Meander North with me

My and your favorite posts from the first nine years of this blog have been published in my book, “Meander North.” My 101-year-old aunt just read it and approves! She’s read a lot of books in her life, so her opinion counts. 🙂

You can purchase the book from Itasca Books. Just click on this link.

One of my writer friends wrote a thoughtful review of the book, in case my aunt isn’t enough to convince you.

Book Review: The Net Beneath Us

Debut novelist Carol Dunbar is living a dream. She’s been slogging along in the local writing trenches of the Duluth-Superior area for years. She gained some local notoriety and then hit it big, signing with an agent and getting a two-book deal with a national publisher.

But it almost didn’t happen. During a recent Wisconsin Writers Association (WWA) conference Dunbar said that ten years into her twelve-year journey writing her novel, a flood in her office made her want to quit. She printed out a draft of her manuscript and was about to begin querying agents. She had written notes in the margins and on the backs of pages – things she wanted to address before she sent out the document.

Carol Dunbar discusses her book at its launch in Duluth, Minnesota, earlier this year.

Dunbar’s writing office lies underneath two 250-gallon water tanks that serve her off-the-grid home in the woods. The tanks developed a leak. For twenty minutes, water poured into her 10 x 10-foot office and onto her manuscript.

“Water is death to all things writing,” Dunbar said. Her draft was illegible. The books lining her office were destroyed. She couldn’t see how to recover from this catastrophe, and she began to cry.

At some point in the devastation, the voice of one of her characters cut through to her. It was Ethan Arnasson, the father-in-law of Elsa, the novel’s main character. Dunbar said that Ethan told her, “Carol, just give it time.” She knew he was right and felt giddy that, “My fictional character was giving me personal life advice!”

Lucky for us, Dunbar persisted. “The Net Beneath Us,” is set in remote northern Wisconsin, where Elsa, a cossetted city girl turned country widow, must determine how to carry on with two her two children in the unfinished home her husband was building for them. To cope with the challenges she faces, Elsa forges a deeper relationship with the land, learning from the trees her husband loved.

As the book jacket says, the novel is a lyrical exploration of loss, marriage, parenthood, and self-reliance; a tale of how the natural world – without and within us – offers healing, if we can learn where to look. The story is written in a rotating third-person perspective and covers the course of a year.

As a writer with a nature bent, myself, I loved Dunbar’s descriptions of Elsa’s growing connection to the forest that surrounds her home. From a floating puffball that seems sentient, to the underground fungal connections that foster communication among trees, to a mysterious white stag, nature reigns supreme in the story.

However, be prepared. A slow grief lays heavy over it, also. Dunbar’s true account about her husband, which appeared this year in the New York Times Modern Love column, offers a huge hint about the source of her dark inspiration.

I gave the book five stars on Goodreads. The writing is so beautiful, I hesitate to nitpick. But it wouldn’t be a full review without some nits. I found that the middle section dragged just a bit. Through multiple examples, this part highlights all the various ways that Elsa feels out of place in her off-the-grid home. I felt like there were too many of these instances. I found myself thinking, “We get it, already!” The other nit occurs near the end where the symbolism of the unfinished second story of Elsa’s home is compared to an unfinished aspect of Else’s psyche. I felt like it would have been stronger and more “literary” not to spell this out for readers so clearly.

At the WWA conference, Dunbar said her book editor encouraged her to change the ending from one “where the dog dies,” (a no-no in literary fiction these days) to something else. After much thought and gnashing of teeth, Dunbar did this, opting instead for the drama of a lost child. This revision works, and it anchors the story even more strongly into the trees and to the white deer.

So, this local woman made good, and we are all the richer for it. I can’t wait to see what gifts her next book will hold for us.

An Evening with Author Thomas Peacock

Thomas Peacock on the shore of Lake Superior.


I’ve been a member of an all-women book group for many years. This past fall, we read “The Wolf’s Trail: An Ojibwe Story, Told by Wolves” by Native American author, Thomas D. Peacock. Like my novel, “Eye of the Wolf,” Peacock’s story is told from the viewpoint of wolves. Set in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, it details the long parallel relationship between wolves and the Ojibwe people.

