Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began by Ar. Spiegleman (1991. Pantheon. ISBN 978-0-679-72977-8)

I read Spiegelman’s first installment of his graphic novel about the Holocaust a month or so ago on the plane back from Key West. I immediately ordered the second part of the story. I am glad I did.

The artwork is tremendously moving despite this story being told through cartoons. Maybe that’s too simplistic: the entirety of this story is truly one of the first bestselling graphic novels of all time so labeling the work “cartoons” doesn’t capture the breadth and depth of the story or the depictions of Spiegelman’s struggles with his Jewish heritage, his parents’ captivity at Auschwitz, his mother’s suicide, his ghost brother’s murder in the camps, and the complex relationship the author had with his father.

Read together, the two volumes constituting Maus bring us into the most intimate of discussions between the author and his father and other members of his family with respect to his father’s zany, near stereotypical Jewish fetishism regarding plenty, money, saving, scarcity, and the like. When the last chapter is behind them, readers seventy to eighty years removed from the events depicted in this work will undoubtedly understand and appreciate the ugliness and horror of Nazi Germany conveyed through graphic artwork depicting the murdering of mice by cats in a manner that transcends time.

Stunning. Something every middle school and high school civics class should be required to dive into, analyze, and appreciate.

5 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-63557-434-0)

This is a book I picked up in Key West, mostly because it was written by Ms. Toews, a Canadian writer of Mennonite heritage I have read before. Her novel, A Complicated Kindness, is very good. In an act of personal kindness (pun intended) she actually took a look at the early stages of my novel, Pigs, a Trial Lawyer’s Story when she was the writer in residence at the Winnipeg Public Library and I was a member of the Manitoba Writers Guild. She made some helpful suggestions, which made the book better, and for that, I have always been grateful. Now to the headline.

No. This is not a masterpiece, nor a feminist manifesto, nor anything close. I admire the author’s attempt to use a new, or at least, fresh for her writing style, approach to telling a story. But while the premise of the story (based upon true events where Mennonite men drugged their wives, sisters, cousins, and children to have sex with them) could have been the basis for a big, bold, blockbuster tale of feminine strength, courage, and perseverance, the structure of Ms. Toew’s storytelling, casting it as reportage from the pen of a male sympathizer and being nearly entirely dialogue-driven, simply failed to grab hold and maintain my interest. This is a slender book, less than 220 pages, the sort of thing I’d hoped to be a fast read. Instead, because of the book’s writing style and the plot composition, I spent the better part of a month struggling to finish the story.

Maybe it’s the fact I’m male. Maybe it’s the fact I have writerly envy. Maybe I am a dullard and don’t appreciate art. Those things may all be true. But all I can say is that this novel did not suit my tastes, did not compel my emotions to rise and fall, and really did very little to interest me in the characters, topic, or religion behind the reality of what happened.

2 stars out of 5. But you be the judge if you wish …

Peace.

Mark

The Civl War (Vol. II) by Shelby Foote (1986. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-394-74621-0

My friend Dave gave me Foote’s trilogy about a year ago and told me I had to read it. I always do what Dave says and so, here I am, having finished the second mammoth tome in Foote’s epistle of the war that still, in many ways, defines America.

As with the first volume, this second offering in the set is chock full of memorable scenes, speeches, maps, observations, and details regarding the battles fought to preserve the Union. And as indicated in my first review of this series, Foote’s goal is an admirable one, much like my goal in writing Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story a biography of my conservationist uncle. Both works tend to be a bit long for the casual, recreational reader but with purpose: For in both works one can find essentially everything one needs to know about the topics!

Foote is a good writer who, from time to time, could have used a better editor in terms of run-on sentence structure and the reporting of minutiae that most readers, except for academics scrutinizing this trilogy, could live without and still get the gist of what the Civil War was and what it means for present day America. There are two major themes that emerge from this series. First, that the North had a series of inept commanders in the East, charged with facing off with Lee, who continually failed to seize the day and deal the Army of Virginia the death knell that may well have ended the war a year or perhaps two before Appomattox. Only when Grant takes Vicksburg, after slogging around in the swamps of Mississippi for the greater part of a year to find a way to conduct a siege, and then follows that victory up with the saving of Chattanooga, does President Lincoln finally find the man he needs to face Lee and bring the war to an end. The second theme Foote weaves into the story is the that resentment and defiance which caused the South to secede, if one listens to present day political discourse, remains omnipresent in our politics more than a century after Lee’s surrender. Nothing has really changed other than the replacing of a D besides the names of politicians with an R. Lincoln’s party in the Deep South is no longer his party: It is the antithesis of who and what he was at the end of his life in terms of unity and equality.

