Another Gem from Texas

Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry (1975. Pocket. ISBN 978-0-671-75872)

There’s no doubt that McMurtry’s best work stands next to his fellow Texan’s, Michener’s, as some of the best storytelling and writing in American letters over the last half of the 20th century. All of us grew up watching the Oscar-winning (Best Picture, Best Actress (MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Best Director (Brooks)) film. That’s great, the fact that McMurtry’s work received even wider acclaim. But the notoriety of the movie and its success creates a problem, at least for this reader. Shirley MacLaine, more than even Nicholson, is the most memorable character in the film because of her great performance. So when reading the book forty years later, trying to get MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway out of my head and allow McMurtry’s prose to fully form the story’s iconic protagonist became an issue, though, in the end, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this domestic drama.

Set in Texas, the plot and setting and every other character in this morality play take a back seat to Aurora. She is a force of both nature and privilege; a woman hell-bent on charting her own course. In the process of telling her story, and the story of her daughter Emma, the author has created a classic female leading character that won’t be forgotten whether it’s due to MacLaine’s performance on film or the imagery created by the novelist’s words. The novel is stunningly brilliant with one exception.

Whereas, at least in memory (spoiler alert), the affliction that brings Debra Winger’s Emma to her final climactic scenes in the movie captures a larger role on film and, if my memory serves me, propels the plot, in the book. McMurtry introduces Emma’s illness near the end of the lengthy novel, making it seem like the author couldn’t quite figure out how to bring the story to a close. It’s still a beautiful, tortured portrayal of mother and daughter but this one small thing, in my mind, keeps the book from being on the level of perfection attained by McMurtry in Lonesome Dove. That book. to my mind, is indeed flawless in every way.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. If your book club hasn’t read it, it should!



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The Siblings …

Foster Child: A Biography of Jodie Foster by Buddy Foster. 1997. Dutton. ISBN 9780525941439)

The short version of why I read this “tell all” about one of my favorite actors is that the author once appeared in my courtroom in Duluth, MN. I’ll flesh that out in a future memoir about my time as a writer and judge, but that event, along with my life-long adoration of Ms. Foster (not in a creepy way, like Hinckley but in a platonic, adulating way) compelled my curiosity. It took nearly 20 years for me to track down the book but I finally read it. Here’s my take.

The writing is fairly simplistic and without much heft, making this a breezy read. There is much repetition in Buddy’s constant drumbeat of how dysfunctional his childhood was, how absent his father was, how mean and sometimes crazed his mother was. It’s a bit distracting, reading the same allegations and failings over and over and over again, all of which makes it pretty hard to miss Buddy’s main point: Jodi Foster is tough, no-nonsense survivor, not unlike many of the characters she portrays. Given this significant flaw in the book (and the fact that Buddy had assistance from co-writer Leon Wagener in creating this family portrait) it would be easy to dismiss the book as Buddy’s attempt to earn a payday off the slender shoulders of his little sister. There might be some of that at work here. The sister was not pleased when the book was released: “I feel sad for him. Mostly, I feel sad for my 69-year-old mother, who has spent her life struggling to raise four children on her own … Buddy has done nothing but break her heart his whole life. That’s a kind of sadness no mother will ever get over.” (Quoting Ms. Foster from a 1997 CNN interview.)

As I said, there’s likely some element of seeking to regain his own fame (Buddy was the original Foster child actor; starring in both Hondo and Mayberry RFD before watching his career disintegrate and watching his sister become a household name) as well as a significant financial incentive for someone so close to a movie star to write a revelation of their shared childhood. And yet, despite all its flaws and potential conflicts of interest, the book draws you in because, well, she is Jodi Foster, a seemingly impenetrable fortress of female determination whose private life is virtually unknown while her public roles, from Taxi Driver to Silence of the Lambs to The Panic Room to The Mauritanian (2021) make it seem like we know the woman Jodi Foster has become. It is the portrait of Ms. Foster’s enigmatic nature, together with her brother’s reflections on her dedication to task, fierce independence, and intellect, all set against the backdrop of shared troubled lives (Buddy’s more so than hers) that makes this book a worthy read if you are interested in trying to discern “what makes Jodi tick”. That secret isn’t revealed in any sort of exactitude; just as the mystery of Ms. Foster’s sexual preference (or preferences), while touched upon ever-so-briefly, doesn’t lead the reader to any sort of obvious conclusion. Quite frankly, the woman is such a brilliant talent and mind, I don’t care who she loves (just as I don’t give a damn if Kevin Spacey is gay; I do care if he is a pedophile who abused his power). Her sexual orientation is her own damn business.

