This was a last minute addition, and I’m really glad I found it–Casanova does a really nice job with the northern Minnesota setting in her Young Adult novel Frozen.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on setting–books where the setting is really tangible, and we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. Right now we are almost finished with Minnesota.
My original choice for young readers for Minnesota–Esme Dooley–wasn’t as good for this challenge as I’d hoped, but I stumbled across Mary Casanova, and this one was a winner. I’m definitely adding Ice-Out (Goodreads link) to my Want to Read list–it’s a follow-up book, loosely connected to Frozen (following Owen, a character Sadie knows) and set in the same area. And if you are interested in more of a young reader’s book, I’d suggest Moose Tracks and Wolf Shadows, also by Mary Casanova, which I’ll eventually be reading as well (though probably not reviewing).
I would say that Frozen and Ice-Out are meant for a slightly older audience than the other two, and are more historical fiction, whereas the others are more contemporary with a heavier emphasis on the environmental themes that seem to run in Casanova’s books. I think Frozen is technically classed as Young Adult, but it’s probably closer to a middle school read–the themes are there (Sadie’s mom was a prostitute, and there is some violence), but they are dealt with in a very circumspect manner. So circumspect, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that Sadie Rose is supposed to be 16 years old, at least until close to the very end.
For our challenge purposes, though, the book is filled with little details–scents and sounds, vistas of lake and timber, and even the slapping of hands against gnats and mosquitoes.
Nimble as the mink that darted in and out of the dock’s supporting log cribs, Victor untied his canoe, stepped in gently, and pushed off. Then he carved his paddle into the water, heading toward the lift bridge that connected Ranier with Canada. Beyond the bridge, a speck of a tugboat pulled a boom of floating logs. With a lasso of heavy chain, tugboats corralled thousands of cords of logs from Rainy Lake, sluiced them under the lift bridge, and floated them downriver to the paper mill.
There are many passages like this, where we see the juxtaposition of the wilderness with the clearcutting destruction of it.
And often, moments of tension in the book are broken or emphasized by an image of a bird–a loon or an eagle, or even a raven.
As the wagon drove on, I noticed the raven he’d tried to avoid. The black bird fluffed its feathers, wings extended as it returned to pecking at its small decaying treasure.
In the end, we have almost a dozen bird species, though several are vague. Casanova mentions mallards, bald eagles, pileated woodpeckers, white pelicans, ravens, blue jays, common loons, white-throated sparrows, and turkey vultures, as well as the vague “merganser,” “cormorant,” and “seagulls.” Of these, we can determine that only the Double-crested Cormorant would be seen in Minnesota, however, there are 3 species of mergansers that could be seen in the area, and the two most common both have crests, which is the only descriptor she gives. But Casanova’s descriptions of loons make up for the merganser.
A loon popped up only yards from the passenger boat, and then another, white spots covering their black bodies like countless stars. One started to sing; then the other took up its melancholy wail—lyrical and beautiful—filled with aching sadness.
Casanova also is careful to vary the trees in her forests–her forests are not just “pine” forests; she mentions white pine, red pine, Norway pine, jack pine, as well as other conifers–cedars, balsam fir, spruce, and the tamarack we’ve seen in several other Minnesota books–and she often gives little descriptors when she mentions them (golden tamarack, or short stubby jack pine, or tall Norway pine, and so on). It really brings the setting to life, and it’s clear she’s intimately familiar with it–after all, she lives in Ranier.
Ranier (and International Falls) is located in northern Minnesota, right along the Canadian border. In the map below (from the Wikipedia page for Ranier), Ranier is circled, and International Falls is the city marked in gray just to the west. The Kettle Falls Hotel, which is part of Voyageurs National Park, is located on the tip of the first noticeable peninsula to the east of Koochiching County (marked in red on the Minnesota map).
I found the map on the National Park Service site to be a little confusing–I had a difficult time locating the US-Canadian border or any of the towns I was looking for–but it does give a good idea of the maze of waterways in the park. The images Casanova gives us of these waterways didn’t seem quite as closed and shifting as they have in several of our other books. Perhaps it’s a matter of scale–the lakes and waterways in These Granite Islands are smaller than those in Frozen–but O’Brien also plays with the idea of getting lost in the waterways of Lake of the Woods. Despite the possibility of getting lost, we don’t feel a sense of panic.
I looked ahead to uneven shapes of green: islands, peninsulas, bays. I thought I’d know how to find my way to Baird’s Island, but from this spot in Sand Bay, everything looked like an endless landscape of varying hues of green and blue. It had seemed so simple when I’d sat in the bow of Victor’s canoe, with the mainland staying pretty much on the right, and the larger body of water–and Canada–to the left. Now I realized it wasn’t that easy.