Like the trauma experienced by Native Americans due to genocide and removal policies, there can be no question that the devastation unleashed on the South when Grant turned over the Western theater of the war to Sherman, whose slash and burn tactics brought the breadbaskets of the South to their collective knees, still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of some Southerners. The difference? The South attempted to sever the Union, thereby beginning the conflict. The native tribes? They were simply trying to exist in ancestral lands Europeans deemed “up for grabs”. There is no equivalency between the two and yet, in many ways, both strands of our past continue to haunt us as a nation.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace

Mark

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway (2017. ISBN 9781784872045)
Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway (1927. Scribner. ISBN 9780684825861)
Maus (I) by Art Spiegelman (1973. Pantheon. ISBN 9780394747231)

Three very different reads, for sure! Let’s start with Hemingway’s last novel, published for the first time in 1970 by the Hemingway Trust a decade after the master storyteller’s death.

Islands in the Stream

I’ve read all of Papa’s novels and this one, well, despite my appreciation for his other works, blew me away. Like much of Hemingway’s prose, this lyrical tale is chock full of scenes drawn from the author’s life. The underlying plot, whereby Thomas Hudson and his ragtag crew chase down U-boat survivors in Hudson’s personal fishing boat, is drawn from Hemingway’s own experiences in and around Cuba during WW II. Like any Hemingway novel, there is plenty of machismo: Hard drinking, chasing women, blue water fishing, and the rough and tumble of male ego are all on full display. But there is one crucial difference between this novel and say, Across the River and Into the Trees or The Garden of Eden and that is in Islands, much of Hemingway’s misogyny and disrespect towards women is replaced by a more adult, fully matured, kind appreciation for the opposite sex. Even though the protagonist and his two divorced wives have somewhat rocky histories, Hudson doesn’t trash talk Hudson’s prior partners nor belittle them to the extent that was done in some other Hemingway novels. And the women portrayed in the story also are not held to some idealistic pedestal of virtue, as in For Whom the Bell Tolls or A Farewell to Arms.

The plot, involving Hemingway and his crew chasing down survivors of a Nazi U-boat sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, is tightly drawn yet literary. The magic of the master’s voice, his ability to write a concise tale that moves swiftly and compels the reader to turn page after page is present despite the book being published well after the author’s death. A masterpiece even when shelved next to The Old Man and the Sea.

5 stars out of 5.

Men Without Women

Many of my favorite Hemingway short stories are his oldest. I’ve read some of the tales contained in this 1927-issued collection before, including the Nick Adams themed pieces “The Killers” and “Ten Indians.” And I’ve also read “The Undefeated” and “Fifty Grand” previously. Still, re-reading these stories reminded me, especially reconsidering Hemingway’s oblique look at abortion (“Hills Like Elephants”) and his marvelous rumination on age and athletics (“The Undefeated”), of just how unique and eye-opening Papa’s autobiographical and curt yet eloquent style remains. That’s especially true when reading Hem’s short fiction in sunny Key West on a lounge chair next to the sparkling Atlantic with a gentle sea breeze rustling the pages. Not every tale here is a gem; but there’s enough beauty and angst and turmoil and grit in this collection to keep the faith.

( Note: Both Hemingway reads were purchased at the bookshop in Papa’s Key West home, the titles having the apparent approval of the dead author’s cats.)

4 stars out of 4.

Maus (I)

I made a mistake. I bought my first-ever graphic novel thinking that this was the entire story of mice being rounded up by cats as an allegoric rendition of the Holocaust. Turns out, I only bought the first half of Spiegelman’s classic at Books & Books at the Studios in Key West. Oh well. Reading Maus on the plane coming home, I was glad I’d finally decided to break a fast from comics that has lasted since I stopped reading Mad Magazine in my late teens. Wait: That’s not entirely true. I read the comics in the Duluth News Tribune on a daily basis. But beyond that, I’ve been away from graphic stories for nearly fifty years.

Spiegelman’s book isn’t just a chronicle of mice and cats, good and evil. There’s that, for sure. But it’s also the revelation of the author’s relationship with his father and step-mother: That subplot is negotiated by readers alongside Spiegelman’s unveiling of Hitler’s evil. The drawings are stark and in many ways, prescient of the Final Solution through intimation rather than direct depiction.