In the end, Foster Child is not nearly as hateful, nor revelatory as Ms. Foster’s contemporaneous remarks suggest. There’s value in what her brother has to say about their shared history. Yes, sometimes the arc of the story gets bogged down in repetition and yes, references to Jodi’s work are dated (she’s had further, great success in films following Contact, where the story ends, both as an actor and director). But there’s the gist of a story here for those who care to dive in.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



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Two from Kuusisto

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto (2019. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781451689808)


Old Horse, What is to be Done? by Stephen Kuusisto (2020. Tiger Bark. ISBN 9781732901260)



Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author/poet of these two books for the Finnish American Reporter. I’d run across Steve’s work when I picked up a copy of his first memoir, Planet of the Blind (see review in the archives of this blog) and was, frankly, blown away by the man’s command of language. Here, Kuusisto is at it again, chronicling his experiences with his first guide dog, Corky, in Have Dog. Crisp, succinct in language, the depictions of a family in turmoil and parental ignorance (how else do you explain a mother insisting her blind son is able to to ride a bicycle in traffic?) coupled with Kuusisto’s admiration and love for the gift of mobility Corky provided makes for a compelling, if tragically short (for this reader, anyway!) memoir that is a fine follow up to Planet.

4 and 1\/2 stars out of 5.

Old Horse is a slender collection of poems and prose poems based, not only in Kuusisto’s imagination and the Northeast of the United States where Kuusisto hangs his hat, but also with allusions to and scenes set in his  grandfather’s Finnish homeland. Clever, tender, and with bits of Finnish wit sewn into the fabric of this short, vibrant wording of his work, Kuusisto makes reading poetry, something I rarely do, a pleasure. I only wish, as with the author’s memoirs, this book was longer so I could spend more time in blissful enjoyment of words.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Both books are solid, engaging reads in their own way.





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Four Quick Hitters

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019. Random House Audio)

This is not The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a sequel in search of a purpose and organization. What do I mean, considering this book has been acclaimed as the conclusion of the story that was revealed in Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece? As a historian and political scientist, I’ve enjoyed reading stories of alternative societies and worlds presented by that master of fantasy, Ursula LeGuin. Atwood’s original plotting and characterizations in The Handmaid’s Tale sought and reached such lofty writerly heavens. This book does not. Since this is a snippet of a review, I’ll simply say this: The political and societal realities presented by the Gilead crafted in this sequel don’t add up in terms of military, political, and historical accuracy. With no nuclear weapons, without an air force or navy, how is Gilead, a oligarchy of misogyny, able to remain outside the former United States? That fundamental question is never really addressed by Atwood. Though the writing and dialogue are crisp and admirable, the plot, in my opinion, including the author’s failure to suspend my disbelief regarding political reality, renders this tale far less compelling that the original.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Mountain Time by Ivan Doig (1999. Scribner. ISBN 978-0684865690)

I was introduced to Doig by a Facebook friend because I’d reviewed Wallace Stegner’s work in various columns. While wandering around Kaua’i on a recent vacation from retirement, I stopped in at Talk Story Bookstore and picked up a used copy of Mountain Time. The tale of a magazine reporter, Mitch Rozier and his girlfriend is full of emotion and beautiful scenery echoing my own personal love for Montana, where most of the story takes place. A simple, yet compelling plot draws Mitch and Lexa (the girlfriend) and Lexa’s gadfly sister back to their shared home and their past. That said, this is not Stegner. Doig is a good writer, at least in this outing, but not a genius. Wallace Stegner, for me, remains exactly that.

4 stars out of 5.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (2004. Vintage. ISBN 978-1-4000-3342-3)

After plowing through all the magazines and books I’d brought along on my Kaua’i vacation, I needed a book to read on the plane coming home. I convinced my buddy Ron McVean to stop at the Womb Bookstore in Kapa’a. While the store is tiny, maybe 100 titles in all, I managed to find something to whet my readerly appetite. I’d devoured The Bluest Eye, one of Morrison’s best works, and wasn’t disappointed by Song of Solomon. Morrison’s lyrical, somewhat magical way of telling the story of Milkman Dead, a Black man on a quest to understand his past, his upbringing, and his history, is filled with compelling characters, sadness, humor, and angst. It wasn’t quite up there with The Bluest Eye but is a worthy read; one that would serve book clubs well.

4 stars out of 5.

In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin (2012. Mariner. ISBN 978-0544102606)

In terms of style and literary heft, Helprin remains one of America’s best. This tale of a Jewish veteran of WW II, Harry Copeland, and his love for heiress Catherine Thomas, is close to a masterpiece of craft, language, and story. Of all the books I read on my Hawaiian vacation, this one was the most compelling. Harry’s descent, from law-abiding business owner to criminal, takes time. The reader is required to exercise patience as Helprin slowly reveals the plot, the twists and turns of circumstance, and the inner lives of his characters. And as the skin of the literary onion is peeled away, the reader is rewarded with literature in its most elegant form.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



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A Treat of an Interview






Non-Finn Mark Munger interviewed Finnish actor and musician, Irina Björklund to catch up on the busy artist’s latest projects.

MM: Let’s start with your new streaming series. What can you tell readers of FAR about the ideas/themes behind Peacemaker and the character you play, Ann-Mari?

