DISCLAIMER: If you don’t want to read the words snow or winter, then stop reading. This is a post about both. But also about spring. And a book.
Three prompts led me to write on this seasonal topic. First, when I was scanning my mom’s journals recently, I came across a May 11, 1966, entry in which she wrote, “Snow on the ground.” This didn’t surprise me. Occasionally snow falls in southern Minnesota in May. While I don’t recall the 1966 snow Mom references, I do remember driving back from my native prairie once on Memorial Day weekend to see snow atop a car in New Ulm. That would be at the end of May.
Secondly, a few weeks ago, Randy asked whether he should put the snow shovels away. I encouraged him to wait. And he did, until he felt confident the possibility of snow had passed. It has. I hope.
With minimal words per page, Schroeder writes the story of a week-long snowfall. Day after day after day the snow piles high around a menagerie of animals. Rabbit, fox, bear, moose… Illustrator Sarah Jacoby’s art has a dreamy, soft quality, just like the falling snow. That both artist (from Pittsburgh) and author understand winter is clear in their work.
Eventually, the sun shines, the snow melts, the grass greens. And spring, so it seems, has arrived. But then, a last page surprise. You can probably guess what that may be. It happens here in Minnesota seemingly every year. Just when we think winter has ended…
For a community like mine, with a sizable Somali population, this book proves a natural draw. I always appreciate learning more about my new Faribault neighbors from the east African country of Somalia. The more we know about each other, the more comfortable and connected we feel. Disconnect and conflict often arise from lack of knowledge, fear of the unknown and differences. Differences in dress, food, language, culture, faith.
This book bridges differences via facts and art that carries a signature African style of intense patterns and colors. With every new bit of information, with every turn of the page, I feel more and more connected to this continent of 54 countries. For example, the word hospitality, chosen to represent the letter “H” in this alphabet book, strikes me as exactly what I hope for in Faribault. Africans believe no one is an island; rather everyone is part of the community, the text reads in part. Two clasped hands visually reinforce that belief.
Events like the Faribault Diversity Coalition’s summer International Festival Faribault and now occasional public talks by immigrants and others are ways we join hands and grow community. I’ve seen the art of my neighbors from Africa. I’ve heard the music, tasted the sambusa, admired colorful clothing… Faribault’s newest residents add a depth and richness to my southern Minnesota city.
Consider African proverbs, chosen in Amazing Africa: A to Z to represent the letter “P.” These wise sayings span cultures. The authors include this powerful Swahili proverb, among several, at the end of the book: “Unity is strength, division is weakness.” If only we all read and take those words to heart. I firmly believe that we, as individuals and as community, need to be here for one another. We truly are stronger when not divided.
As I read of 1,000 languages spoken throughout Africa, I think of the Somalians now living in my community. Many have overcome war, poverty and other unimaginable challenges to settle in Minnesota. And now they must also overcome language barriers and resentment. If only we would all pause for a moment and remember that, for most of us Minnesotans, English was not the native tongue of our immigrant forefathers. Mine spoke German. Others spoke Norwegian, French, Dutch…
I certainly can’t pronounce all of the words published in this book about Africa. Words like Uhuru, Yamoussoukro, Ugali and more. But I can appreciate the beauty of language, the way these words speak the rhythm of the continent of Africa.
Africa is the story of slavery, of dancing, of the world’s largest waterfall, of greatness, of so much richness and depth. You’ll find that, see that, read that in Amazing Africa: A to Z.
Minnesota is an expansive state, spanning 400 miles from north to south and 350 miles from east to west. So there’s lots to see and do from prairie to woodland, from lakes to rivers, from bluffs to valleys, from small towns to bigger cities. Larson offers a good mix of destinations and activities.