This is a book (including Maus II) that needs to be read by every middle school child in America given the present undercurrent of demonizing immigrants and The Other. A nicely drawn and told tale that I am forced to give a lesser rating only because, well, the whole story isn’t in this one volume!

4 stars out of 4. Would be 5, I am certain, if the entire tale was in this book.

Peace.

Mark

Canoeing with the Cree by Eric Sevareid (1968. Minnesota Historical Society. ISBN 0-87351-152-2)
Canoeing with José by Jon Lurie (2017. Milkweed. ISBN 978-57131-321-8)

My friend, Kenny Hubert, finally got me intrigued enough in Sevareid’s meditation on youth, danger, and the far north for me to pick up a copy of Canoeing with the Cree last fall. Why was I inspired by my old friend to read an old book? Simply put, I was enthralled by Ken’s rendition of the trip that he and his brother-in-law Keith took replicating Sevareid’s epic northward paddle from Minnesota to Hudson Bay. I’d heard of Sevareid’s book, chronicling his journey from St. Paul to York Factory in a canvas and cedar strip canoe with a buddy (Sevareid was 17; his partner, Walter Port was 19), and had always wanted to read the narrative of that trip but never quite got around to it. When Ken related his version of his trip (which began in Keith’s hometown of Crookston and followed the Red Lake River south to its confluence with the Red River of the North-the river Sevareid and Port navigated to Winnipeg and beyond), it compelled me to locate a copy of Sevareid’s reportage. I found a used copy of the book but didn’t get around to reading Canoeing With the Cree until I was on vacation this winter. Here’s my take.

For anyone with wanderlust or a love of the out-of-doors or paddling, though it’s been said a million times, I’m certain, Canoeing with the Cree is a must read. Sure, as I’ll detail when reviewing the book’s anthesis, Canoeing with José, Sevareid’s journaling of a dangerous and arduous trek by water contains many pejorative references to Native American tribes, people, customs and the like. Modern commentators have criticized Sevareid-and rightly so-for his lack of cultural sensitivity when dealing with the scenes in the book involving his interactions with Native people; the very people who saved Sevareid and Port from injury, disaster, and death. But such objectionable references must be read in the context of Sevareid’s young age, his inexperience with indigenous people, and the times in which he lived. That said, the author does make it clear that he and Port would have never completed their journey, and likely would have perished, but for the kindness of strangers-white and non-white-met along the way. The criticisms of the book based upon today’s cultural sensitivity and knowledge of the travesties committed, both in the US and Canada, against the Sioux, Ojibwe, and Cree are spot on. But there remains, beneath that tarnish, a gem of a road story of two young men challenging themselves and nature.

As I relate below, when compared with a more recent reportage of a similar journey, Canoeing with the Cree loses a bit of its original luster. Sevareid’s prose is fairly simple and his themes and commentary seem dated. Still, this is an epic “buddy tale” that shouldn’t be missed just because some of its content isn’t politically correct.

4 stars out of 5.

Canoeing with José.

I bought Sevareid’s book at my favorite Bayfield, Wisconsin bookstore, Honest Dog Books (http://honestdogbooks.com/). Julie, one of the thoughtful owners, was the one who suggested, since I was going to read Canoeing with the Cree I should also pick up Canoeing with José. I followed her advice and I’m glad I did!

Jon Lurie, a Jewish guy with absolutely no wilderness canoeing credentials, befriends (maybe that’s too strong a term; theirs is a thorny and stormy relationship) José. The connection begins when Lurie is asked, because José is working as an intern on a a Native American newspaper, The Circle, to mentor the teenager whose ethnicity includes Puerto Rican and Lakota heritage. Things get off to a rocky start due to José’s reluctance to open up to Lurie about the trauma-both historic and personal-that has defined his young life. But, when Lurie suggests the two of them retrace Sevareid’s and Port’s journey as a means of spiritual cleansing and rejuvenation, José agrees.

It must be pointed out that the modern-day paddle up the Red River into Canada and beyond has several critical distinctions from the voyage Port and Sevareid embarked upon.