IB: Peacemaker is the most important role I’ve had far. There are different kinds of entertainment – the kind that you make for the simple reason of pleasing the audiences (comedies, horrors etc), and the kind that have a deeper goal – to generate discussion. Peacemaker is a peek into the world of peace negotiators – people who deal with crises, wars, mass graves – and try to help those affected find a peaceful solution to their problems. I play Ann-Mari Sundell, Finland’s former minister of foreign affairs, sent on a mission by the UN to help negotiate peace between Turkey and the Kurds – not an easy goal to attain.

MM: Our mutual friend, Gerry Henkel, gave me a heads’ up about Peacemaker. As a fan of Ambush and other films you’ve done, I’m glad I got a chance to watch Ann-Mari’s character unfold. Talk about the transition from being a young actor playing the romantic lead in Ambush to playing Ann-Marie a mature, confident, intelligent diplomat charged with a daunting task?

IB:  It’s funny you would mention my role in Ambush as a romantic lead since it’s a war epic. At the time (in 1998) it was my most important role to that point – as it brought the details of the Continuation War to younger filmgoers. Over 20 years have passed since Ambush; I’ve made some good and some not-so-good choices along the way.  My main objective as an artist stays the same – to concentrate on works that have a message somewhere, and to contribute to making this world a better place.

MM: Fill FAR readers in about the settings used and the cast of Peacemaker.

IB: We filmed most of the series in Gran Canaria because of the versatile landscapes the island offers. Some shorter episodes were shot in southern Spain. Ann-Mari’s home is set in the western Finnish archipelago, in Nauvo – beautiful! Other main characters include Richard Sammel (Inglorious Bastards), Louise Peterhoff (The Bridge), Mikko Nousiainen, and Kardo Razzazi.

MM: I just watched Kate Winslett on CBS Sunday Morning talk about her struggle to secure meaningful roles as she ages. She’s but one of many female actors who’ve pushed back against the lack of roles available for women of a certain age by finding their own projects to produce, by adding director to their resume, and the like. How has it been for you, both in Europe or elsewhere, in finding roles that are appropriate for your craft and talent? Have you directed?

IB: Personally, I’ve had to wait to be nearly 50 in order to start getting truly interesting proposals. Sure, there may still be more out there for younger women to play, but as in everything in life, it’s not the quantity; it’s the quality. I did feel it was important to portray a middle-aged woman who’s not afraid of showing her age. Ann-Mari carries her gray hair with pride and doesn’t use make up; her person is enough. I’ve never directed, and I don’t think I will. Acting is not my only aspiration in life. When I’m not acting, I’m working on music projects. A balance between all of those things, along with finding happiness in enjoying my family, my home, and the nature I’m surrounded by… is what I’m looking for in life.

MM: How has the public reaction to Peacemaker been? What will it take, do you think, to make the fiction of Peacemaker into reality?

IB: The message that Peacemaker sends is that an outsider alone can’t fix things. Ann-Mari is just a facilitator. As Finland’s former President Martti Ahtisaari said in his brilliant 2008 Nobel acceptance speech – “Peace is a question of will”; the parties have to find the will to come to peace. I’m just an actor. I really shouldn’t be asked about these things! But to be serious, Peacemaker has gotten a great response from people who work in the field and from audiences, too. It’s been nominated for five Golden Venlas in Finland. I couldn’t be happier.

MM: I found Peacemaker on the streaming service Topic. Are there other ways for FAR readers to connect with the series? Will there be a season two?

IB: Topic or Amazon Prime are the ways to go. I’m hopeful for a second season, but I can’t promise anything yet. If it were up to me, I’d gladly make playing Ann-Mari my personal retirement plan!

MM: You’re also an accomplished musician. Your latest album, Barely Ann-Mari reflects your Peacemaker character in song.

IB: Barely Ann-Mari is unique in that it’s written from the point of view of the character I play in Peacemaker. It reflects her inner thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears; feelings she’s not allowed to show in the series. I started writing lyrics as I prepared for the role in order to get to know the character and realized I had material for an album. The collaboration with Pauanne came about naturally, as the members of the group have been members of my own band for years. We found a new sound for this album by letting Finnish folk music portray Ann-Mari’s Finnish roots and English lyrics highlight her international expertise. As an artist, I like to explore new styles but I recognize my limits: I wouldn’t attempt hard rock or opera! 

MM: Where can FAR readers find the album?

IB: It’s distributed by Nordic Notes and available digitally worldwide through the link below. You can also find it on iTunes, Amazon, and other listening platforms. Amazon also carries the physical CD.

MM: Hopefully, someday the limitations imposed by COVID-19 will be lifted and you can perform the music from the album live.

IB: I happened to get lucky. I booked the release tour for the album (in Finland) last October. Despite the pandemic, only one show was cancelled. The venues were mostly sold out within the limits allowed. It was a touching experience – as we knew that the people who came to hear us thought it worth the risk of possible contamination to attend.

MM: You’ve recorded music, I believe, in Finnish, Swedish, French and, in Barely Ann-Mari, English. Talk a bit about the flexibility of language and how that assists in your art and your world-view.