For Sadie Rose, and for Isabella in These Granite Islands, the waterways represent a new-found freedom and independence, with both women overcoming their own fears and restrictions to learn to navigate the waterways alone.
I was like the earth after a long winter, thawing under the warmth of the sun. I was filled with questions, ready to explore and discover–to be alive–fit to burst with restlessness and unformed questions. … I’d row to Baird’s Island, which I figured I’d manage to find since I’d passed it the other day with Victor.
There are tidbits throughout the book about the women’s sufferage movement and mini-discussions of related topics.
When I tried to think of women who had found a way to claim their own lives, I came up short. Mrs. Worthington had grown up with money, but everything she’d inherited was funneled through Mr. Worthington, despite the fact that she’d come from St. Paul’s Kresler family. She waited on Mr. Worthington’s every decision, as if she didn’t have a voice of her own. … And there was Darla. She ran her own business, hired out her own fancy ladies. She was a businesswoman, yes. But the price of such independence was high for her girls. Meg’s tragic stories had helped make that abundantly clear to me. I wondered if Darla slept well at night.
Voyageurs only became a National Park in 1975, so the issues of preservation versus industry that Casanova discusses in the book were very pertinent to the area until fairly recently. In her Author’s Note, Casanova tells us that the characters of Victor Guttenberg and E. W. Ennis are based on real people: “wealthy industrialist and timber baron E. W. Backus and the penniless and emerging environmentalist Ernest Oberholtzer,” whom she refers to as “larger-than-life “David and Goliath” characters.”
Wikipedia’s article on Backus is pretty scanty, but what’s there is pretty close to what Casanova tells us about his involvement in the dam at International Falls, his lumber- and papermills, and his plans for a network of dams throughout the region, which were “opposed by environmentalists, notably Ernest Oberholtzer.”
The article on Oberholtzer is only slightly better, noting that he went on to help found The Wilderness Society (along with Aldo Leopold), and sporting a picture of Oberholtzer with his Ojibwe guide (mentioned by Owen in a mini-rant on the subject of white privilege). As a related aside, the article indicates that Oberholtzer spoke fluent Ojibwe and was an advocate for Native Americans in the region, so despite Owen’s very real concerns, it appears that the real-life Oberholtzer didn’t totally dismiss his guide’s contributions (although perhaps the noble disappearing Indian was simply a conveniently useful argument in his fight against Backus).
The information on the National Park Service site is slightly more informative:
In the 1910s E.W. Backus, a wealthy and powerful timber baron, built rock-masonry water storage dams near Kettle Falls that facilitated the movement of logs downstream. Construction and control of these dams affected lake levels, causing unnatural fluctuations in each of the region’s large lakes. This damaged wild rice stands and fish habitat, and led to grievances from local environmentalists, including writer and conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer. In 1925 Backus, who had become the second largest paper producer in the world, proposed building several additional dams in the region. It was the most ambitious private hydro-electric development ever launched in America. Opposition by Oberholtzer and other conservationists was strong; they countered with a proposal to preserve the natural beauty of the shorelines for recreation and to preserve the resources that the Ojibwe needed for their traditional lifestyles. Backus’s plan instigated a long and contentious debate, which eventually ended in 1930 with the passage of the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act. The Act prohibited construction of dams without Congressional approval, restricted logging near waterways, and ended homesteading in some areas.
There’s no indication I could find that Backus was ever involved in any sort of scandal involving the death of a prostitute, though we are all too well aware of how common such involvement would have been for men in powerful positions.
And, surprisingly enough, this is our second Minnesota book with a character suffering from bipolar disorder. I have to say that I felt Casanova did her character (and readers) a bit of a disservice by shunting her happily off to a mental asylum. I realize it would have been difficult for her to do justice to that topic within the scope of the novel she already had, but then perhaps she shouldn’t have begun addressing it. It’s definitely preferable to Stonich’s method of killing off the character, but it comes across as a naively optimistic resolution.
Overall, I’m really glad I added this one to my list for Minnesota! There are many little tidbits throughout (for instance, when Sadie runs away, she chooses the pseudonym Catherine Willer in homage to her favorite author, Willa Cather, whose My Antonia she has just read), and a number of topics that we haven’t even touched on–the selective mutism of the main character, for one, and the tidbits we get about Ojibwe culture, for another–but in terms of setting and our reading challenge, this one was a clear win! We’ve got one more, then we’re moving on to Idaho. Stay tuned!