When I think of Minnesota, I think of Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” I loved Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and I think any contemplation of Minnesota must include some sort of reference to it, despite the allegations of sexual misconduct by Keillor and his no longer being associated with the show. However, I’ve read all of Keillor’s books and been a longtime listener of the show, and I’m trying not to include books on my list that I’ve already read. So… what else is there for Minnesota?
According to the article I read that started me off on this journey, the most famous book set in Minnesota is Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street… which I had never heard of until then, despite having lived in neighboring Wisconsin for 15 years. Additionally, the Other Blogger covered Main Street when she covered Minnesota, and I try not to cover the same books she has done.
Despite saying that, I’m really tempted by The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang, another of Andrea’s reads. Milwaukee has a large Hmong population, and I’ve been wanting to read this book since it came out in 2008, while I was still living there. It’s also on Book Riot’s list of Best Books by State for Minnesota, so I will probably at least put it on my alternates list.
Next I started looking at Louise Erdrich books. Some of her books are set in Minnesota, and some in North Dakota (including The Painted Drum, which I picked up at a Little Free Library near me and have been holding onto until I get to North Dakota). I don’t know how much overlap there is between her books, and I was a little hesitant to add one for Minnesota, since I know I have one for North Dakota. So I thought I would give her dystopian novel a try… Oh! You didn’t know Louise Erdrich wrote a dystopia? I was surprised too! It’s called Future Home of the Living God, and was published in 2017. It’s not bad so far, but it’s not a good choice for getting to know Minnesota (UPDATE: Actually, it turned out to be pretty good for Minnesota setting-wise! Review here.).
I also want to mention the other book that I think of when I hear “Minnesota,” and it’s probably not a book most people have heard of. At the time I first read it, I had never been to Minneapolis and St. Paul, but the images from this book are still what drift into my head when I hear “Twin Cities.” War for the Oaks by Emma Bull was published in 1987, and I probably read it shortly after that, while I was still in high school. It is the first urban fantasy book I remember reading, and I absolutely loved it. Still do. There are some wonderful… er… battles… set in and around prominent downtown buildings on Hennepin Avenue. (Actually, now that I write this, that is probably what I was hoping for from Erdrich’s dystopian book… oh well.) So even though I’m not officially adding it to this list, it is definitely on my list of books for Minnesota!
UPDATE: One last note–my final reading list for Minnesota could really benefit from a book (like War For the Oaks) that’s set in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Future Home of the Living God is partly set there and has some great bits and pieces, and there is a small part of These Granite Islands which sees Isabella living in St. Paul as an elderly woman, but I think what I’m really missing is The Latehomecomer. I’m moving on for now, but I think I’ll have to do a Revisit at some point to rectify this!
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien (1994) – When I saw Tim O’Brien’s name on this, my ears perked up. His book, The Things They Carried is one of the few books about the Vietnam War that I have read all the way through. It was a masterpiece. So, although the premise of In the Lake of the Woods sounds interesting by itself, I’m not sure I would have read it if it weren’t for O’Brien’s name on the cover. Dealing with the long term consequences of war-time atrocities is not something I would trust to just anyone. I’ve had this one on my Want to Read list for quite some time. (Goodreads link.)
These Granite Islands by Sarah Stonich (2001) – Set partly in Duluth, on the westernmost tip of Lake Superior, and mostly in the nearby small, fictional town of Cypress, this historical fiction flits back and forth between the 1930s and 1999, telling the story of Isobel Howard. Cypress itself is a town of immigrants–primarily Finnish and Welsh–many of whom work in a local iron mine. The granite of the title is also prominent in the story. This is one I recently found at a local Little Free Library near me.
The Night Birds by Thomas Maltman (2007) – “The intertwining story of three generations of German immigrants to the Midwest—their clashes with slaveholders, the Dakota uprising and its aftermath—is seen through the eyes of young Asa Senger, named for an uncle killed by an Indian friend. It is the unexpected appearance of Asa’s aunt Hazel, institutionalized since shortly after the mass hangings of thirty-eight Dakota warriors in Mankato in 1862, that reveals to him that the past is as close as his own heartbeat.” (From the Goodreads publisher’s blurb.)