IB: I grew up traveling with my family and living in Sweden, Finland, and France. I later spent fourteen years in California before moving back to France. I had to learn Turkish for Peacemaker. That was incredibly hard. But knowing other languages helped understand the logic behind Turkish. I enjoy playing with accents in my work. For Ann-Mari, I use the typical English accent of a Swedish speaking Finn – rather than the one of a Finnish speaking Finn. These details make a difference in the character.

MM: What’s in the immediate future for Irina?

IB: After three years spent in the world of peacemaking, I couldn’t be happier taking time off. At home in France I’m concentrating on my personal peace, which includes growing vegetables, caring for farm animals, and homeschooling our son. Ideas are brewing. I recently read David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet, which was life-changing. It’s a must-read for all of us. Another lovely and thought-provoking French novel I always recommend to readers of all ages is Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees. We all can make a difference for the future of the planet and humanity if we act now. Following the novel’s theme, I’m going to plant one hundred and sixty acorns next week. I dare you and the readers of FAR to do the same!


Peacemaker Topic watching link:

Barely Ann-Mari album sales link:

Peace is a Question of Will music video by Irina Björklund & Pauanne featuring President Martti Ahtisaari:




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Five Short Shots from Verde Valley

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986. Anchor. ISBN 978-0-385-49081-8

I haven’t read sci-fi/fantasy for quite awhile. Nearly the only fantasy writer I’ve read in the past thirty years was the brilliant Ursula LeGuin. There’s been so much talk about this book, given the dystopia and dysfunction brought to America courtesy of the Orange Headed Buffoon, with more than a few commentators pointing out that Atwood’s take on misogyny propelled by religion was and still is spot on. They are right. That’s all I need to say. Excellent story, plot, and pacing. 5 stars out of 5.



This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (2019. Atria. ISBN 978-1-4767-4930-3.

Fair warning: Though the cover proclaims the author as the man who penned Ordinary Grace, my favorite by fair of Krueger’s works, this is not that. The story, one of four orphans, including a Native American adolescent, is engaging to be sure. But the juxtaposition of the two white protagonist brothers in a Native American boarding school in the 1930s, to me, is a copout. Why not write the tale from the perspective of Mose, the aforementioned Native American, the actual sort of fellow who suffered at the hands of the boarding house system? I wrote Esther’s Race, a story of an African American meth addict, in the first person just to force myself, as a writer, to explore what it might feel like to be embedded in a culture not my own. Doesn’t mean this isn’t a decent read but it wasn’t nearly as compelling as it might have been. 4 stars out of 5.

The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson (1987. Borealis Books. ISBN 978-0-87351-206-0)

I bought this book because I was interested in learning more about Olson’s connections to organized crime. Given he grew up in north Minneapolis, the same locale that notorious mob boss and bootlegger Kid Cann called home, I was hoping this volume would explore the rumors of that connection, along with the violet machine gun death of muckraking journalist, Walter Liggett. But the author pretty much sticks to the DFL mantra, one shared by my uncle Willard, that Olson was essentially, for all his faults, a good man who should have been a U.S. Senator. That said, it’s a complete biography of most of the man’s achievements, if a bit short on the information I was looking for. 3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Stopping the Presses by Marda Liggett Wodbury (1998. Minnesota. ISBN 0-8-8166-2929-3)

This is the opposite of the Floyd B. Olson book. This is the story of murdered journalist Walter Liggett as recalled and researched by his daughter, Marda. Marda approaches her father’s story and death as any journalist should; from a distance. The shocking machine gun murder of Liggett, which took place in front of his wife and daughter and was suspected to be ordered and carried out by Kid Cann or his henchmen (either because Liggett kept attacking Gov. Olson, alleging Olson had ties to Cann or because Liggett was relentless in his attacks on bootleggers and mobsters, including Cann), was never really solved to Marda’s satisfaction but she does an admiral job of postulating who might have had a hand in the assassination of her father. An unknown and well written gem of Minnesota history. 4 stars out of 5.

The World Has Changed (2010. The New Press. ISBN 978-1-59558-705-3)

For any writer with a social conscience, or for those Alice Walker fans who want the inside scoop, this series of conversations between Walker and interviewers and other writers and scholars is the ticket. My only complaint is that there is a bit of redundancy in that topics are repeated, as are Walker’s responses, and the collection could have been edited a bit better to tighten that up. All in all, a worthy read. 4 stars out of 5.

That’s it! On to some new territory.



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A Slender Gem

Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry (1961. Liveright. ISBN 978-1-63149-355-3)

Here’s a true confession. I’m writing this review while listening to the author’s kid play some awesome Texas Americana music. James McMurtry, if he didn’t inherit his father’s gift for telling stories on paper, certainly learned the craft of oral storytelling from his Pa. Concise, precise, and to the point, James doesn’t waste words while painting images in song. That’s the key, I’ve learned, as I struggle with my own storytelling. Get in, get out. Make your point as succinctly as possible while still painting images in your readers’ minds. OK then.