Lurie and José began their paddle on the Red River, choosing to begin their trip not in the Twin Cities as the original pair did but at Breckenridge, Minnesota, where the Otter Tail and Bois de Sioux Rivers converge to form the Red. This is significant, not in the literary sense but in the historic sense, because the first five chapters of Canoeing with the Cree detail Sevareid’s and Port’s miserable paddle up the Minnesota River and its connectors before arriving at Lurie’s point of departure. The original trip, as detailed in Sevareid’s book, took a full three weeks of work to complete; an additional three weeks of hardship that the modern-day team of canoeists avoided.

In addition, Sevareid and Port paddled, with minor exception, nearly the entire length of Lake Winnipeg, a distance of some 260 miles from north to south in a straight line. Of course, paddling a huge body of water in an eighteen-foot cedar and canvas canoe isn’t practicable; careful canoeists like Sevareid and Port meander from protected island to the shoreline, working their way gingerly northward, avoiding open water whenever possible. By way of contrast, Lurie and José transported their modern-day canoe by rental car to the north end of the lake, avoiding much of the consternation and danger that confronted and confounded the original journeymen.

Once the 21st century canoeists reached Norway House, they entered a series of rivers and lakes flowing north to Hudson Bay by way of the Hayes River system. According to both accounts, that’s the traditional route of the Cree and white trappers and adventurers seeking to paddle from Lake Winnipeg to York Factory. In 1930, when the boys made their trek, the Hayes was in the midst of drought. This required Sevareid and Port to change plans and head north by way of Gods River, a route rarely, if ever used, to reach Hudson Bay.

Canoeing with José is far less a story of wilderness survival and heroic exploits than Sevareid’s work.There is an element of that, to be sure, in Lurie’s account, especially given the relative lack of skills both he and José possess in regards to such an endeavor. But the guts of the newer tale is an introspection by Lurie and José juxtaposed against the history of white privilege and the shameful treatment of Native Americans and Indigenous Canadians. In many ways, this deep dive into history, a history that José feels in the every day stares of white folks he encounters in his hardscrabble life in the Twin Cities but has no real understanding of beyond intuition, is what makes Lurie’s work more compelling, more engaging, and ultimately, more compassionate than Sevareid’s. To be fair, Lurie was 34 and living in our contemporary world when he penned his book; Sevareid made his journey when he was 17 and published his story in 1935, when he was only 22 years old, writing at a time when there was little understanding amongst the majority white populations of the US and Canada of the cultural damage governmental policies had imposed upon the Indians of both nations. That having been said, Canoeing with José is the better written of the two in terms of overall style, language, story, and present day relevance.

One cannot discount the bravery, tenacity, and endurance exhibited by either pair but the later chronology is far more complex and detailed in its examination of what such journeys mean in the context of history and where we are today in terms of understanding that history. 5 stars out of 5. I’d suggest that book clubs and/or readers read both books, in sequence of publication.

Peace.

Mark

In the Night of Memory by Linda LeGarde Grover (2019, U of M Press. ISBN 978-5179-0650-4)

This newest effort by Duluth’s own Linda LeGarde Grover takes a bit of getting used to. What do I mean by that? Here’s my take.

In Memory, we follow the story of two Ojibwe sisters, Azure and Rain, from the moment their mother turns them over to the St. Louis County Social Services (welfare) Department to adulthood. Along the way, we meet caregivers kind and cruel, relatives from the Mozhay Point Reservation, strangers, and we find ourselves as observers moving with the girls on their journey from one foster home to another. The thing is; this is not a traditional linear narrative in a writing style most readers are familiar with. Having read Ms. Grover’s prior collections of short fiction (I’ll be honest and admit I haven’t read her poetry), I was expecting to find a replication of the storytelling used by Ms. Grover in her shorter pieces. It’s a style that is very reminiscent of Native American oral storytelling, a style I am familiar with having listened to many Ojibwe and Lakota and Cree parents, tribal social workers, and attorneys who appeared in front of me during my tenure as a district court judge. I’m happy to say that cadence and speech and tenor is honestly and authentically replicated in this novel.

There is, however, for the non-Native, some work needed to be done by the reader in following the twisting, turning, constantly changing narrative of the girls’ journey. But it’s an enjoyable task similar to that experienced by a white person diving into the diction and cadence of Hurston or other African American writers who remain loyal to their heritage in their writing. It’s work that some readers who prefer their storytelling more straightforward and easy to discern might shy away from after the first few chapters. That, in my view, would be ill-advised: Read the book to its conclusion and wonder about our nation’s treatment of Native Americans, the poverty of the reservation system, the hordes of young Native women gone missing, and the removals of whole tribes and children from the land and culture that nurtured their way of life.

