your book.
It’s one of my favorites. I received a grant to chronicle, in poetry, the experiences of Finnish immigrant women and their female descendants, which became The Way She Told Her Story. Doing research, I stumbled upon my mother’s Little Red Songbook. It included IWW songs in Finnish and there it was—“Kumousnainen”.
At the time, I was also gathering tunes for a recording of Finnish music and decided to include “Rebel Girl” on that CD.
As to the other musicians who appear Bittersweet: members of the Finn Hall Band, Arto Järvelä and Sara Pajunen all contributed their many great skills and talents.
What’s your fluency in Finnish?
Limited, though I can recognize quite a bit. I heard it growing up and studied written Finnish at the U of M. I also studied at the Sibelius Academy and my comprehension grew there. I’ve been to Finland six times. Each trip, I pick up more.
On a podcast promoting your work with the Café Accordion Orchestra (https://beta.prx.org/stories/407222) , Dan Newton discusses your ability to sing in any language. Explain your love of language. Also, why you seem drawn to songs of sadness?
My ability to sing in virtually any language is hyperbole, though I am drawn to world music.
Yes, I have many sad songs in my repertoire. I’m drawn to contemplative songs and to those songs that respond to sorrow, like the blues. Finnish music has many tunes in major keys, but I’ve always landed on the minor chord tunes. Maybe it’s in my DNA to sing sad songs as a way to navigate challenges, adversity, or grief. Or maybe the tradition of lament is just part of my heritage.
Growing up, was there music in the Jarvenpa household?
My mother played the violin and we listened to Beethoven and Sibelius. She also sang in church choirs. My brother was a gifted pianist. Classical, folk, blues, country, rock, jazz played on the stereo. All of this made me the eclectic musician I am.
This Ordinary Day is a solo effort that includes songs written in collaboration with John Reinhard.
Of the seven recordings I’ve made, this is the first one that’s all in English: just me and my guitar. It was made during the pandemic in my basement. I felt exposed, no other musicians to support me. But I felt this is a good time to strip it all down: a time to respond to all that’s happening. It’s also my homage to my musical beginnings, some folk, blues, and Americana.
John and I’ve collaborated in the past. He sends me ideas for lyrics. It’s been fun creating songs over email; never in the same room or the same town. I think my favorite from the new recording is the cut my daughter LiLi sings on, “Brief Wings of Summer”. It’s a touching send-off to a daughter leaving for college.
Let’s shift gears a bit. In …swift, bright, drift… you provide some great poetry. I’m guessing that your poetry has a connection to Tuohela and other poems written by your mother, Aili Jarvenpa.
That was a book I dedicated to my father. Nature was a gift from my father and poetry was a gift from my mother who was a poet, editor, and translator. My parents had a tremendous influence on me as a writer.
What are your plans? Any new CDs or poetry in the works? Where can readers access your work?
I don’t know. Maybe an album of duets of jazz classics with guitarist friends. Regarding writing, I’m currently working on a novel. It’s a project I’ve enjoyed more than I could have ever imagined. And yes, it involves Finland!
I know you’re an accomplished kantele player. How did that begin?
I heard the group Koivun Kaiku perform and wanted a 5-string kantele. I ordered one and joined the group. I also studied kantele at the Sibelius Academy. I’ve used it on six CDs. I bring one with me when I’m at Memory Care units teaching through the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. It’s a mysterious and beautiful instrument that calms.
Last question. Any plans to be at FinnFest in Duluth as a performer?
I don’t know. But it will be a wonderful gathering of artists, music, and lecturers that showcase the gifts of the culture.
Race. America. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbury. A book tour. A manic depressive (or just plain crazy), boozing-to-a-coma Black author. It’s all here in this tidy little volume. Except, when talking or writing about race in this nation, at this time, nothing is tidy. Ever.
If you are looking for a concise, fictional reflection on race that offers simple suggestions to cure what ails America in our Post-Obama, Post-Trump reality, this book is not for you. Nope. The author posits no real solutions to the generational trauma and heartache that befalls young Black men in this country. That’s not on the agenda, not in the novel, nor in the story within the story, the tale of the book’s unnamed protagonist who’s bestselling novel about his dead mother is also titled Hell of a Book. Clever, eh? Such a contrite, simplistic device might ring hollow and shallow and forced if not for Mott’s skill in making us all, especially white dudes and dudettes reading and acclaiming his storytelling, look just a tad foolish in our praise. I mean, yah, the book is good. Maybe even great. But what does that change, right? I mean, Kim Potter just faced sentencing in another case of white cop/dead Black guy gone wrong. The story never seems to alter or fade or evolve to a point where we can all, Black, white, poor, rich, male, and female consider whatever happens after tragedy “fair”.
