Thursday, September 3, 2020

Goin' to Minnesota in my Mind


Hi from Tim! I've barely been to Minnesota. I briefly crossed the Mississippi River into the Twin Cities a few times. So why do I seem to have this thing about reading books set in our next door neighbor's state? Maybe it's to balance the Boswell blog universe, which is weighted with Appalachian and other Southern fiction courtesy of our marketing man Chris. His Boswellians blog called 'The South!' shows his West Virginia roots and his bent toward quirky living, grit, and heat. So maybe my fascination with northern suppressed emotions and snow-covered grit and cold, ending with break-out intensity and mortality, is the balancing act? Nah! I just like the landscapes and the writers I've happened across from The North. My latest Minnesota read is what inspired this neighborly blog. If you appreciate great writing, you can watch our August 24th Zoom event (watch it here!) with Peter Geye (cohosted by Books and Company of Oconomowoc) and check out the follow-up to his novel Wintering, called Northernmost.

In Northernmost we see the members of one family, several generations apart, and find the connections between a man who becomes a legendary survivor in 1890s Norway and a woman looking for the meaning of family and happiness in present-day Minnesota. There's a humanity to this novel that runs deeper than most, a gradual but constant movement through the earthy details of life and love. It's powerful, like the glaciers that become a vital part of the setting, and the longer I read the more it overtook me. Their struggles are timeless and universal. We know the descendants will continue, their blood crossing generations in defiance of personal isolation and beautiful but treacherous landscapes. I wondered at times how they did it. So did they, but their love is the greatest answer to how and why. I understand Geye's characters, and I think they would understand me. What greater compliment could I give a novelist?

Marion Lafournier, the narrator of This Town Sleeps by Dennis E. Staples, left his small Minnesota reservation town. He keeps going back, and he’s not sure why. Maybe walking away from his first boyfriend in Minneapolis at 18 years old could explain it, but it’s more than that. He’s with guys he meets through an app who are hiding in the shadows, but he’s comfortable being out, and he wants a relationship. So why keep returning to a place where nothing happens? When he finds a Revenant, a spirit in the form of a dog with a bloody maw, being back starts to look like destiny. The kids always said the dog that died under that schoolyard merry-go-round was still around. Now it seems to be leading him back to the murder of a popular boy, and looking back might be a key to moving forward. Staples gives us a beautifully complex picture of family in its many forms. Ojibwe tradition is blended with modern America and universal humanity. The voices are strong. The stark honesty of Staples’ characters and the grace of his writing make this debut memorable.

"God Is A Tornado." With those desperate words, painted on the water tower for all to see, William Kent Krueger reveals twelve-year-old Odie in This Tender Land. Odie runs, along with three other children, from the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota, which trains children to give up their culture. Odie and his older brother are the only white students there, little Emmy Frost is the daughter of a beloved teacher, and Moses is a Sioux boy who lost both his mother and his tongue to an attacker at a very young age. They've seen cruel school leaders preach about a protective God who’s done nothing but deliver them loss. They all have reasons to flee. This is not a children's book, but rather a classic American novel of the Great Depression (1932) and a riveting story of kids trying to find their place in the world. They escape along Minnesota's major rivers in a canoe, headed for a possible home with an aunt in St. Louis, and along the way they meet a fascinating group of characters. The beauty of this novel is in the deep development of the children, who got into my heart and have stayed there.

I also like Kent Krueger's Desolation Mountain, an entertaining mystery and the 17th book in his series featuring Cork O'Connor, a former sheriff and private investigator in northern Minnesota. O'Connor's Irish and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) ancestry is an interesting aspect of the novel. He works and has family in and around the Ojibwa Iron Lake Reservation, where many of the locals are eagerly waiting to meet with U.S. Senator Olympia McCarthy, who opposes a new mining operation which could potentially poison the land. She doesn't survive her trip to the meeting, which launches a complicated, frightening investigation by a web of government agencies and outside interests. Many people close to O'Connor are in danger. I enjoyed the descriptions of the autumn forest and how the land is woven into an engaging plot. When Kreuger was here for the book event, he mentioned that Ojibwe fans of his novels told him that he's not bad at portraying them, "for a white guy." I really liked the humor and candor of that.

Virg​il Wander
by​ Leif Enger is one of my all-time favorite novels! Virgil’s surname is ironic because he’s been in one place for a while, a beautiful but rugged Lake Superior town that’s well past its best days. Then Rune arrives, a magnetic man with a talent for making and flying wonderfully unusual kites, a man closely tied to everyone’s past, and a sign of their future. As he meets Rune, Virgil is recovering from a concussive near-death crash into the lake. It’s changed him; he’s more direct, more openly emotional, a little irreverent. He’s told to “watch out.” Maybe his name is a calling. It’s easy to like Enger’s characters. Their intelligence and sincerity make a Minnesota winter setting feel warm and open to unlikely renewal. And the story is engaging, expertly crafted for anticipation and suspense. If you want a great holiday read, and a welcome reprieve from negativity, Virgil Wander is perfect!

Tim Johnston is an excellent writer. The Current is a fine novel of suspense and an intricate study of how people react to tragedy and loss. Audrey and Caroline become close college friends after first trying and failing to be roommates. When Audrey finds out that her father's cancer is beyond treatment, Caroline decides to drive her back to her Minnesota home, and the two are caught in a frightening situation that reopens a ten-year-old crime. The past and present events happen in the same river across two states, and the story has the feel of a strong current. Johnston's descriptions of places in and around the river, where lives suddenly change forever, have a gravity like the flowing water, and he captures the survivors' struggle over what they can never get back as time pushes them away from what they had. His use of places and things to reveal characters' emotions is masterful, and his characters' direct, honest dialog about the most difficult problems is compelling. With very few words Johnston quickly shows us the thoughts and actions of people who seem real.

I'm liking the summer heat, but I love the seasons. I'll welcome our beautiful northern fall and winter, and these books can make them feel even better!
In my mind I’m goin’ to Minnesota.
Can’t you feel the snowfall?
Just leave your boots out in the hall.
Car gets stuck, and then it stalls.
Ya get hit from behind.
Yes I’m goin’ to Minnesota in my mind.
                                      - Sweet Baby Tim

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