In the end, this is a lyrical work, one chock full of lovely moments, dark sequences, and an awareness of heritage.

4 stars out of 5. A worthy, short read for any book club.

Peace.

Mark

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980. Picador. ISBN 978-0-312-42409-1)

The sticker on the cover makes it plain: Someone decided that this was a book worthy of a community read. Why else would it have been selected bu the NEA as a “Big Read”? But here’s the thing: After reading Robinson’s slender and beautifully phrased novel, I can’t figure out why the NEA found it so compelling.

Oh, I’ll grant you that the author knows how to write complex, intricately woven prose. In many ways, my reaction to the style used to flesh out this sparsely themed novella-seeking-novel-status never changed from the first chapter to the last: “Oh, she’s written an extended prose poem. How lovely.” But as I kept at it, reading snippets of the novel before bed and in the bathroom and finally, as I unwound after a long day at Heikenpäivä in Hancock, MI where I was appearing as the featured author, the same puzzlement intruded upon my enjoyment of the book: “Where’s the story?”

Set in the mythical, lakeside, western town of Fingerbone, there’s a little Russell Banks, a bit of Anne Lamott, and a smidgen of James Burke to the style and tone of Robinson’s work here. The plot, if that’s what one can call the backbone of this lengthy short story, is that all of the adults in the lives of sisters Ruth and Lucille, have either died or left, rendering the children orphans to be ultimately cared for by a maternal aunt, Sylvie. Sylvie is eccentric and unusual and well, a very hands-off sort of gal, leading to lapses in nutrition and care and schooling and the like for the girls, culminating in the expected: The local sheriff steps in to inquire as to the girls’ welfare. Maybe I’m too linear of a reader and a writer to get it. Maybe I’m just a dunderhead who needs to expand his mental capacity and enjoy a book, not as story or storytelling, but for its bones, for its well-crafted wordsmithery.

Perhaps these things are true, that it is a deficiency of the reader and not the writer that left me puzzled and unsatisfied at the end of Housekeeping. I’m open to that possibility. But for me, while the words all seemed elegant and orderly and keen, the end result of my time spent in Fingerbone was disappointing. 2 and 1/2 stars out of five. Pen/Hemingway? Maybe I’m missing something …

Peace.

Mark

Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler

You can read the obituary in the Alexandria and Benson newspapers or online. But words are an imprecise means of describing the life force that was Susanne. Let’s take a step back and figure out who this tiny bundle of energy was, shall we?

            First off, she was the daughter of Jack, a Slovenian immigrant-miner-turned-coal-salesman who quit school in the 8th grade, and Marie, a Normal-school-educated teacher from Oak Park, Illinois who played piano at Zimmerman’s silent movie theater in Aurora, Minnesota. Such different, disparate backgrounds and yet, when Marie toured the mine where Jack worked at the time, it was love at first sight.

            Secondly, Susanne was a sister to Barbara Jean who was four years older. The petty snarking and disagreements that come from knowing your only sibling for over 80 years were never an impediment to Susanne’s love for Barb or Barb’s love for Susanne.

            Sukey was also a wife. You won’t read this in her obituary but I feel it’s important for you to know: Susanne was the survivor of domestic abuse. Now some might ask: “Mark why bring that up at your aunt’s memorial service?” Here’s the thing: You cannot understand, you cannot appreciate the toughness, the grit of that little woman unless you know the truth. And the simple truth is Susanne is a strong Christian woman who, with the help of her blessed Aunt Mary—Grandpa Jack’s younger sister—and Barbara and other friends and family, healed and moved on. She made a commitment: To not let one unhappy episode erode her faith in humanity. Which is how she was able to say “yes” to Paul Pederson when, after years of confirmed bachelorhood, the most eligible single man in tiny Benson, Minnesota fell hard for the little, dark-haired woman with the college degree over coffee in a small town café. In all ways that matter, Paul was Susanne’s first husband, the love of her life, and, as you are likely aware, the father of their two lovely daughters. One of my favorite people, Paul died far too young, leaving Susanne, as both Julie and Heidi attest, the single parent of two school-aged girls. Again, Sukey’s fiercely resilient heart led her to seek happiness and companionship, albeit of a different sort, with her second husband, Wayne Schuler. Together, Wayne and Susanne bought and renovated a home in East Duluth and a farmhouse near Two Harbors. It wasn’t easy at the end with Wayne living in an assisted living facility and Susanne tending to their rural home. But my auntie was up to the task until her own health concerns started to wear her down. It wasn’t long after Wayne passed that Susanne agreed (don’t get me wrong: it took a bit of persuading!) to move closer to her family.