So yes, it’s a hell of a book. But you won’t find bejeweled answers to society’s questions strewn about this tale like philosophical gems. And I’ll confess that I’m not drawn to endings lacking grace, redemption, equity, or finality. This story is just that way, which is likely why I didn’t rate Mott’s effort worthy of five stars. That said, maybe the problem is mine and not the author’s.
4 and 1/2 star out of 5.
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It’s a puzzle to me. Two Duluth authors, two graduates of Duluth Denfeld High School and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and two kids from Duluth’s Piedmont Heights neighborhood write memoirs about their families and upbringing and have them published essentially at the same time. What are the chances, right? Anyway.
This book, Grover’s latest, a slim volume containing reflections, poetry, stories, and mystical revelations of the Native heart is a great place to start your exploration of Duluth, Grover’s writing, and the Ojibwe culture’s intersection with white Minnesota. As always, the author carries the weight of a thousand years of Anishinaabeg life and history and myth on her back through a winding and thoroughly enjoyable exploration of ancestors, traditional stories, and the history of the Ojibwe in Duluth. The read, at first blush, seems lighthearted, almost breezy. But that’s just the author letting the reader become comfortable reading about a culture, a way of life, that likely is not his or her own.
And thus our histories and our lives are intertwined, but like any other real story this one is a jigsaw puzzle with a missing box-the pieces eventually fit together, but it may not look the way we thought it might.
Exactly so. Having labored to recall and put down in Duck and Cover: Things Learned Waiting for the Bomb (my own memoir), I too had to reach back into memory and drag stories and anecdotes and thoughts and beliefs from the dark recesses of the past. Maybe the images I, the memoirist, painted were accurate. Maybe not. But having devoured Gichigami Hearts and enjoyed Ms. Grover’s personal and cultural journey, I suspect the puzzle she has labored to put together for the greater world accurately reflects the image on the front cover of the puzzle box. A fine piece of writing from one of my favorite Minnesota authors.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
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I’d like to start by asking a bit about your connection to Finnish heritage. Where were you born and where did you grow up? What are your ancestral links to Finnishness?
My grandfather was from a small village just east of Tampere. My great-grandparents were from Kuortane, Kortesjärvi, and Liminka. My father grew up in Toivola, MN with Finnish as his first language.
As a child, were you exposed to Finnish language and culture? What are your memories of those influences?
Growing up in Hibbing, MN, I began playing in the Singing Strings performance group at a young age. The director of the group, Helinä Pakola, is from Finland. We performed repertoire from various genres and I sang in Finnish very often as a child, but I can’t say I knew what I was singing! We brought our music all over the world, including Australia, Finland, Soviet Russia, the Clinton White House, and as the official performers for the Finnish Olympic Team.
When did you begin your musical training?
I began taking Suzuki piano lessons at the age of 6, but I was very restless. When my mother saw an advertisement for violin in the local paper, she thought it may be a better fit if I could stand up!
When my family moved to Minneapolis during my high school years, I played in youth orchestras and took lessons at the University of Minnesota. I received a Bachelor’s of Music from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and then I went on to study chamber music in Helsinki at Aalto University (then Stadia). Last year I also completed a Masters of Music in Contemporary Improvisation at New England Conservatory in Boston. I’ve also studied folk music in Finland at AK Opisto in Kaustinen and with Arto Järvelä (thanks to Finlandia Foundation), and I studied hardanger fiddle in Norway with support from the American Scandinavian Foundation.
I know you once performed with Finnish American folksinger Jonathan Rundman in the duo known as Kaivama. What was behind your interest in exploring Finnish American and Finnish music with Kaivama?
My interest in my Finnish heritage started early on in my adult life. I studied Finnish language for a summer in Jyväskylä just out of high school, and during high school I took Finnish classes at the University of Minnesota. I lived in Helsinki from 2004 to 2008, where I met many relatives and visited my ancestral places. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more interested in the United States – the factors that brought my family here to this country, the history of the industry here in Northern Minnesota and beyond, and the relationship we have with the land.
Kaivama recorded a CD with noted Finnish fiddler Arto Järvelä. How did that connection affect your musicianship?
I consider Arto to be my mentor when it comes to Finnish folk music. In 2010 I stayed in his home in Finland studied with him. He is so naturally committed to folk music and Finnishness and he is his own musician, which I really admire! After my studies he was generous enough to record and tour with Kaivama.
You’ve worked closely with Finnish accordionist Teija Niku and collaborated with her on a couple of albums as Aallotar. How did you meet Teija?
Teija and I initially met when she was performing with the duo, Polka Chicks, in Minneapolis. I hosted them at my house, and a year later our two duos played together at Finn Fest in San Diego. Eventually Teija and I formed our own duo, Aallotar, and our first gig was at a festival in Dubrovnik, Croatia! We have recorded two albums together and were set to tour last year in Finland and Germany, but unfortunately those performances had to be rescheduled for 2023. Our duo will definitely continue.