I should note that I feel a kinship with Larson in a commonality of roots. She was born in New Ulm, in Brown County next to my home county of Redwood in southwestern Minnesota. New Ulm, situated in the Minnesota River Valley and rich in German heritage and culture, has long been a favorite community of mine. There’s so much to see and do from touring and sampling beer at August Schell Brewing Company; shopping at compact German import store, Domeier’s; exploring Flandrau State Park along the Cottonwood River; watching the Glockenspiel; and lots more. Larson now lives in rural Brainerd and has already written a guide on the Minnesota Northwoods. Her love for Minnesota shines.
In creating this travel book, Larson divides her suggested “things to do” into five categories: Food and Drink, Music and Entertainment, Sports and Recreation, Culture and History, and Shopping and Fashion.
I so now want to try the chicken wild rice pizza at Poor Guy’s Pizza in Moose Lake. That—the wild rice part—sounds incredibly Minnesotan. I want to tour the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm to learn more about musicians and bands like Monroe Crossing, which performs each July Fourth in North Morristown. I want to wander among the 50 metal sculptures crafted by Ken Nyberg in Vining simply because I love outdoor public art. I want to tour the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Onamia to learn more about that region’s Indigenous peoples. I want to peruse the handcrafted goods at The Shoppes of Little Falls. I want to…
Yes, there’s a lot to do in Minnesota. Some things on Larson’s list, though, I won’t do. I won’t travel into the depths of the earth at the Soudan iron ore mine. I won’t climb to the top of a fire tower at Pequot Lakes, although I’ve hiked to it. I won’t zip through the trees 175 feet off the ground on a Kerfoot Canopy Tour in the Minnesota River Valley at Henderson. But other readers of Larson’s guidebook will and that’s good. Her “100 things to do” offers a variety of experiences and places that appeal to diverse interests.
As a life-long southern Minnesotan who has explored this region extensively, I especially appreciate Larson’s tips from other areas of this vast state. She even breaks down her list to activities by seasons and suggested itineraries. Black-and-white photos scattered through the pages and a centerfold of color images only further entice readers to get out and explore.
Bottom line, 100 Things to Do in Minnesota Before You Die rates as an excellent resource for anyone planning a road trip, looking for something to do/see while in a specific area of Minnesota or even just seeking to learn more about the North Star State.
Looking for a great slice of pie? Larson recommends (and so do I) the Rapidan Dam Store, yes, by the dam at Rapidan (which is near Mankato). Want to enjoy art in a top-notch museum along the Mississippi River? Visit the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona. Interested in a cave tour? Head to Niagra Cave near Harmony. Wanna see a replica Viking ship? The Hjemkost Center in Moorhead features one. Need a book fix? Visit any one of Minnesota’s independent bookstores.
IT’S NOT ENOUGH. I recognize that. It’s not enough to simply read books about black history and racism in America and call it good. But reading is a step toward widening my knowledge and understanding and then my compassion. So I will continue to read, and learn.
I recently finished Lift Your Voice—How My Nephew George Floyd’s Murder Changed the World. Angela Harrelson—who is Floyd’s aunt, lives in Minneapolis and works as a registered nurse—wrote this book with Michael Levin. Floyd, known as “Perry” to his family, died on May 25, 2020, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, three now serving prison time in Floyd’s death, the fourth awaiting a judge’s decision on charges.
On the day I turned the last pages of Lift Your Voice, family, friends and activists were raising their voices at the funeral of Tyre Nichols, who was brutally beaten by police during a traffic stop in Memphis and died three days later. Listening to a portion of that service, a speaker called the young black man a “son, father, brother, friend and human being.” Human being. Those two words emerge in Harrelson’s book when she writes of (those) white people who don’t see black people as human beings. She traces that back to slavery (when slaves were viewed as property), sharing her own family history of slavery and lynchings.
Harrelson specifically cites Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin as failing to view her nephew as a human being. Chauvin kneeled/pressed on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the young man lay handcuffed and face down on the street pleading for his life, “I can’t breathe.”