This is a concise, slim tale of a novel. Weighing in at a mere 171 pages in small paperback format, Horseman chronicles a short period of time on the Brannon cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle. We follow the life and daily struggles of Homer Brannon, his grandson Lonnie, his step-son Hud, and a small cast of other characters as they try to make a go of it on a hard-luck, hardscrabble bit of dirt and dust. It’s a raw, quickly paced, morose journey that young Lonnie relates in the first person. But the prose! McMurtry was just learning his craft when this, his first novel, hit print. It’s clear that he knew what he was after and, even in this early effort, hit the mark. So much so that the movie Hud, starring a young Paul Newman in an Oscar nominated role as Hud, came to the big screen a scant two years after the novel’s debut. Though Newman lost, Patricia Neal won for best actress and the movie scored two other Oscars. But the movie’s departure from the novel includes telling the story from Hud’s perspective; not the first person story of young Lonny. That sort of misses the point behind the author’s effort, one often compared to Salinger’s coming-of-age triumph, Catcher in the Rye. It’s the young character’s struggle to understand his grandfather, their circumstances, and his own place in the world after disaster strikes the ranch that is the heart and soul of Horseman. And it’s a stark, bleak, beautiful soul that propels the story to greatness even today.

I’ve read most of McMurtry, including his Pulitzer gem, Lonesome Dove, one of my top ten novels of all time. This stands right up there with his best.

5 stars out of 5.


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Two Short Reviews

What I Found in a Thousand Towns by Dar Williams (2017. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-4 86-09896-5)

I bought this book because Ms. Williams is a dynamite singer/songwriter. I’ve seen her numerous times in concert and she never fails to amaze. I didn’t read the blurbs or the synopsis related to this title before I bought it, thinking it would be a better read of life on the road than Bill Stains’s self-published memoir (reviewed elsewhere on this site). How wrong I was!

I don’t mean to say that Ms. Williams isn’t a very bright, articulate, smart American. She is. And her writing is crisp, direct, and informative. But this book is not a memoir, which I would have known had I done my homework. Rather, it is a discussion of “positive proximity”, a concept concerning the need to revitalize downtowns of American small cities by incorporating the arts, music, film, communities, and social conscience into a place’s fabric. In essence, it’s a handbook for urban planners based upon Ms. Williams’s experience touring the nation as a musician. Concise and well written, the book lacks what I was seeking: heart and insight into Dar Williams the human being. My fault, I know, for not looking into the book’s premise before buying it. I can’t say I flew through the prose, as tight and distinctive as it is. The going was slow, almost bringing me back to my days as a student in Dale Olson’s Urban Studies class at UMD. Again, my fault, not the author’s.

In the end, the book is a decent read for those interested in revitalizing urban America through the arts and human connections. Not what I was looking for in the read but hey, we all make mistakes, right?

4 stars out of 5. It wasn’t the author’s fault I was underwhelmed.

The Vikings by Robert Ferguson (2009. Penguin. 978-0-14-1801-5)

Another disappointment. Again, it wasn’t the prose. It was the style in which it was delivered. I picked this book up at a gift shop in Hayward, WI that also sells my Finnish American novels. Given I recently discovered I am 3% Norwegian (a facet of my ethnicity I attribute to roving Vikings raping some English or Welsh or Scots or Iris foremother), I thought I’d explore the history of these fascinating marauders. Ferguson certainly did his homework in terms of researching the often arcane and distant original sources of Viking lore both in print and carved in runes. But the presentation of Norsk heritage had two problems for this reader.

First, the book reads like the Old Testament book of Exodus in terms of genealogy. There are so many names of kings, both lesser and greater, that a chart of descendancy would have been much appreciated to keep things straight. Second, this is one dry and boring exposition of what was a pretty wild ride. Ferguson’s book is a perfect adjunct to lectures by a history prof at some dusk-choked university. It is not a book to enlighten the casual reader while also providing entertainment. There needed to be some life, some spirit, some common narrative theme laced throughout Ferguson’s lengthy discussions of kings and raiders and unfortunate victims. Absent that, I felt like I was readying myself for a final exam in a Nordic History course at UMD.

To be fair again, I didn’t study reviews before I purchased this title. I didn’t read the cover blurbs or explore the book’s pedigree. I simply saw it and bought it with the end result that I struggled to get through it: learning a bit but never being enlightened.

3 stars out of 5. Instructive but not inspiring.



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Bear Dreams

Grizzly Bear Charging


                                                            BEAR DREAMS

                                                             By Mark Munger

(Note: This piece was originally written for Montana Public Radio’s program, Reflections West (RW). RW paired a contemporary writer’s thoughts with a piece of classic poetry or literature. Sadly, while accepted for production, the show went off the air before “Bear Dreams” was broadcast.)

I’ve lived my entire life in the place the Dakota named Mnisota: “land reflecting the sky”. Most folks know that the Mississippi River begins here. But my home state is actually named after a lesser-known stream; the cloudy, muddy Minnesota River.