It looks like you’re currently involved in two other projects. One, Sound an Echo, is a union of your fiddling and singing with folk musician, Rachael Kilgour, one of my favorite Minnesota originals.
In Sound an Echo, Rachael and I have focused mostly on American folk music in English or music from the British Isles – although we have performed a Finnish song or two. Our duo is also on a bit of a hiatus, but we will have a few gigs throughout 2022.
Another project you’re working on is Mine Songs: Sounding an Altered Landscape. What do you hope to achieve with that effort?
My Mine Songs project is a long-term umbrella project that encompasses different media rooted in Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. I have always been a musician, but my interests have always been varied as well, and this is the place for me to explore. I have had Mine Songs work in various galleries and this fall I will have a solo exhibition at the Lyric Art Center in Virginia, MN. The works – whether photographs, audiovisual art, music compositions – ask the viewer/listener to sink into the landscape in a different way, a way to allows for reflection on new ways of connecting to the earth. I have been working recently on aerial photographs of the region and will have them for sale on my website (www.sarapajunen.com). I also plan to release an album of Mine Songs work soon.
Any plans to participate in Finn Fest 2023? It’d be great to see you and Rachael perform music together in a place full of Finns!
Yes! I’m renovating a house in Duluth’s hillside, which keeps me around these parts.
What other projects are on the agenda? Where can people buy copies of your CDs?
In addition to my Mine Songs project, I have been slowly working on solo music for violin or hardanger d’amore. If you’re interested in CDs, drop me an email – I send them out myself. [email protected]
Thank you, Mark, for asking me to reflect on my musical life!
(This interview first appeared in the February 2022 issue of The Finnish American Reporter.)
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on This Lady Doesn’t Sing the Blues!
When my friend Ron loaned me this book a few years back, knowing I’m a huge fan of Garrison Keillor’s stellar radio work, he said, “I loved these stories.” Despite that endorsement, the book sat on my “to read” pile in my writing studio for quite a while. This fall, I finally took up Ron’s challenge and dug in. Man, what a disappointment!
As is true with some, though relatively few, of Keillor’s radio monologues over the years, this book is simply tedious, sophomoric, and really shouldn’t be on anyone’s bookshelf. It pains me to write such words about a person I consider to be our generation’s Will Rogers; a humorist for the ages. But as I slogged my way through silly story after silly story filled with breasts and boogers and vignettes without meaning or plot or commanding characters, I kept thinking, There must be something more here, something I’m missing. Nope.
I was going to include a passage from one of the stories here as an exemplar of what I’m trying to tell you, kind reader. But as I searched the stories in this collection, I couldn’t pinpoint one sentence or paragraph to sum up my disappointment in the man, who for more than a decade, has provided my morning writerly inspiration through A Writer’s Almanac, first as a part of MPR, and now, as a podcast. Finishing this book reminded me that once upon a time, Garrison had ditched his PHC crew and taken to the road to read excerpts from Mark Twain, foregoing the monologues and music that made PHC a Saturday evening staple for so many listeners in favor of trying to prove something to the world. I caught that show with my wife and Ron and his wife at the Big Top and you know what? I was disappointed then as well.
Not everyone is perfect.
1 star out of 5. Ron wants his book back and I can’t understand why.
It started with a text. Patrick “Poncho” Scott texted me sometime after out annual Whiteface Fishing Opener, an event the Munger and Scott families have shared for more than fifty years. The gist of the message was “We should do a Munger/Scott pheasant hunting trip.” I replied that his suggestion had merit but didn’t do anything immediately to put Poncho’s plan into action.
Sometime in late summer, I sent my sons and Poncho and his older brother Tim a text asking if there was any interest in trying southwestern Minnesota as a locale for a Munger/Scott outing. With COVID raging and work obligations, none of the three Munger sons who are hunters committed to a trip in the fall. Poncho and Tim were both “in” and the planning began.
“What about Marshall?” Tim texted sometime in August. “Sounds good,” was my curt reply. See, the thing is, we never, until the day to leave for hunting dawned close, actually chatted the old fashioned way, on the telephone. No, despite all three of us being over sixty, we communicated the 21st century way-via text. Be that as it may, Tim did some preliminary map scouting and I arranged for a hotel stay for two nights, Sunday through Tuesday morning, at the Marshall AmericInn. Poncho’s son Christopher, who is newly married, Poncho’s Labrador Bailey, Tim’s Lab Ruby, and my Brittany Callie were slated to make the trip so I reserved two rooms through Expedia and the gig was on.