Morte D’Urban by J. F. Powers (1962) – While not quite as… er… old… as Main Street, Morte D’Urban seems to be as much of a classic or more in certain circles. Again, it’s not one I’d heard of before, but it did win the National Book Award in 1963. According to the publisher’s blurb on Goodreads,
“The hero of J.F. Powers’s comic masterpiece is Father Urban, a man of the cloth who is also a man of the world. Charming, with an expansive vision of the spiritual life and a high tolerance for moral ambiguity, Urban enjoys a national reputation as a speaker on the religious circuit,” until he is banished to Minnesota.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016) – This is a memoir, which is not a genre I usually include on my state list. Added to that, Jahren is a scientist whose adventures have taken her all over the world, and her lab is currently in Hawaii, which makes me a little leery that this one may be too broad-based to be good for this challenge. However, she grew up in Minnesota, and her specialties are earth sciences and paleobiology, so I’m hopeful that this will lead to some great descriptions of Minnesota. Incidentally, there is a note on the Goodreads page from Ms Jahren (answering a question about the book’s appropriateness for a younger audience) that indicates that the Junior Library Guild has “assessed Lab Girl as appropriate ‘For Grades 9 & Up’.” So, I suppose this could be considered as a Young Adult choice for Minnesota. UPDATE: I started this one, but it really didn’t seem like it would work for this challenge. There were a few bits of Minnesota there–especially references to Jahren’s stoic American-Scandinavian background–but not enough to really base a review on. Did Not Finish.
Esme Dooley by Jane Donovan, Rosie McTozy, and Holly Trechter (2013) – This Young Readers’ historical fiction is set in rural Minnesota in 1904. “Troubles beset eleven-year-old Esme. Dangled over wells, thrown into root cellars, and forced to empty chamber pots, she longs for a better life. Yet her latest runaway scheme has failed miserably, like all the others. And now her murderous guardian has sold her to a workhouse on Rag-Picker’s Row. Just in time, Esme hears a startling secret that could very well change her destiny. She lights out on a golden journey with her cousin Tommy to recover (more than one) family treasure. As they navigate the rugged wilderness, they encounter tinkers, seamstresses, soothsayers, one-eyed sharpshooters — and more.” (From the Goodreads publisher’s blurb.) UPDATE: I did read this one, but it wasn’t great–either in general or in terms of the reading challenge. Not terrible, just not great. It’s a fun, fast-paced adventure book for around 4th grade, with some accurate historical setting and information, and the historical “stuff” is camouflaged for reluctant readers, but there were also a few inaccuracies and bits that were just too much of a stretch. And I think one would be hard-pressed to pin down the location without knowing it’s set in Minnesota (and Wisconsin). The highlight there was the Mississippi River, which makes an appearance, along with a steamboat.
Frozen by Mary Casanova (2012) – I was disappointed in Esme Dooley, and I wanted to find an alternate Young Adult or Young Reader book. I discovered an author who writes for all ages and lives in northern Minnesota. Mary Casanova has written books for little kids, elementary age, and high school to young adults. I’m adding Frozen as my official Young Adult pick for Minnesota–it involves a young woman who hasn’t spoken for 11 years (at the time the story takes place), since being found in a snowbank. There is a mystery surrounding her mother, who was a prostitute–what happened to her, and why was she working as a prostitute anyway–along with a corrupt politician, and a timeframe that includes Prohibition, the suffragist movement, and industrialism versus wildlife conservation in the north woods.
Alternates for Minnesota
The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang (2008) – As I mentioned above, Waukesha, Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee, has a large Hmong population. This community was part of our outreach when I worked for the local Girl Scout council in the late 1990s. Although I didn’t work with the community directly, one of the co-workers I was friends with did, and I learned a bit about the culture through her. So when this novel came out in 2008, I was immediately interested. However, my son was born that year, and I was working on my Master’s degree, so… I never got around to reading it. But when I started this reading project I mentally marked it to read. (Goodreads link.)
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (2000) – “This is the story of Father Damien Modeste, priest to his beloved people, the Ojibwe. Modeste, nearing the end of his life, dreads the discovery of his physical identity — for he is a woman who has lived as a man.” (From Goodreads publisher’s blurb.) What a hook! My main hesitation in adding this one is that it is actually the last in a series of books (Love Medicine), and I’m not sure how essential it will be to have read the others. I will probably read this, but if I discover that I really need to read the others first, I will make note of it here… and probably won’t do a review. I should also note that I’ve found conflicting information about whether the fictional reservation in these books is in Minnesota or North Dakota. I’m listing it in Minnesota, but if I find something more conclusive about which state it should be, I’ll update.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (2017) – Despite what I said above based on my first impressions, this one turned out to be pretty good for our challenge–enough so that I’ve done a full review. Mostly, though, it made me want to read more by Erdrich. It takes place in the Twin Cities and a reservation further north.
Moose Tracks & Wolf Shadows by Mary Casanova (1995 & 1999) – I’m adding these in the Alternates section. They are a pair of books for Young Readers that I’ve gotten for my
self son. Moose Tracks involves responsible gun ownership, hunting and poaching. Wolf Shadows takes on the pros and cons of bringing back the wolves.