Rivers are a reality of this place. In addition to being “The Land of 10,000 Lakes”, Minnesota is a wellspring for watercourses flowing beneath every gravel road, two-lane, and freeway crisscrossing the state. Minnesota is also soggy with marshes, swamps, and bogs; natural filters from whence rivers, steams, and creeks are born. Unlike the West, where mountain snowfall dictates whether folks have potable water at their taps, Minnesota is eternally hydrous and does not suffer, as Wallace Stegner observed, from the perpetual aridity that plagues the American West.

One attribute that Minnesota does share with the West is piney forest—though beyond the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota has few places untouched by tourists, fishing boats, or snowmobiles. Even so, my “neck of the woods” has healthy populations of wolves, black bears, fisher, lynx, coyotes, and bobcats.  What we do not have are grizzly bears. Recent reports of grizzlies migrating from the Rockies onto the Great Plains, seeking sustenance within their historic range, a range that once included the cottonwood groves of western Minnesota, are intriguing. But while dreams of grizzlies repopulating the Minnesota River Valley present a romantic notion, the inevitable bear versus human conflicts inherent in such repatriation cause me pause.

Munger pairs his essay with an excerpt from Saskatchewan author Guy Vanderhaeghe’s novel, The Last Crossing, selecting a scene that depicts a confrontation between English adventurer, Addington Gaunt, and a mother grizzly bear. Munger’s selection contrasts notions of historical wilderness with the reality of reintegrating apex predators into 21st century America.

Addington lifts his eyes and there is the grizzly. Powerful haunches, long hair like the quills of a porcupine that tremble as the bear rises from a carcass to stand on its hind legs with a startled, “Whuff!”

Addington takes two decisive steps to the right to present himself with a lung shot. The bear swings its dished face, its bloody muzzle towards him. Addington draws the bow, feels the fletching touch his cheek, looses the arrow. It hisses, gives a sharp click as it nicks a twig, and deflects deep into the shoulder of the grizzly. The bear grunts with surprise, bites at the shaft. It snaps in the grizzly’s jaws. Addington draws a second arrow and nocks it.

The grizzly charges, a roaring, quivering, rolling wave of fur and muscle. Addington’s head fills with the storm, the crackle of breaking branches, the yellow leaves spiraling down in a whirlwind. He fires blindly into the golden tornado.

And the bear rears, saliva drizzling from its jaws, red mouth yawning…(Addington) turns, stumbles for the river, steps into the air, plummets down the slope. A flap of bloody skin dangles in his eyes. He leaps into the water.

(© 2002 G & M Vanderhaeghe Productions. Excerpted from The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe. McClleand and Stewart. ISBN 0-7710-8738-1.)





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Under the Big Sky

The Miller Farm. Dagmar, Montana

It started with meeting a “sister” judge at a conference. When I found out she was originally from Eastern Montana, I had to ask.

“Do you have any connections back home, places a guy could pheasant hunt?”

“My cousin Mark lives on the family farm.”

I let things be. But when I got back to work, I emailed the judge and asked if she thought her cousin would be willing to allow me, and maybe a son or two, to hunt on the family farm.

“Sure. It’s over 2,000 acres. I’m pretty sure that would be fine.”

She gave me Mark’s email. I sent off a message, including how I’d met his cousin. It took a bit, but I eventually heard back. Mark was more than happy to have me come and visit, check out the farm, and talk over possibilities.

I wanted to find a better place to hunt pheasants than the locale we’d been hunting. Ashley, North Dakota had been the place my dad and his buddy Bruce settled on to hunt when South Dakota proved too expensive. Like Harry, I have no interest in paying a farmer to hunt. I’ll stick to public land or unposted private land (ND, like MN requires land owners to post their land or its assumed the land is open to hunting). Given the number of hunters around Ashley, the diminution of PLOTS (private land open to the public) in close proximity to the town, the increasing number of farmers posting their land “No Trespassing”, and given the terrible experience we had hunting near Ashley last year, I was bound and determined to find another place to chase pheasants.

Dagmar, Montana where the farm in question is located, is just across the border from Grenora, ND; about an hour from Williston where my second son Dylan lives. After spending four days with four dogs and five guys and shooting one pheasant last October in Ashley, I decided to use my second week of non-resident pheasant hunting in early November to investigate hunting possibilities around Williston. The results are chronicled elsewhere but suffice it to say, there were birds. There were few hunters. There were many, many places, including PLOTS and federal waterfowl management areas and unposted farm land I was able to hunt with my little Brittany, Leala. We limited out two of four days in the field. But more importantly, I got the chance to meet and visit with Mark and his friend Brad at a Grenora eatery before ending the night with a glass of good wine at Mark’s house.

“Anytime you want to hunt here, just let me know,” was Mark’s parting gift to me as I left Montana with a smile.