Given our schedules, we picked early December, Saturday the 4th through Tuesday the 7th to hunt public land, which Tim assured me there was plenty of around Marshall. We knew the roosters would be flighty, having escaped numerous brushes with death over the course of the Minnesota pheasant season. On the plus side, most bird hunters had cleaned their shotguns for the final time, tucked away their upland hunting garb, and ended their quest to put a rooster in the crock pot. We expected, rightly or wrongly, to be virtually alone in the field.
We were right.
Behind all the planning and texting and thinking through the short trip to Minnesota pheasant country was this truth: I’ve never, in fifty-five years since completing gun safety through the Boy Scouts, shot a Minnesota pheasant. I came late in life to the sport, having hunted ringnecks only once as a youngster with my father and godfather, Jim Liston, back when I was newly married and attending law school. I drove from the Inver Grove apartment I shared with René to the little farming community of Benson, MN where my uncle Paul lived. Paul, who’d had a heart attack and bested kidney cancer, no longer hunted but drove us to various locales in hopes of bagging roosters. If memory serves me right, my dad hit a hen by mistake and I believe that was the only bird we shot. Then, in my late fifties, my old man invited me to join him hunting pheasants in North Dakota, which is how I fell in love with the sport. That said, when I arrived at Tim and Sandi’s home outside the Twin Cities to stay the night, having never shot a pheasant in my native state, I was nervous that, despite the planning we’d done, our trip would be a bust.
I was wrong.
With Tim acting as my co-pilot, our two dogs crated, and the cargo area of my Jeep filled with guns, ammo, and our gear, we met up with Poncho in Marshall and proceeded to find Walk in Hunting, Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs), and other places to chase roosters. Conditions were relatively mild; it was overcast and in the twenties when we exited the vehicles (Poncho and Bailey were in Poncho’s pick-up truck) and started our quest.
Not minutes into our first romp, Bailey rousted a big fat rooster in front of Poncho.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The only rooster we put up on that piece of land flew away unharmed.
The second location we hunted turned out to be a dandy, at least for Tim. While I skirted a creek, Tim and Poncho and their dogs worked a frozen marsh.
Tim had the first Minnesota rooster of our trip in the bag. But that, other than Callie and Ruby chasing up a few hens, was it for that slice of pheasant heaven.
Working a dry slough the dogs kicked up a rooster. Tim shot. I shot. The bird flew on. I pulled the trigger a second time on my Stevens 555 twelve over/under and the bird went down. Callie, who’d pointed the pheasant like a champ, is only a year and a half old and still learning to retrieve so I called Ruby over to find the bird. Nothing. Tim was convinced the bird, hit but not dead, had run into thicker cattails. We sent the dogs in, with Poncho and Bailey working the far side of the rushes. Nothing. After a good half-hour of searching for the downed bird, we pushed on. I counted the missing pheasant as a bird in the bag despite my game pouch being empty. Tim agreed as his pup was the one unable to come up with the retrieve. But to be fair, Ruby was distracted from task when Callie flushed two hen pheasants from where we thought the wounded rooster was hiding.
“Look at that,” I said over a brutal wind, pointing across the mud flats of the dry pond. Not more than fifty yards away, a huge raccoon waddled, completely ignorant that it was being watched by men with guns. “Hope the dogs don’t see it.” They didn’t and within a few steps, Callie was back on point. Out of a small cluster of grass, a rooster exploded. I took aim and this time, there was no doubt.
We ate lunch in the field. I’d brought bread and cheese and ham and mustard for sandwiches, making them the night before at Tim’s, so we gobbled sandwiches and jerky and oranges, topping off our thirst with GatorAid. Back at it, we hunted a big Walk In area abutting a harvested field, the tall grass and marshes prime pheasant cover. That was the thing about the maps Tim printed out from the Minnesota DNR: nearly every spot listed as open to public hunting was a good one. Unlike some of the PLOTS land I’ve hunted in North Dakota, where private farmland is open for public hunting but farmers or ranchers till or graze the acreage (making it useless as bird cover) every piece of public land we hunted in Minnesota boasted excellent pheasant cover.
The three of us spread out to work the big Walk In area. The dogs kept their noses to the ground as we moved forward. Callie locked up hard on a tuft of grass just along the edge of the harvested field. A rooster cackled, took flight and, with one shot, was down. There was no need for a dog to retrieve the bird as it landed a few feet away but Callie seemed intent on bringing me the rooster. Except. She learned first hand about spurs. The rooster was on its back, feet and spurs clawing the air. I picked up the bird, snapped its neck, and slid the bird into my game vest. “Good girl, Callie,” I said, happy, if I included the lost bird, to have shot a Minnesota pheasant limit.