            Of all the roles that Sukey filled, however, none made her as proud as that of mother. Julie and Heidi, know that, along with Susanne’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, you are the precious legacy of your mom’s love. I think she knew it was her time, and, having seen her loved ones over the holidays, and having fought heart and kidney maladies for so long, she decided “To heck with this. It’s time to see Paul, have a screwdriver, and see if I can get Paul and Harry to argue politics.” As an aside, your mom loved my old man. She never had a bad word to say about Harry, not even after he and mom divorced. He pitched in and helped Sukey solve some pretty thorny issues involving Paul’s estate. Picture the three of them, sitting around playing gin rummy, having a cocktail, your old man, the Republican from Swift County, having it out with my dad, the Liberal from Duluth. I’m hoping that they’ve all learned their lesson and aren’t smoking up there. But who knows? Anyway, it was in her role as mom, even when she had to parent alone, where Susanne truly shined.

            She was, of course, also an auntie to me and my siblings, Anne and Dave, and a dear friend to many people. There are so many stories I could tell but time is short and maybe, the best way to make you understand our relationship is by explaining how her beautiful little memoir, Back of Beyond, came to be.

            For years, Susanne talked about the manuscript she was working on; something to do with Buena Vista, the resort her parents owned. Given I’m an author I’d ask her, “Hey, when are you going to let me read your stories?” Year after year she’d put me off. Until finally, she didn’t. She’d had the manuscript typed but left it to me to upload her words into my computer and edit the work as best I could. When I handed her the edited version of her words, she didn’t complain or balk or object or argue. She cried. After we sat at her kitchen table, pouring over photos to insert in the book, she cried again. When she saw the cover my wife René created for Back of Beyond, still more tears. But she saved the biggest cry of all for when she held the completed book, all 154 pages of her life, her blood, her sweat, her family, in her hands fresh off the printing press. Being the person she is, she thanked me and René and my son Chris for all our help bringing her dream to fruition. But you wanna know the truth? Working with her on that project, it was she who gifted us with her trust and her grace and her steadfast belief in what we were trying to achieve.

            Once she had her stories in hand, she was, as in everything else, a whirlwind. She and Wayne and my mom and friends and relatives drove hither and yon, that little short Slovenian lady hiking up her skirt, grabbing a handful of books, and charging into every bookstore and gift shop in NE Minnesota. She sold out two printings, all by herself, her success resting upon an unrequited desire to tell the world what a blessed childhood she’d been granted. Her story and the story of Jack and Marie and Barbara Jean continues today. How so?

            Aunt Sukey lived long enough to see the Buena Vista Resort repurposed into a YMCA Family camp that serves inner city folks. Last summer, even though she was feeling poorly, Auntie made it to the dedication of the new camp and signed copies of her book for adoring fans. Daughter Julie and son-in-law Brad, along with Grandson Caleb and his husband, Nestor, made it happen. Despite her frailty, Susanne beamed at the attention she and her words received that day. I felt so honored to attend the dedication with my aunt, my mom, my son, my grandson, and my wife. It wouldn’t have happened, the Kobe family being remembered in such fashion, had Sukey not told her story.

            Did you know, Sukey was a television personality? It’s true. Her first job after graduating from the Villa (now St. Scholastica) was as an extension agent, which got her a gig on the locally produced, “Dottie Becker Show”, where she discussed nutrition, recipes, and other home economics topics. She also worked as a chemical dependency counselor at Project Turnabout in Granite Falls; was the manager of her church’s traveling youth choir in Benson (even going to Japan on tour!); worked hard for many charitable causes; was active in both ELCA and Episcopal churches in Benson, Duluth, Hermantown, and Knife River; and was a licensed lay preacher, giving sermons in the Episcopal church, many of which I heard as a member of the congregation. I relished her take on faith, not only because of her spirituality but because she valued brevity: Say what needs saying and get on with the service! She was a tireless supporter of the Friends of the Two Harbors Library and a lover of great books.