It’s a lot, this book. To read about Floyd’s tragic death and the deeply personal stories of Harrelson and her family and all they’ve endured simply because of the color of their skin is difficult. But stories resonate and make an impact. When she writes of “white privilege” as something held simply because of white skin color and unrelated to wealth and status, that clicked for me. Unlike Harrelson, I don’t have to think about being watched in public, suspected of something, anything, because of my skin color. Harrelson does and she shares specifics.
Her book covers topics of systemic racism, a police culture that needs to change (she’s not anti-police), the emotional exhaustion and trauma she feels, the importance of faith in her life, her role as an activist. But she doesn’t stop there. Harrelson calls for each of us, individually, to call out racism, to speak up when we see injustices, to treat each other with respect.
In my own community, I’ve, on more than one occasion, found myself responding to racist comments related to housing, employment, even the way people dress or their scent. It’s hard to hear this stereotyping, this obvious disrespect and racism. So I speak up, or as George “Perry” Floyd’s aunt encourages, I lift my voice. Lifting voices and being heard is how, Harrelson writes, the world will heal.
OF ALL THE BOOKS I could have pulled from the “new fiction” section at Buckham Memorial Library, I chose, among others, one by a Minnesotan. But not until I was several chapters into the book did I flip to the back pages for information about the author, Barbara A. Luker.
I was delighted to learn that Luker hails from St. Peter, a college town in the Minnesota River Valley some 40 miles west of Faribault. To discover another Minnesota writer always pleases me. Luker works full-time for the City of St. Peter and is fairly new to writing books.
It was the title and the simple cover art—a small cut-out heart-shaped cookie next to a larger one—that first drew my eye to I Carry Your Heart. I bake similar plain heart-shaped cookies from my mom’s Cream Cheese Roll-out Cookies recipe each Valentine’s Day. Yes, cover art and titles matter to me given all the books out there. And this art connected to me personally.
Then I turned to the back cover for the story summary. The plot sounded interesting enough to add the book to those already stashed inside my cloth Boomerang bag reserved for library check-outs. I Carry Your Heart, a title taken from e.e. cummings’ poem of the same name, is, as you might guess, a love story. And, yes, there’s romance, a genre I don’t typically read and which made me blush.
This book is truly a tender, multi-layered love story. Not only of romantic love, but also of family love and community love and the sacrifices sometimes made for love.
This is a generational story that takes the reader back in time to reveal secrets kept by Abigail Lillian Peterson Ward. When she dies unexpectedly, her granddaughter, whom Abigail appointed to sort through her belongings, uncovers another side, another truth about her Nan.
The story felt somewhat predictable to me. Yet there were enough twists to surprise me at times and certainly to hold my interest to the end.
I appreciate also the Minnesota influence in the writing. The author shows her roots, for example, in the fictional town described as like a Norman Rockwell painting by one character. In my mind I pictured Luker’s hometown of St. Peter. I could also envision the church ladies serving a luncheon after Abigail’s funeral and the turkey commercials served in her restaurant. Both are, oh, so Minnesotan (although I’m more familiar with a beef commercial). Details like that add authenticity.
All in all, I Carry Your Heart proved a good read, even if in a genre I don’t typically choose.
MINNESOTA SEEMS, TO ME, a hotbed for writers. And five days ago we lost one of our most beloved, Howard Mohr. He was perhaps best-known for his wildly popular, at least in Minnesota, book, How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide, published in 1987. The book was later updated and adapted into an equally popular musical.
Many years have passed since I read my copy of this entertaining, humorous, and, yes, truthful, summary of Minnesota life. In honor of Mohr, who died September 4 of Parkinson’s at Fieldcrest Assisted Living in Cottonwood, I pulled my book from the shelf and reread it.
That Mohr, 83, recently moved from his Lyon County farm home of 52 years to a facility called Fieldcrest seems especially fitting. He lived in farming country, my native southwestern Minnesota, the place of small towns defined by grain elevators and land defined by fields of corn and soybean. He understood the people and place of the prairie. So when I read the sentence in his book declaring the produce of Minnesota writers to be as valuable as a crop of soybeans and corn, I felt he nailed it.