We ordered Pizza Hut pizza, sipped cold beer, and watched television in the room Tim and I were sharing as we nursed sore feet and muscles. The dogs snoozed on the queen beds in their respective hotel rooms. Oh. There was one small glitch with the hotel. Not with Expedia but with Poncho. First, a few days before our trip, Poncho let me know Christopher couldn’t come. I still figured we’d need two rooms anyway for three guys and three dogs. Second, as we checked into the hotel, Poncho let us know he had to work Tuesday. Which meant we only needed the second room for one night. I canceled the second night at the desk, but, because I’d prepaid, no refund. Even so, the trip was relatively inexpensive as hunting expeditions go.
Monday morning. The wind howled. A cold front dropped the temperature into the single digits. We bundled up, drove south of town, and worked the same Walk In area where we’d ended our Monday hunt. Despite seeing oodles of hens and roosters get up out of gun range the previous day, nothing flushed. We decided to try a WPA that, from the road, looked promising. There was iced-over water on a big pond surrounded by cattails and what looked to be very walkable bulrushes and grass. But soon into the hunt, our mistake became evident: there was no grass alongside the cattails; only thick, nearly impenetrable cattails lined the frozen water. It was a hard go. A few hens got up in front of the dogs before Callie went on point. A rooster flushed and cruised right over the spot where Tim should have been.
Except he wasn’t there. Tim had had enough but didn’t communicate his departure to Poncho or me.
“Where the hell are you?” I asked after calling Tim on my cell phone.
“Too thick. I gave up. I’ll meet you on the far side of the lake.”
Good to know, old buddy.
Poncho and I waded through the crap, chasing up another five hens, birds that Callie pointed and Bailey flushed. Nary a rooster was found. After our arduous trek, we met up with Tim. “That was a mistake,” was the common consensus, especially from me because, in trying to crash through jungle, I’d pulled my right hamstring and was limping. After our dubious exercise in poor judgment, Poncho and Bailey said farewell and Tim and I stayed at it.
The wind died a bit and we found another lovely piece of ground to hunt. In a plot of waist-high cattails, Callie went on point. I stepped forward. Callie moved slightly. I stepped again. Beneath the cattails, a rooster was running, its head ducked, a wing dragging behind it. “Wounded bird!” I yelled so Tim could hear me. Tim sent Ruby over to assist but the dogs were unable to pin the rooster.
We moved on.
We worked a drainage ditch and again, Callie went on point. A rooster flushed and scared the bejeebers out of me. I shot, thought I’d hit the bird but it was Tim who hit the pheasant broadside. With a fine retrieve by Ruby, Tim had his second rooster of the trip. We continued to work the Walk In area, pushing through dried swales and waterless ponds, flushing a few hens but no roosters. As the sun set on our second day in the field, we headed back to the Jeep. We came to the area where Callie had chased the wounded rooster and she became excited again. Then, she went on point. Then she moved. Went on another solid point. And moved. Her incremental pointing and creeping went on for ten minutes with the Brittany covering every square inch of cover in the half-acre plot we were working. Tim watched, thinking we were searching for the wounded pheasant again. I had no idea what was going on. When Callie finally locked solid and did not move a muscle, I took one step and a healthy rooster exploded from beneath my boot. One shot and the bird was down. Ruby ran across the prairie, found the dead bird, and brought it to Tim.
“Nice shot. I thought you guys were looking for that mythical wounded bird.”
“Always trust the dog,” was my patented, tongue-in-cheek reply.
“Two birds,” Tim said as we drove back to town in twilight. “Poncho should have stayed.”
That evening, I nursed my strained calf in the hotel hot tub as Tim took a shower and the dogs fell into the sort of deep sleep that comes from long, hard days afield. After getting dressed, we drove to Applebees for dinner and adult beverages, satisfied we’d hunted as hard as two old farts can hunt.
Tuesday morning. The temperature on the Jeep’s thermometer registered one above. We dressed, packed our lunches and our gear, and checked out of the motel. Marshall was covered in a soft, white blanket. More snow fell as we drove west. The first piece of land we found to hunt looked like a pheasant factory. But after working cattails (walkable and not a jungle), a big slough, and tall prairie grass, with Callie pointing her little heart out and Ruby working the edges of cover, the plot only revealed hens. “That was disappointing,” Tim said. Despite the two of us being retired and of social security age, we felt good enough to tackle another big plot of Walk In land that, on paper and from the road, looked to be great pheasant country.
“That was godawful,” I said when we got back to the truck, Callie having dragged me into yet another cattail marsh from hell. We’d managed to kick out a few hens from very thick cover but no cacklers rose before us. Though the setting seemed ideal, apparently the birds thought otherwise.
It then became a bit of a hide-and-seek exercise to find a place to hunt. We drove and drove and drove in search of another site but kept coming up empty. Much of our flailing around had to do with the fact that the DNR map Tim had printed out didn’t correspond with the reality of the landscape or my Jeep’s GPS map. After an hour or so of aimless wandering, just before dusk, we discovered one of the best, if not the best, pieces of hunting land available to the public in southwestern Minnesota. With the sun out and the wind down, we exited the Jeep for one last walk.
