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Reading Minnesota

Posted in Books,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 27th, 2022

Perhaps it’s the pandemic’s influence. Without especially meaning to, I’ve recently found myself reading works set in or about Minnesota–the place I identify as home even though Ronald Reagan was still president the last time I actually resided there. None of the books has struck me as deeply as Emily Fridlund‘s History of Wolves, a brilliant 2017 novel about a girl forced to find her own way in the world despite brutal parental indifference that I first encountered several years ago. But all of them have moved me in one way or another.

Hijinx and Hearsay: Scenester Stories from Minnesota’s Pop Life by Martin Keller (text) and Greg Helgeson (photographs) brought me back to my teens and early twenties with its recollections of the Twin Cities music and comedy scenes from the early 1980s: local gigs by national artists, regular livehouse appearances by local bands, sketches of the backstage people at local clubs and labels that kept things running. In part, this was because I attended many of the shows that Keller depicts here, and in part because I grew up with Keller (via his gig as editor of local alternative weekly newspapers) as my virtual guide to everything that was cool and worthwhile in my hometown. Encountering that voice and sensibility again was sheer pleasure.

Solar Storms

Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms is a 1995 novel that somehow escaped my notice until recently. It brought me to a part of Minnesota I know only tangentially: an isolated Native American settlement on the fringes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area up north, circa 1971. A troubled teen-age girls returns to her birth family relatives in an attempt to discover the truth of her own violent past–only to step into the middle of the ongoing violence of ‘progress.’ Set at the dawn of the American Indian Movement, the story foreshadows the Standing Rock protests of recent years and takes its readers on an imaginary journey through an alternative mode of living with the world around us.


John Reimringer’s Vestments feels like the work of a present-day heir to the fiction of J.F. Powers and Jon Hassler. The hero is a disgraced young priest whose difficulties adhering to the vow of celibacy force him out of the pulpit and back into the too-tight embrace of his own troubled family in St. Paul. At one point in the story, the hero lives approximate two blocks from the house on Hague Avenue where I grew up: he visits the bars and restaurants I knew as a young adult, encounters the same folks in them that I did back in the day. Reading fiction set in the Twin Cities, I often find myself alienated when the author gets a detail wrong (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Franzen), but to my eyes Reimringer gets everything right.

Good People

Speaking of Jon Hassler, I recently with reluctance allowed myself to read The New Woman, the last work in his Staggerford series that my father introduced me to circa 1988. I’ve been savoring the novels over the decades but at last reached the end of the line. I discovered recently, however, that Hassler also put out collections of short stories and essays, as well. I started with his out-of-print 2001 collection, Good People…from an Author’s Life: I bought the Cobb County Public Library’s old de-accessioned copy from an online dealer. As Hassler admits in his preface, it’s tough to write an interesting book about goodness–in terms of thematic interest, it literally pales next to evil. But it’s also a mellow pleasure to read his anecdotes about the people he lived among who became models for the denizens of fictional Staggerford, Minnesota.

Shadow Prey

A friend recommended John Sandford’s 1990 thriller, Shadow Prey. I rarely read murder mysteries, but this one is set in the Twin Cities: a serial killer is on the prowl among the local Native American community. The book is in some ways the antithesis of Hogan’s novel: a white male cop plumbs the threatening other-world of indigenous culture. But it again gets the local details of the paranoid world of its protagonist right: reading it, I knew which diner the hero was visiting, which streets housed the villains’ hideout.

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