            When it became difficult for Wayne and Susan to make the long drives to spend holidays with Julie and Heidi and their families, Wayne and Susan spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases at my home in northern Minnesota. Again, it was my family; me, René, and our children who were gifted by the presence of Susanne at such gatherings. She was an intelligent, loving, kind, gal who didn’t put up with shenanigans or nonsense and could spot both at the drop of a pin. The hour is late. My time to talk has run its course. But before I go, let me share some final words, words written by Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler (Anna Marie in the excerpt), with you:

Years later, long after the resort was sold and her life had taken its course, Anna Marie was sitting at her kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee. Her house was silent. It was so quiet; you could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock in another room. Outside the kitchen windows stately birches bowed with the wind towards a stand of majestic pines. The woodsy setting in her own yard reminded her of the resort.

Old photographs and one of Mother’s old journals lay on the table next to her empty coffee cup. One by one Anna Marie picked up the pictures and studied them. The photographs had been removed from old albums because Anna needed to add names and dates to the back of each one. Mother’s journal had a black leather binding. The pages had yellowed over time. Leafing through the journal, she found a short lovely poem written in her mother’s hand, author, unknown. She read the words aloud:

                        Life

Each life is like a changing flower

Like petals pale or colored free

The years slip by drop

Softly hour by hour

And leave rich seeds of memory.

Anna Marie wondered, as she took up her pen to write her own words, her own story, if the act of writing down what she remembered would mean that the journey was finally completed.

Never, she thought. The journey will continue through the years, slowly, day by day. One memory will recall another, each memory precious, bittersweet, funny. Memories shared or kept private; memories of that special place, a place held close to my heart, the Back of Beyond.

(Excerpted from Back of Beyond, by Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler)

God bless you Auntie, I love you.

Thanks ever so much to Mimmu Salmela and Lisa Johnson at KUMD for making a dithering idiot sound, well, sort of smart! Log onto the link and listen to us talk about Kotimaa: Homeland. https://www.kumd.org/post/mn-reads-kotimaa-homeland-mark-munger.

Peace.

Mark

The Civil War (Vol. 1) by Shelby Foote (1986. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-394-74623-4)

The title is in reference to fellow Denfeld High School and UMD grad (and lifelong pal) Dave Michelson. Dave handed me this ginormous trilogy written by historian Shelby Foote, the basis for Ken Burn’s wonderful PBD documentary, and said: “You need to read this.” I took the ten pounds of books from Dave and, awhile back, started on volume 1. You know what? Dave was right.

Yes, there’s a lot of information in the first book of this set. Yes, at times, Mr. Foote brings a reader maybe too far into the weeds of policy and military strategy and politics on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. But all in all, his prose is innately readable, his research is impeccable, and his fairness, in critiquing the issue of slavery and his native South’s reliance upon it as the engine for its agrarian economy, is balanced. Foote makes no excuses for his Southern ancestors’ sins and casts no fault on Lincoln’s evolution from reluctant supporter of buying slaves from their masters to free them to full-on emancipator, the devil be damned. But because of his heritage, Foote does bring keen insight into how the leaders of the Confederacy, especially Jefferson Davis, viewed Lincoln, the abolitionists, the Republican Party, and the North as the two sides sent boys and men to their deaths to prove principles held dear to each side. For Lincoln, it wasn’t slavery that prompted him to act: It was the threatened dissolution of the union, caused by the continual disagreement over slavery, its existence and its expansion, the made him bring the terrible power of the North’s industrial base and its larger population to bear in a war between (literally, in many of the border states) brothers.

Foote’s use of extensive first-person accounts, excerpted from primary source materials, is reminiscent of the way I structured my one and only foray into this sort of nonfiction, Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story, a biography of my legislator uncle and mentor. Don’t get excited here, folks: I’m not equating my abilities as a researcher, historian, and interviewer to the great Mr. Foote. But I was struck, when reading this first installment, by the similarity of Mr. Foote’s approach with my own attempt to recount my uncle’s life. Granted, Shelby has sold a hell of a lot more copies of his books than I have of all of mine combined. Still, I think there is a connection in terms of style and reportage that can’t be ignored.

My only criticism of the book ( and I’ve heard the same said about Mr. Environment) is that the narrative, at times, suffers under the weight of detail. That said, I’m looking forward to cracking open volume 2 of this massive history in hopes of continuing to learn.

4 stars out of 5. A well-written and researched, fair-handed treatment of a conflict that still haunts us today.

Peace.

Mark

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