“You know,” Tim said as we loaded our shotguns for the final push, “we’ve put in nearly thirty miles on foot.”
“How many miles do you think Ruby and Callie have put in?
The interesting thing about our last hunt was that, until Tuesday, we’d seen only one or two other hunters out and about. We never had to forgo a spot we wanted to hunt because someone else was already there. The last piece of grass and marsh and ditch we hunted was an exception to this observation. As daylight grew scarce, as we grew more desperate for a place to end our hunt, we saw, as we pulled off the side of the road abutting the parcel we completed our journey on, that others had already worked the plot. From prints in the snow, it looked like two hunters and one dog had been in ahead of us. But, given the late hour of the day, and given we’d seen roosters moving in the fields now that the sun was out, we made the decision to forge ahead.
“Shit! Fuck! Good girl Callie,” was my uncensored cry after missing a big, fat Minnesota rooster my beloved Brittany pointed not ten feet in front of me.
“Nice language, Munger,” Tim quipped as he watched the pheasant fly off. Not long after that, Tim missed his own chance and repeated my mantra word for word, causing me to double over with laughter.
Working our way back to the Jeep, covering the last bit of dry cattail swale on the parcel, Callie and Ruby started going nuts, getting “birdy” as we hunters say. Then, the little Brittany locked up, her tail rigid, her eyes staring straight ahead. After a few seconds, a gorgeous rooster burst from cover. Tim shot. Once. Twice. The big bird flew on. I drew a bead, pulled the trigger, and hit the bird about thirty yards out. Ruby tore through the bullrushes, found the dead rooster, and brought it to Tim.
With that, our epic hunt was over.
Callie on Point
“I was pleasantly surprised,” was the common theme in the Jeep as we drove through darkness towards the Twin Cities. Tim had convinced me that Callie and I should spend the night at his house. Given my aching body, I yielded to Tim’s common sense. Sandi greeted us at the door, the smell of pizza wafting from the kitchen.
“There was better cover and more birds than I’d expected,” Tim said at various times during the three hour drive to his house. Our first pheasant hunt together was a scouting expedition, a learning experience, and an exploration of Minnesota pheasant country. The first ever Munger/Scott bird hunt wasn’t about how many birds we shot. It was about hunting an elusive and wily prey with old friends over great dogs in our home state.
The title of this essay references my infatuation with the David Gutterson novel, East of the Mountains, and actor Tom Skeritt’s portrayal of Gutterson’s protagonist in the film version of the story. In essence, Ben Givens (Skeritt’s character) finds out he has incurable cancer and decides to wander off into the vastness of the West in search of partridge with his Brittany. There’s an allusion or two to the ailing hunter taking the Hemingway approach to ending it all but thankfully, Dr. Ben doesn’t take that route.
With things all balled up politically, an aging mother who just lost her significant other and was due for a cognitive assessment likely to end her driving, and the hint of mortality whispering in my ear as the seasons turned, I set out to hunt pheasant with Kena (an eight year old black Lab) and Callie (a year and a half old Brittany).
The wisdom of a sixty-seven year old wandering about the prairie without human companionship is dubious. An old guy can stumble and break a leg. Or a hip. Or an ankle. Or have a heart attack or a stroke. Any manner of possible bad outcomes await a hunter foolish enough to venture out into the unknown on his or her own. The trip, one facilitated by the kindness of Mark and Brad, two guys I’d met along the way who open up the Miller ancestral farmhouse for me to use as a basecamp, wasn’t supposed to be a solo endeavor. But my sons backed out of the trip for one reason or another and, well, as I made clear before, this journey was one I needed to make.
I brought with food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; simple, easy fare like packaged rice dishes and dehydrated chicken for supper, oatmeal and breakfast bars and milk and juice for breakfast, and peanut butter, chips, candy bars, apples, and bread for making lunch to eat on the move. When I arrived at the Miller Farm near Dagmar, Montana I unloaded my gear, stashed the dog kennels in the garage, fed the dogs and tucked them in for the night, Mark greeted me with pizza and we shared some Linnie’s dark I brought from home. Brad was off working on important stuff, leaving Mark and I to talk about life, politics, family, and old men foolish enough to hunt alone. Tired from the twelve hour drive, I said goodnight, unrolled my sleeping bag, and fell into bed.
5:30am, I was up and about, fixing breakfast, getting dressed, feeding the dogs, and making ready to hunt the Miller Farm. Before 8:00am, my canine companions had flushed (Kena) and pointed (Callie) two fine prairie roosters. My nearly-new Stevens 555 over-under twelve barked but the birds flew away unscathed. I trudged on through the morning dew and thick swale hoping upon hope my dogs would forgive me.