I’ve long celebrated writers rooted in the prairie like Mohr, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Frederick Manfred, Leo Dangel… My friend Larry Gavin of Faribault, too, poet and writer who studied under those writers and lived for 15 years on the prairie. Some shared their knowledge, their talents, by teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. That’s near Cottonwood. Mohr taught English at Southwest State. He also penned Minnesota Book of Days, How to Tell a Tornado (poetry and prose) and wrote for “A Prairie Home Companion,” also appearing on the show.
I’m most familiar with How to Talk Minnesotan. The content reflects my rural upbringing. The dairy and crop farm of my youth lies a mere 15 miles to the south and east of Cottonwood, thus rereading Mohr’s book is like traveling back home, a reminder of that which defines me as a native of rural Redwood County. Even after nearly 40 years of living in Faribault, in town, I still call the noon-time meal “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.” My adult kids don’t, so I/they, always clarify when invitations are extended to a meal. To me “lunch” will always come mid-afternoon or in the evening before guests leave.
Mohr’s references to the noon whistle, Jell-O (once popular, not so much now) winter survival kits, snowbirds (those who leave Minnesota in the winter and return in the spring), hotdish (casserole), pancake feeds, seed corn caps, lutefisk, Lutherans, bullheads (smaller versions of catfish), the “long goodbye” all resonate. I especially understand his point that Minnesotans are obsessed with the weather. We are.
Some 10-plus years ago, when my now son-in-law moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles after falling in love with my eldest daughter, I gifted him with Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. I figured this would help him adjust to our language and state. Whether it did or didn’t, I don’t know. But Marc hasn’t moved back to his native California. And he never commented on Mohr’s statement that Californians struggle to adapt to life in Minnesota. Marc fits in just fine. I do recall, though, his comment on “bars,” a word with duo meaning here in our state. “Bars” are both a place to gather and drink alcohol and a baked or unbaked sweet treat (made with lots of sugar and often topped with chocolate) pressed or spread into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.
Maybe I really ought to make a pan of bars, cut them into squares, plate and serve them with coffee for “a little lunch” as a way to honor Howard Mohr, writer, satirist, humorist. He yielded a mighty fine crop of writing.
FYI:I encourage you to read Mohr’s obituary by clicking here. Be sure to read the insightful and loving comments. And if you haven’t read How to Talk Minnesotan, do. If you’re Minnesotan, it will be a refresher course in our life and language. If you’re not from here, you’ll better understand us upon reading this guide.
I remember the mural from my last visit here in 2013. I appreciate this public art now as much as I did then, for art can reveal much about a place.
While Plainview has lost some of its “arts” character with closure of the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center, it will always claim title (along with Staples) as the boyhood home (s) of noted Minnesota writer Jon Hassler. He moved to Plainview with his parents at the age of 10, remaining there until shortly after his 1951 high school graduation.
Hassler, one of Minnesota’s most-beloved authors, focused his fiction on small town life. That includes Grand Opening, a novel based on Plainview. As in real life, the main character’s parents buy a run-down grocery store in rural Minnesota.
While I have not yet read Grand Opening, I just finished Days Like Smoke, A Minnesota Boyhood. This is Hassler’s memoir, a manuscript published by Afton Press in 2021, many years after the author’s 2008 death. Edited by friend Will Weaver, another well-known Minnesota writer, this slim volume offers insights into Plainview, into Hassler’s experiences there and how that shaped his writing. He credits his parents’ Red Owl Grocery Store as the training grounds for his writing, the place where he acquired the latent qualities necessary to the novelist. In that grocery store, Hassler stocked shelves, ground coffee, interacted with and observed customers, and more.
