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@example.com
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.)
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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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