Peacock is a retired associate professor of education who taught and served as an administrator at the University of Minnesota Duluth for thirteen years. Several of his books are Minnesota Book Award winners. He’s well-respected in academic and literary circles, plus, he’s a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

We enjoyed “The Wolf’s Trail” so much, we invited Tom to speak to our group. Despite the pandemic, he and his wife Betsy came out from their home in Duluth on a cold wintry evening and met with us outside around a backyard fire.

I wish I had taken notes about our discussion then, but I was too busy tending the fire. Lucky for me (and you), after our meeting, Tom and Betsy invited us to their other home in Red Cliff, Wisconsin, in the spring for a potluck dinner and discussion of another book of his, “Beginnings: The Homeward Journey of Donovan Manypenny.” Tom offered to show us some of the locations where the novel is set on the Ojibwe reservation there. We readily agreed to this generous offer.

The Donovan Manypenny book is a poignant coming-home story. It’s about a boy who lived with his Ojibwe grandparents near Red Cliff until they died when he was ten. Shunted into the foster system, abused and rejected, Donovan is finally adopted by a loving white couple who ultimately moved to Boston, where he remained for forty-three years until the whispers of his beginnings lured him back home to the reservation. During his journey, Donovan followed the same historic westward migration trail that the Ojibwe travelled in their search for a new land “where food grows on the water.” (This refers to wild rice.)

Finding a date that worked for my book group members pushed our meeting until after the solstice. The weather was beautiful for a drive along the South Shore of Lake Superior to Red Cliff. Tom spent his summers with a great uncle and aunt in Red Cliff, and Betsy is a Red Cliff band member, so that’s what drew them to live there.

Here’s what happened.

Blueberry Road

Blueberry Road winds its gravelly way through the Red Cliff Reservation woods, dotted with FEMA trailer homes and other modest dwellings. After meeting at Tom’s home, we caravanned down the road, stopping at the trailhead for the new Frog Bay Tribal National Park after Blueberry Rd. veered and turned into Frog Bay Road.

Tom explained that his great uncle and aunt lived on Blueberry Road, which served as his inspiration for the setting of Donovan’s grandparents’ home. “My aunt and uncle seemed ancient to me, but I was only ten at the time. They didn’t have any running water, no electricity. They had an outhouse. Like many homes at that time, they had lilacs and weeping willows in the yard. That was the setting I thought of for my book,” he said.

The house where Donovan grew up on Blueberry Road isn’t actually on that road but is off busy Highway 13 a few miles away. Tom showed us that later during our tour.

An older couple who Tom met while he was teaching an Ojibwe language class in Bemidji years ago served as inspiration for Donovan’s grandparents. “They were just old-time native people who spoke the language and ended up teaching the language. The husband would drive the wife and then he’d sit with her in class. They always sat in the back.”

Tom said people who are familiar with the area often think he named Donovan Manypenny and his grandparents after the street in Bayfield called Manypenny Avenue. “But I didn’t,” he said. “There’s a lot of native people from the White Earth Reservation with that last name. I just liked it.”

While driving to our next stop, I had the luck (or was it planning?) to be in Tom’s car with a couple other book group ladies. We discussed different parts of the book that struck us. One I particularly liked was the conversation that Donovan’s grandparents have after they’re dead. The grandmother died first and after the grandfather dies, he apologizes to her for not being able to take care of Donovan anymore. But he’s so matter of fact about being dead – no wailing, no gnashing of teeth, just, “I’m dead, that’s all, I guess . . . maybe we’ll just have to help him from here.”

Tom said, “I wondered about putting that in there. But I wanted to write it, so I did. I took it out at one point, then I put it back in again. I worried that maybe people would think it was too weird.”

We told him we were glad he included it. Plus, it set up a pattern for other (living) characters to offer their viewpoints later in the story. That brought our conversation around to “Chapter 7, Ramona of the Wolf Clan.” This was another section Tom thought twice about including because Donovan, who is married by this time and is on his solitary westward migration, finds himself attracted to Ramona, gets drunk, and almost has an affair with her.