Here’s the thing. I’d stayed with Dylan last November. But Dylan sold his house in Williston and moved his wife and kids to Duluth. For now, he rents an apartment, works the oil fields, and commutes to Minnesota every other weekend. Meaning I’d lost my place to stay. When I asked Mark in an email whether there might be a house for rent or a motel in the Dagmar/Grenora area where we could stay, he simply wrote back: “You’re welcome to stay here.” Now that’s Montana nice!

I didn’t know what the logistics of Jack, my youngest son, and me and three hunting dogs staying at the farm would entail. I packed cooking gear, propane, a camping table, and food (thinking we might end up cooking meals outside) and our gear in a small trailer we were towing because the back of the Jeep was full of dogs and kennels. I even locked our shotguns in a roof-top carrier to save space. And just before leaving Duluth, I had a small leak in my nearly-new rear passenger tire repaired at Fleet Farm, where I’d bought a set of Coopers in June.

“Good to go,” I was told. “We didn’t find a leak but we re-beaded the tire. It should be fine.

As a precaution, I packed my portable air compressor, fully charged, in the cargo hold of the Jeep. Good thing I did: I had to refill the tire multiple times during our eight-day trip. I didn’t want to pull the tire off and use the spare because the treads on the spare and the Coopers are so different, On the long trip to Dagmar, we stopped every 100 miles or so to fill the tire; sometimes at a gas station, sometimes from the portable compressor, which was a pain in the ass but doable.

Arriving at the farm, we were greeted by Mark, set up the three dog kennels in the basement (out of reach of the family cats), unloaded our sleeping bags and Duluth Packs, and were shown our bedrooms and the guest bath. We planned to spend a week. We’d hunt the farm and publicly accessible Montana land for three days (Montana has a three-day non-resident small game option) and then hunt Northwestern North Dakota for the remainder of our stay. My oldest son Matt and his buddy Reid were scheduled to come out and stay with Dylan in Williston. Once Matt and Reid arrived, Jack and I planned to meet up with them and hunt together.

The first morning on the farm, Brad treated us to homemade breakfasts big enough to satisfy lumberjacks. Since it was the weekend and Brad was visiting, we piled into his new pickup truck, Jack’s Lab Kena and René’s Lab Violet crammed in the back seat with Jack and me. Imagine allowing strangers and dogs to dirty up your unblemished leather upholstery! I hadn’t expected Brad or Mark to serve as our hunting guides but for the first two days, that’s exactly what happened. Our hosts also introduced us to folks at Dagmar Central (the only eatery in town) during lunch so we could experience the local culture. Back in the field after eating the luncheon special (I treated), we saw four moose but didn’t down a single bird despite numerous chances. After a fruitless but memorable day in the field, Brad and Mark cooked us a beef roast, complete with all the trimmings, for dinner.

I woke up early Sunday morning and took the Labs and Callie (my eight-month-old Britt) into a nearby slough to hunt before Jack was awake. With good dog work and a lucky shot, I had a rooster in my game vest by seven.

Mark’s 1st Montana Rooster.

After breakfast Jack and I worked the western end of that same slough. I downed another rooster at the edge of a field and all three dogs took off after it as it raced for cover, the commotion reminding me of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Despite being the oldest and slowest, Kena ran the rooster down and made a nice retrieve. We missed another rooster in the slough but Jack connected with not one but two Hungarian partridge that the dogs rousted and Kena and Violet retrieved.

jack with the Results of the Morning Hunt.

On Monday, our last day hunting Montana, Jack and I ventured north on our own. We found some very nice public-access land to explore. Montana trespass law considers all private land to be posted unless you have the landowner’s permission to enter. The trade-off is having something like seven million acres of public land and private land to which landowners allow public access. North of Dagmar, we found a big piece of accessible bottomland and worked it hard. We had no luck until, as we headed back to the car, Callie, who was beginning to shine despite her young age (the day before, she’d locked on a nice covey of Huns, holding them until Jack and I got in position and each shot one) started going nuts. She booked across an earthen dam with Violet and Kena in hot pursuit. Wouldn’t you know it? After walking miles and not seeing a bird, the dogs got up a handful of roosters and hens. Jack managed to put a bead on a beautiful male pheasant, shot, and dropped it in thick grass where Violet made her first-ever pheasant retrieve. After a hard day of hunting, it was a real treat to come back to the farmhouse to find Brad had picked up Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. Talk about spoiling guests!

Public-Access Hunting Land in Montana.

“When your other son and his friend get to Williston, you’re all welcome to stay at my place in town,” Brad offered as we ate chicken and mashed potatoes and corn and coleslaw. “There’s plenty of room and you’ll be closer to the hunting in North Dakota.”


I texted Matt about our change in plans. Jack and I would hunt around Williston on Tuesday and meet up with Brad at his house. The hunting was again superb and, when we pulled into Williston at dark, our vests were full (including a Hun that neither one of us shot but Callie found and retrieved) and our legs were weary. The house in town had a big, fenced-in back yard where the dogs could be off leash and Jack could clean birds. It also had cable!

Since Chris, my third son and the designated bird cleaner, couldn’t make the trip, Jack took over those duties. I’d received a nice bird cleaning kit, complete with knives and shears, after making a small donation to Pheasants Forever. That kit allowed Jack to make short work of things.