By noon, after taking two splendid roosters on the Farm and finding another on a nearby BMA (Block Management Area; private land open to hunters), I had my first Montana limit of the trip.
Giddy from success, I tweeted and texted and sent all manner of messages back to my sons and wife and friends about how the hunt was going. Sure, I’d missed two birds but hey, I hit the next three with one shot each. I envisioned a trip where, by the time I was done hunting Montana (three days) and North Dakota (three more), I’d have my possession limit of fifteen big fat roosters in my cooler. That was the dream.
The reality was something else. I put in, as my iPhone computed it, over forty-four miles walking swales and grasslands and treelines and hills over the next week. In the end, I missed a hell of a lot of cackling, bursting-from-cover, seemingly invincible male pheasants. The next two days, I walked and walked and walked in the bright sunshine of the Montana prairie and shot one additional rooster and one wayward Hungarian partridge that, given it was about half the size of a pheasant, one wonders how I was able to draw a bead on it. Through it all, the dogs were stellar. Callie doesn’t, at least at her young age, retrieve. But her points were rock solid and she, despite a Brittany tendency not to listen to voice commands, got the eCollar messages I sent. Kena, who’d only pointed a rooster or two on previous trips, got in on the pointing thing and amazed me with her German Shorthair-like ability to lock on birds. More importantly, we did not lose a single downed bird.
Tuesday night, Mark (with Brad still off doing the Lord’s work), came home from teaching kids to sing and play musical instruments at the K-12 school in nearby Grenora, ND, cooked up a lovely meal of spaghetti and french bread for the two of us as the family pet Mourning dove (a rescue bird) zoomed around the living room. Once the bird was put away, two cats made themselves known, seeking the occasional belly rub before wandering off to do whatever cats do. Wednesday evening, we feasted on Fraboni’s pasties I’d brought with. Thursday, as Mark was providing keyboard accompaniment for a musical being produced in nearby Antelope, after a long and tiring day of shooting that solitary Hungarian partridge, Mark drove us to the Antelope Bar. After eating hearty flat iron steaks, baked potatoes, salad, and having adult beverages (my treat) we attended the play practice. Despite the remoteness of the place and the likely scarcity of folks willing to act and sing in public, the acting and the singing and the play itself were actually quite good.
Thursday, as I sought my zen moment and resumed treking over hill and dale, I was blessed to roust a ginormous bull moose from cover, watch pronghorn dash across the plains, count any number of owls and hawks in flight, and chase myriad whitetail and mule deer from their hiding places.
Friday, my Montana license done, I hunted near Grenora on my ND license. Amazingly after my dismal showing on Wednesday and Thursday (where a clown with a rubber hammer could have knocked his or her limit of pheasant out of the clear Montana sky) I limited out on ND roosters. We worked a big piece of WPA (Waterfowl Production Area) and bagged two beautiful roosters. It wasn’t like I became a deadeye or anything. No, I missed some easy shots, causing Kena, who has somewhat of a superiority complex, to turn her head and look at me with those big brown Lab eyes as if to say, “What? Now I have to shoot the damn things too?” Callie never slowed down, even when as I took stock of her after downing the last bird to my limit, I discovered she’d cut herself either on barbed wire or underbrush. Her feathery white fur was blemished with pink; blood she’d shed working her ass off for her master.
Knowing what old fences can do to Britts (after taking my beloved Britt, Leala, to the Williston Vet for twelve staples two Novembers ago) I’d recently purchased a canine first aid kit. I bandaged Callie in the field and called it a day.
Friday night, I ate one of my rice packets and dehydrated chicken pouches for dinner before settling in to watch Godfather II. Mark and Brad eventually made it home as Pacino had an unsuspecting Fredo dispatched while fishing from a tiny boat. We chatted about life, politics, hunting, and the world at large but, given the length of my wandering and tired legs, I turned in once the movie ended. Before hitting the hay, Brad found me some ointment to put on Callie’s wounds. I removed the bandages, noted things weren’t as bad as I’d first believed, salved the now-scabbed sores, and put my girls to bed.
I arose on Saturday feeling melancholy. I made the decision to take Callie with but only allow her out of the crate if we were hunting easy ground; no cattails or swales for the little girl. I donned my orange hunting jacket, slid on gloves and an orange stocking cap, put on my hunting vest, and motored off in rainy gloom. Despite the inclement hand God dealt us, Kena found a rooster in cattails bordering a frozen pothole. I hit the pheasant with the one and only shot I’d fire that day. As the wind whipped and drizzle turned to snow, I yelled above the gale, “Kena, dead bird.” She worked the shoreline over and over and over. Nothing. She got disinterested, at one point even flushing a second rooster from cover, raising my ire that she’d given up on the dead bird. “Here, Kena,” I yelled above the howling wind. “Dead Bird.” She complied and, after another ten minutes of covering the same small patch of bullrushes, I saw her stop, nuzzle the ground, and lock up. Forty-five minutes had passed and yet, the forever puppy had done her job. “Fetch,” I yelled. And she did.