“Some people wonder why I put the Ramona chapter in there. It seems out of character for Donovan. I thought it was important that he be tempted, challenged, to show his humanity and that he isn’t a saint. And the chapter does explain, too, the difficult position that a lot of native women are put into.”

By this time, we reached our next stop.

St. Francis Catholic Church

The quaint red and white church in town was the inspiration for the church that Donovan and his grandparents attended, and the cemetery where Donovan’s relatives are buried. Tom said the church was familiar to him as a child. “I’ve gone to a million funerals in that church.”

Across the street sits a decrepit school building that he envisioned as Donovan’s school.

Standing in the church parking lot, we discussed Tom’s own westward migration, which he took thirty-five years ago when he finished college in Boston. (He graduated from Harvard with a master’s and doctorate in education.) At the time, he did not know he would write a book about his travels – he just needed to go home.

“After school, I had to pack up everything and leave. The route west just seemed like the logical thing to do. One of my brothers came out and helped me pack up. I had an old rez car and he works on cars, so he helped me fix it up enough that I’d make it home.”

Shore of Lake Superior with view of Sand Island

Our next stop was at the end of a road near Tom and Betsy’s home. We gathered at a parking area near a small beach with a view of the nearby Apostle Islands. Near the end of the novel, Donovan, his wife, and daughter visit Lake Superior one morning to offer tobacco. They prayed and Donovan thanked the Creator for everything, “For our lives and all the blessings we have had. Just then when I prayed a slight breeze came up and caused ripples on the water. I know it was our Creator answering,” Donovan said.

Tom explained he was thinking of this beach during that scene. It’s also the same beach where he and Betsy married.

The Peacock’s Living Room

After our potluck dinner, we sat down for an extended conversation. Tom let us in on some other changes he made to the story before it was published and gave us insights into its main characters.

He explained that in his original version, Donovan discovered he had Stage Four pancreatic cancer, which is basically a death sentence. “So that’s why he made his journey home – to die. But my publisher, Jim Perlman, liked Donovan so much, he didn’t want him to die, so I had to rewrite it.” (Perlman is the publisher for Holy Cow! Press.)

When he reached Red Cliff, Donovan discovers he has a sister, Maggie. Tom said she is a character in a previous story he published, where he described her journey from the foster care system in Minneapolis to Red Cliff. I was glad he mentioned that because I noticed the lack of her backstory in the Donovan Manypenny book. I will have to find that story and read it!

The character of Uncle Eddie, who orients Donovan to Red Cliff and his past, has been featured in many of Tom’s short stories. He is also the main character in Tom’s next book, which is coming out soon from Dovetailed Press.

“Eddie is 86 years old and the story is written in first person like a memoir. Eddie’s been my favorite character. Donovan is also in the story, but more as a cameo,” Tom offered.

I’ll end this extended post (thanks for sticking with it!) with some Q & As from our living room conversation. The second question was especially enlightening, and Tom’s response seemed out of character for this soft-spoken, mild-mannered author:

Growing up, did you experience the same disconnect with your heritage that Donovan did?

“No. I grew up on the Fond du Lac Reservation and I’m very comfortable there. Even when I was out East, I hung out with native people. I think when you’re educated you can be comfortable in both worlds (the white world and native world). I feel safe on Fond du Lac. Those people who are shooting each other are all my relatives. But because I was blessed with an education – I feel comfortable in the academic world, too.”

So, you didn’t find education to be a barrier between you and your native heritage, similar to the main character in Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?”

“I think I was kind of an enigma because I liked to drink, fight, and raise hell. During prom, I was out stealing gas from all the cars and getting straight A’s at the same time. I could do that and get away with it. I didn’t feel stigmatized at all – because if they did, I’d beat the crap outta them!”

Do you think things really got better for the little boy that Donovan comforts on Manitoulin Island after they went to the police?

“No, I don’t think so. That’s a really common thing with a mom and her boyfriend – the kid kinda takes all the crap. I had to leave it at that. There are a lot of native kids who are of mixed race, black and native, and I wanted to have that in a character. It’s hard for them. They get picked on by everybody and they’re never accepted anywhere.”