Content after four days of great hunting, I sipped beer and watched election returns and thought about how lucky I was. My old man had forsaken pheasant hunting in South Dakota twenty-odd years ago because farmers were charging hunters a hundred bucks a day per gun to hunt. Here we were, essentially strangers to Mark and Brad, benefitting from their largess to a degree that was down-right embarrassing. When I asked Mark about paying for our stay, he waved me off. After our uneventful hunt on Saturday, Brad even bought a Montana non-resident license (he lives in North Dakota) to hit the fields with us in hopes of improving our odds.

Jack and I couldn’t sleep Tuesday night. The topsy-turvy world of Electoral College politics caused us distress. But, as we drove out of Williston on Wednesday morning, things started looking better for Uncle Joe. We’d both voted for Biden and Harris by mail. We’d done what we could. But the suspense, with Jack monitoring his phone all day, was nearly unbearable.

We shot some nice roosters Wednesday, which gave Jack more time to practice cleaning birds. In celebration of my 66th birthday, we joined Dylan (who doesn’t hunt) at the Williston Brewing Company for dinner. It was great to catch up with my second son, though again, the pall of uncertainty regarding the election hung in the air like a funeral shroud. The three of us talked in low tones as I sipped stout and fretted about the fate of our nation.

Matt and Reid arrived Wednesday night. We hunted hard on Thursday and had some success, though we missed opportunities when a covey of sharptail grouse and a big covey of Huns escaped with nary a loss. Kena retrieved a live but injured rooster someone or something had downed; a bonus bird credited to Jack since Kena is his dog. Later in the morning, Jack potted a rooster over water. The bird swam seventy yards across a small pond. Violet dove in after the pheasant, followed it across water, and found it hiding in cattails along the opposite shore. Later, Reid downed the prize of the day; a rooster that looked like a peacock given the length of its tail.

Reid’s Monster NoDak Rooster.

The value of taking a hot shower after putting in eight to ten mile days in the field can’t be overstated. Additionally, we had the use of Brad’s kitchen to prepare meals. For breakfast, we scarfed instant oatmeal, breakfast bars, juice, milk, and hot coffee. For lunch, we packed sandwiches and snacks and water and juice to eat and drink in the field. At night, Matt and Reid made complete meals while Jack and I subsisted on canned soup and Dinty Moore stew though, on our last night in Williston, I splurged on pizza. I stopped by a local pizza parlor (wearing my mask) to order on the way to Brad’s house, returning a half-hour later to pick up two freshly baked pies.

Was it all smiles and giggles? No. There were occasional tense moments in the car and in the field. But most of our time together was spent agreeably; hunting, sharing the same old stale stories, and marveling at the work ethic of the dogs. Kena, Violet, and Callie performed like champs, though try as we might, we couldn’t convince Matt’s Lab, Greta, she was bred to hunt. Oh, Greta enjoyed herself, tagging along, content to watch-but not participate-in the action. But she never got “birdy” or evinced interest in the actual hunting part of things. That’s OK. She’s a great family pup, much loved, and had a great vacation on the Plains!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t recount some additional details. First, everyone shot a rooster or two. Second, Violet, only a year and a half old, came into her own. She not only made that water retrieve, she ran after a rooster I hit, chasing it a half-mile down a ditch until she caught it and brought it back to me. Callie, though only a pup, displayed true championship abilities to find, point, and retrieve birds. Her stamina is truly amazing, And what can I say about Kena? I hit a rooster in cattails so thick, I couldn’t walk through them. She found the bird, grabbed it, and brought it to me like the veteran she is. The best part about the dog work? We didn’t lose a single bird over eight days of hunting.

Reid, Jack, Mark, Greta, and ND Birds.
Two ND Huns and Three ND Roosters.

In the end, I experienced a legacy hunt. As always, the Munger dogs outshined the Munger and Amborn sharpshooters. We got some birds and missed some birds but that’s OK. They’ll be there next fall, when God willing, we’ll be back for more adventures on the prairie. Nothing is certain in this world except this: The kindness of strangers, as proven by Mark and Brad, knows no bounds.

Thanks, guys, for making an old man’s dream come true.


Matt’s Intensity after Downing a Rooster is Palpable!
The Girls and Grandpa.
Jack, Somewhere North of Dagmar, MT.

Postscript: The tire? On the way home, the temperature warmed up and it stopped leaking. I brought it back to Fleet Farm and they diagnosed the issue: I had a broken rim. Fleet Farm put my spare on, wrapped my tire and rim in plastic, and stowed the rim and tire in the back of my Jeep. I found a replacement rim online. It arrived and I made an appointment. Fleet Farm removed the spare, pulled the tire off the old rim, remounted the tire on the new rim, mounted the new rim on the Jeep, and charged me sixteen bucks for all their trouble. Sixteen bucks!

I’m buying my new chainsaw and gas grill from Fleet Farm.

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