Mark cooked a pork roast with scalloped potatoes and a salad for dinner. I was bone weary and had nearly decided, as I watched Callie scamper across the gray plains when I finally let her join the hunt at the end of the day, fresh snow blowing about us, to pull up stakes and leave Sunday instead of Monday as planned. I was disheartened at missing so many opportunities presented by my loyal and hardworking companions. The dogs continued, even with Callie’s afflictions, to put up roosters and sharptails well within range; birds I missed without reason or excuse. But after thinking it through, I decided to see my epic journey through. I’d shot eight pheasants and the one Hungarian; the trip could not, I mused, end because I hadn’t been as successful a hunter as I would’ve liked. My walkabout, my journey to Dagmar, wasn’t made to fill my larder with dead birds. It was to rejuvenate my beleaguered soul and find purpose, if such purpose could be found, to my being. So I stayed.
When I awoke on Sunday, the sun was peeking over the eastern horizon. I’d made the decision to drive north through Plentywood, Montana, and head east towards Fortuna, ND. The reasons behind my long-distance meander were two-fold.
First, I wanted to fill up the Jeep. Dagmar has no gas station so I either needed to drive east to Grenora, where I’d already filled up once, or north to Plentywood. Wanting to scout out additional BMA land for next year’s trip, I made my way to Plentywood, filled up, and took Highway 5 towards North Dakota. At the top of the hill east of town, I was teased by a gathering of between thirty and fifty Montana pheasants pecking grain on a mown field. The sight was both aggravating (my Montana license had expired) and hilarious because the flock of pheasants taunting me was feeding right across from a BMA Jack and I’d hunted, without seeing a single bird, the year before.
The second purpose behind my long drive was I wanted to check out the PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) around Fortuna, ND. This I did. The one easy-to-hit bird Kena and Callie (I used her sparingly) rousted for me flew off without a scratch. The rest of the day, I saw few birds, mostly distant coveys of sharptail and Hungarians; birds I had no chance to bag. The dogs managed to point and flush any number of hen pheasants; birds they wanted me to shoot but off limits to human hunters. Mostly, we tooled around, fighting the clay-based muck of section-line roads that threatened to, but never did, mire my Grand Cherokee. One road was so greasy, the Jeep felt like it was going to slide into the ditch despite me throttling down to a crawl. I had no wish to call Brad, who has a new Ford F150 4X4, so he could pull me out of the mud. I stayed the course, saw tons of mule deer and ducks and geese, and headed back to Dagmar.
As our last day on the plains waned, we returned to the WPA where I’d shot two roosters. It was drizzling again as Kena and I took one last walk along the rushes. That’s the thing about this year. The experts forecast a tough year hunting due to drought. The evidence of the lack of rain was clear in myriad empty potholes dotting the prairie. The WPA we ended our hunt at was no exception. As Kena and I moved, our legs tired, our sprits flagging, the snows and Canadas and swans riding the wind high overhead towards Nebraska and the Platte, the entire basin of the wetland was a vast sea of frozen mud. Still. Kena locked up hard. Her snuffling had once been loud but, as she stopped moving, the world grew eerily silent save for the calls of the great migration overhead. Then it happened. A big fat, North Dakota rooster burst from cover close enough for me to grab it. I fired my twelve gauge. Once. Twice. And still it flies.
I learned something about myself as I wandered the fields and prairies of the West. While prolonged solitude might be a worthwhile experience, hunting for a week straight without human companionship proved to be too much isolation for this old man’s soul.
After a hot shower, I ended my time in Montana with a fine steak dinner (thanks to Brad and Mark), excellent company, and some lively political discussions. I was up and out the door by 6:30am Mountain Time. The twelve hour drive home was spent thinking about my gracious hosts, my aging mother, my beloved wife, and my kids and grandkids. Central to my nostalgia was thanking my father, Harry, the man who introduced me to pheasant hunting as a young boy.
Today, as I write this essay and reflect, I feel refreshed and satisfied despite my inability to down the easiest of birds taking wing. The dogs? Callie’s on the mend and Kena seems to have forgiven me. I sense they’re anxious to make our last hunt of the year; a trip planned for early December to chase Minnesota roosters with Tim and Poncho Scott.
The number of dead roosters in the freezer is of little consequence to me. The takeaway from my recent journey west is this: I thank the Creator I’m healthy enough to witness my dogs working the prairie, the majesty of their steady points, the adrenaline rush of roosters bursting from cover, and the whirl of pheasant wings in the bracing November air.
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