What’s your writing process?

“When I’m writing, I’ll write a chapter a day. I’ll get up at five in the morning and write until seven or eight at night. Then I’ll ‘force’ Betsy to read it before we go to bed because I want someone to read it. (Laughs) And then I’ll work on it for about a week, editing.”

Do you know many people who have come back to the rez?

“In Fond du Lac, I had a nephew who showed up right around his eighteenth birthday from California. He just came and banged on the door one day. He was the spitting image of one of my brothers who passed away 20 years ago. He scared the crap out of all of us!

“One of our nieces showed up when she was eighteen, too. Then when they were sniffing around for someone to date, we had to set them down and tell them who they shouldn’t be hanging out with because, ‘That’s your first cousin.’ We had to do that with both of them.”

Why didn’t you describe Donovan’s physical characteristics much in your book?

“I couldn’t visualize what he looked like. That’s one thing I had to add in as an edit. Same thing with Maggie. I couldn’t visualize her. The characters often appear to me as voices rather than a physical presence.”

And so, sated on Betsy’s fry bread, filled with a new appreciation for Tom’s work and a deeper understanding of native issues, we said our goodbyes and each began our own journeys, homeward.

My book group with Tom in his living room. From left to right, me, Konnie, Sherry, Sharon, Tom, Judy and Diane.

Book Review: Going Coastal

This review is not by me, but was written by a poet friend of mine, Jan Chronister. She reviewed “Going Coastal: An Anthology of Lake Superior Short Stories.” One of my short stories is in the book and I helped shepherd the project to life.

The “Going Coastal” anthology sporting its snazzy Northeastern MN Book Awards seal.

Full disclosure: we exchanged books for honest reviews. You can find my review of “Decenia,” Jan’s book of poetry, on Goodreads.


I’m a poet and rarely write poems longer than a page, so I find short stories intimidating. The stories in Going Coastal proved to me what I have been missing as a reader. Not only am I awed by the talent and craft it takes to create such prize-winning stories, but the time I invested in reading the anthology has rewarded me with new knowledge and insights.

Especially impressive are two young authors, Teresa Allison-Price and Maxwell Reagan, whose stories are their first published pieces. Without reading their bios, I would never have guessed this fact. After reading Johnna Suihkonen’s “What a Fire Weighs,” I will never look at an agate the same way again. Her metaphorical piece with its poetic feel reached out to me. Marie Zhuikov’s “Water Witch” kept me mesmerized with its well-paced narrative and intriguing subject matter. “The Urge for Going” should be required reading for anyone planning a trip up the North Shore. Following in the steps of Phil Fitzpatrick’s protagonist will deepen the experience and give every stop special meaning.

Two stories brought me to tears. I have always felt the natural world was where we should worship and Evan Sasman’s “The Painting” reinforced my belief. “Superior Mordant” by Judy Budreau pulled me in and had well-developed characters I could relate to.

Eric Chandler’s “The Heart Under the Lake” could only be written by someone who loves Lake Superior and the lands around it. It is a satisfying, well-crafted coming of age story that blends science with verbal artistry and maritime history. It was a delight to read.

I sensed autobiographical elements in many of these stories. That, admittedly, is one reason writers write. Another reason, perhaps not always acknowledged, is that they hope to enable readers to discover (or rediscover) thoughts and emotions that are often hidden under the cares of daily living. I’m glad I spent time with this collection that fosters self-reflection through superb short stories.

Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: A Personal Story and Book Review

Back in 2010, I Googled my parents’ names, just to see if any information about them was out on the internet. They were aging, and I wanted to ensure their safety, both online and off.

I was also curious. Neither of them had ever owned or operated a computer. Heck, even operating a cell phone was a stretch, and I’m not sure either of them ever used the one they bought for emergencies, despite my repeated and patient instructions. Would anything be on the internet about people who had never been on the internet themselves?