This sentence in Hassler’s memoir is so telling of the influence Plainview had on his writing: I see the villagers passing along the checkout counter like the cast of characters they eventually turned out to be in my novel about this village in the corn. I love that phrase, “village in the corn,” for it fits agriculturally-based Plainview. The community is home to food processors, Plainview Milk Products Cooperative and Lakeside Foods, and celebrates Corn on the Cob Days each summer. Farming centers the local economy.
It’s the people, though, including the characters, who truly define community. And Hassler shares plenty from Plainview, where he lived across from the stockyards for awhile, tried to derail a train, played high school football for the Gophers, watched endless movies at the Gem Theater, bloodied the nose of a third grader, sat at the bedside of his dying 11-year-old friend, biked to the bluffs along the Whitewater River to camp and fish, served as an altar boy…
In his memoir, Hassler remembers St. Joachim’s Catholic Church and Immanuel Lutheran Churchstanding as sentinels of the soul at opposite ends of Main Street. That’s such an insightful visual. Hassler valued his Catholic upbringing and faith throughout his life. But he also admits in his memoir to the strong current of religious animosity running under the surface of daily life in the village of my youth between Catholics and Lutherans. This comes as no surprise to me, growing up in rural Minnesota with the same denominational tension.
It was that undercurrent—specifically the defeat of Hassler’s father in a school board election—which ultimately caused Hassler’s parents to leave Plainview and return to Staples. He writes: I, newly graduated from high school, loved Plainview too dearly to follow them.
Hassler’s love for Plainview endured, long after he left to attend college, then to teach, then to write and then to retire in 1997 after 17 years as writer-in-residence at Saint John’s University. Visit Plainview today and you get a strong sense of the place that shaped this writer. While businesses and people have come and gone, at its core, this remains “the village in the corn.”
TELL ME: Have you read any of Jon Hassler’s 12 novels or his nonfiction? I’d love to hear your take on his writing and what books you recommend.
Please check back for more posts from Plainview next week.Be sure to read my previous posts on Plainview published this week.
ARE YOU STRUGGLING with everyday tasks? Unable to get out of bed? Feeling hopeless? Overwhelmed?
You are not alone. I think all of us have struggled during this past pandemic year. Maybe not to the extent of the challenges listed, but in other ways. It’s been a lot. I’m thankful that, if anything good comes from this pandemic, it’s an increased awareness of mental health issues.
I am grateful for writers like K.J. (Kristine) Joseph for opening up about her clinical depression in her powerful memoir, Simply Because We Are Human. The Minnesota author reveals her life-long struggles with an incurable disease caused by a chemical imbalance in her brain. And that’s important to note—that depression like hers has a physical cause that can be treated, not cured. Clinical depression is much deeper than the typical I’m-feeling-kind-of-down today.
“If only my pain and illness were visible to the world…then people would understand,” Joseph writes. She’s right. Mental illness needs to be viewed through the same lens as any other illness. Except we know it all too often isn’t. The stigma remains. The lack of understanding remains. The misinformation remains. Too many still think you can will yourself, or snap yourself, out of depression or other mental illness. That doesn’t work.
That’s why books like this are so important in changing perceptions, in educating, and in building empathy and understanding.
For Joseph, her first memory of the darkness which would enter her life occurred at age eight. At age 13, feelings of emptiness, non-stop crying, sadness and, for the first time, suicidal thoughts developed. In her 20s, she would once again contemplate suicide as she stood in her kitchen, knife in hand.
It was the death of a 17-year-old friend in high school that propelled Joseph to open up about her depression. I especially appreciate Joseph’s assessment of Matt’s depression-caused suicide: “Matt took his own life because he was sick, and that was how I saw it.” By writing that, she helps ease blame and guilt which often follow a suicide.
In telling her story, Joseph also writes about ways in which she manages her clinical depression. And that is via medication, hard work and taking care of herself. She is a runner, a life-long interest/activity tracing back to childhood. In high school, she ran on the track team, even competed in the state meet. Running helps manage her depression, putting her in a calm, meditative state.
