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. firstname.lastname@example.org
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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