I was surprised to find my father’s name (Howard Pramann) associated with a blog called, “My Musical Family” by Joy Riggs, a writer based in Northfield, Minn. The post was titled, “Music: The Anti-Drug.” It featured an interview with my father about his experience playing the cornet under the instruction of Joy’s great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs (the G stands for George, a name Mr. Riggs did not like so did not use). Mr. Riggs was adamantly against smoking, especially since his musicians needed good lungs to play. His anti-smoking lectures no doubt kept many a young man from taking up the habit.

After reading the post, I vaguely recalled my parents recently mentioning something about my dad being interviewed, but I didn’t understand that it was for a blog.


My father, Howard Pramann, in his spiffy band outfit in St. Cloud in 1937.

I shared the post with my family members and parents, and wrote a thank-you e-mail to the author. She responded quickly, and we corresponded a few more times. She explained she was writing a book about G. Oliver Riggs, who was an influential and prolific “Minnesota Music Man.” He developed and directed bands in communities like St. Cloud and Crookston, Minn., and even in Montana. My father, Howard, played in the St. Cloud band for eight years, from age 10 until he graduated high school.

Late this summer, I received a message from Joy through my author website. She noticed I was a presenter at the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival in Grand Marais, which she planned to attend. She was looking forward to meeting there, plus she had published the book about her great-grandfather.

After receiving her message, I looked at Joy’s author page to see how I could lay hands on a copy of her book. I noticed she was doing a signing at a local bookstore a few weeks before the festival. I told her I would see her at her signing and later at the festival.

IMG_7234We met at the bookstore and had a nice chat. Not long after, I read her book, entitled “Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The story of a Minnesota Music Man.” (Noodin Press, 2019.)

What immediately impressed me is how Joy interweaves her personal story with information about her great-grandfather’s life. This made the book much more interesting, as readers are able to experience the thrill of discovery that Joy found during her research process. Readers also learn that this book was her return to journalism after many years of subsuming her career to her growing family’s needs.

Her vivid prose won me over to the importance of her topic – bringing to life a bygone era, when public bands were the best form of entertainment in town and brought communities together. Although G. Oliver was a stern taskmaster, Joy’s book shows how his methods and discipline influenced his young pupils in a positive way throughout their lives.

Since my father was one of those pupils, it was thrilling for me to see photos of the venues where he might have played, and learn about the people he performed alongside. I was particularly interested in seeing pictures of my father’s piano teacher, who was G. Oliver’s wife, Islea.

Reading Joy’s book made me wish my father (who died in 2016) had spoken more about his community band experiences. When I complained about having to practice the required half-hour per day on my French horn in junior high and high school, he could have retorted with things like, “When I was your age, we had to practice four hours per day. What are you complaining about?”

I would have liked to hear him describe the contests his band won, and the parades they marched in. But through Joy’s book, I was able to follow the band’s triumphs and challenges across the years.

Joy describes her interview with my father in Chapter 13. He’s mentioned again on page 228 as playing a cornet duet before an audience of 5,000 people in a theater in St. Cloud.

To my surprise, Joy even refers to me on page 200, although not by name, when she discusses our initial correspondence.

Of course, I’m going to like any book that has me in it (ha, ha). But even if I wasn’t included, I’d still recommend Joy’s book for anyone who is interested in Minnesota’s musical history and the important role the arts can play in people’s lives. I gave it five out of five stars on Goodreads.

Book Review: Hawks on High


Phil Fitzpatrick talks about his book “Hawks on High” recently at Zenith Bookstore in Duluth, Minn.

It’s about time someone wrote a book of poems about Hawk Ridge in Duluth. And it took a newcomer to do it. Author Phil Fitzpatrick (Hawks on High: Everyday Miracles in a Hawk Ridge Season) has only been coming to the popular bird migration counting station on the ridge for two years. However, with his “new eyes,” that was long enough for him to amass enough poems for this book. His poems are combined with pen and ink drawings by artist Penny Perry.

My favorite poem is “Pringles Prize.” It describes how the hawk ridge workers use Pringles potato chip cans to contain the hawks they catch in mist nets on the ridge. Once the hawks are slipped into the cans, their legs can be easily banded for later identification. Before a hawk is released, the birder eases it “from its cardboard confines” for a short show-and-tell to the gathered bird-watchers. Then it “lifts above wide-eyed kids who now love hawks even more than Pringles.”