Therein lie the additional strengths of Joseph’s memoir. She offers hope. She reveals how she navigates her depression, what works for her, including taking medication. She acknowledges the reality of her mental illness. And she is open about her struggles. I applaud Joseph for writing about her clinical depression, for her raw honesty, for sharing her stories. For it is through personal stories that we most connect. And begin to understand.
May marks Mental Health Awareness Month. I pledge to continue my efforts to raise awareness and to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Please read previous reviews I’ve written on books about mental illnesses by clicking here, then here, next, here, and, finally, here.
In a nutshell, This Tender Land tells the story of orphaned brothers, Odie and Albert, who are sent to the Lincoln Indian Training School, although they are not Native Americans. Yes, such schools really existed long ago. The school is not so much a school as a prison with cruelty and abuse defining life there.
This fictional book, set primarily in southern Minnesota along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, weaves actual history into the storyline. Much of that history focuses on the mistreatment of native peoples during and following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 and how that carried through to subsequent generations. I’m familiar with that history having grown up in Redwood County, at the epicenter (along with Brown County) of that war. Krueger clearly did his research and then took that information and made it personal through characters, scenes and setting.
But this is much more than a historically-based book of fiction. This is a story about family and friends, about searching and discovery, about hope and despair, about love and loss, about cruelty and kindness, about redefining rich and poor, about anger and spirituality and forgiveness and finding one’s self. This book really makes you think as the story twists and turns and all those themes emerge.
At one point, after reading a line on page 288, I cried. When was the last time you cried while reading a book? I cried at 12-year-old Odie’s observation of women who’ve suffered and yet never given up hope, who’ve forgiven… It was a powerful sentence for me personally.
When a book can move me like that, I feel a deep respect for the author, for his talent, for his writing. There’s a reason William Kent Krueger’s books are bestsellers and in demand at libraries. He writes with depth and authenticity in ways that resonate.
But there’s more to this I need to read this book than its mystery classification. The author grew up in Pierz. My husband likewise is from the area and knew the Weber family. Frank’s mom was Randy’s teacher, a brother a classmate.
The book is set primarily in and around Pierz. I was curious to see how the setting would weave into the plot. We writers are often advised to “write what you know.” The author’s familiarity with rural Morrison County and its people and his knowledge as a forensic psychologist are deeply imprinted throughout this fictional story.
Murder Book held my interest from beginning to end as I tried to determine what happened to 16-year-old Mandy Baker who vanished, followed by the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl some 10 years later.
The story narration switches between the main character, Jon Frederick, key suspect in Mandy’s disappearance and now a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator; Serena Bell, Jon’s long ago love interest; and the perpetrator, Panthera. This method of storytelling offers in-depth character insights that define this book as a psychological thriller. Jon, for example, exhibits obsessive traits in his fixation on numbers and more. Panthera’s narcissism shows in his thought process and horrific crimes.
This is much more than simply a whodunit story of crimes, resolution of those crimes and a look at minds of criminals, the accused and victims. The author, raised in a Catholic family of 10 children, incorporates the region’s strong Catholicism and faith base into his book. I would expect that in a story set in Pierz.
Throughout the story, Weber also includes powerful statements that are especially credible in the context of his extensive experience as a forensic psychologist. According to his back book cover blurb, he has completed assessments for homicide, sexual assault and physical assault cases. In particular, I took note of these statements written into this work of fiction:
The perfect victim is the one who never goes to the police.
You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.
Narcissists…can’t stand being denied.
No family member comes out of a bad situation unscathed…
Our most powerful drive is a desire for affirmation—to be heard, understood, comforted, and soothed.
There’s one more nuance of setting that I appreciate about Weber’s book. He writes about rocks pocking the landscape of Morrison County. I have seen many a rock pile in this central Minnesota region and heard many a story about rock picking from my husband. And now I’ve heard another, this time associated with a fictional crime.
FYI:Murder Book, the title of Weber’s mystery, is defined as follows: the twenty-first century term for a cold case where a homicide is suspected.