Love the wonder and subtle humor of that ending! I gave “Hawks on High” five out of five stars on Goodreads.

Book Review: How to Talk Minnesotan, Revised for the 21st Century

9780143122692_p0_v3_s550x406The first version of this book, published in 1987 and later made into a video, helped me understand my own culture. Before reading it, I never understood that the “long good-bye” was something unique to my state of Minnesota. (The long good-bye is where it takes at least three tries to leave a friend’s home before they will actually let you go.)

Also helpful was the “angle rule,” which describes how many Minnesotans talk to each other without actually looking at each other. Instead, they stand at 90-degree angles, looking off at some mysterious distant point while conversing. I had seen that many times and just thought that’s how everyone did it. I was not conscious that these were Minnesota “things.”

I watched the “How to Talk Minnesotan” video so many times, I had the lines memorized. So when I heard the book had been updated (in 2013), I put it on my list to read.

In reading the recent edition, it didn’t seem like a whole lot had changed. Although it now contains sections on Tweets, Facebook, and smart phones, the same lines from the video are there on the page.

However, in reading this new version, I realized something that nagged me with the first version, which is that this is not a book that encompasses the whole of my dear state. The traits described in it are more common in farm country. I’d say that’s about from Hinkley, Minnesota, and south. With token mentions of smelt and lutefisk, this book has a bit of relevance to northern Minnesota, BUT, there’s not one mention of a sauna etiquette, iron ore mining, Lake Superior, Ole and Lena jokes, or wilderness camping. It lacks northern nuances.

A more accurate title for this book would be “How to talk Mid- to Southern-Minnesotan.” If you live north of Hinkley, reading it will be helpful, but it won’t get you the whole way. If a third version is ever done, the author should come on up here and talk to us northerners for some new material, don’t cha know.

Book Review: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis


Sinclair Lewis. Image courtesy of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

I was motivated to read “Babbitt” because the author lived in my hometown in the 1940s for a time. I periodically drive by the house Sinclair Lewis used to own and it made me curious to read his works.

Also, my mother had a brush with Lewis. As a home economics major at the University of Minnesota, to gain experience she worked as a cook for a professor who had Lewis over for dinner one night. As I recall, my mother was not impressed with the author, saying that his face was pock-marked, he seemed unhappy, and was inordinately self-absorbed.

Although the book and its slang are dated, I found the tale eerily relevant, given the current political climate. It’s not so much a story as it is an extended character study of George Babbitt, a real estate broker in the mythical town of Zenith (which is patterned after Sauk Centre, MN). And if you ever wondered how white male privilege came about, this story reads like a propaganda packet for it and it will enlighten you.

During Babbitt’s time, cigar lighters in cars were a big deal. Ads were written in flowery language with fountain pens, and protracted descriptions of electrical outlet covers could make their way into novels. “Boosterism” was big. Prominent community members were expected to extol the virtues of their small towns far and wide to encourage business and prosperity.

Babbitt is a 48-year-old economic booster who faces a mid-life crisis – kind of like if Donald Trump ever got a conscience or sought spiritual enlightenment. The story follows him from his rise to the ultimate booster, to his decline after his friend is jailed for a shooting. Babbitt begins to question the social culture of his town and he rebels to the point of drinking heavily, having an affair, and consorting with **gasp** liberals and men deemed as socialists.

Babbitt is brought back to the fold of social respectability after his wife contracts appendicitis and the community rallies around his family. However, after his wife’s recovery, the old rebellion starts in on him again. He feels powerless to act on it because he’s finally back in the good graces of the town’s powerful men.

It is at this time [spoiler alert!] when his son elopes with the neighbor girl. After they come back home and announce their news, the shocked families start expressing their disapproval, except for Babbitt, who takes his son aside into another room. Babbitt praises him for having the guts to buck society and do the things that Babbitt was never strong enough to do. Thus, he passes the torch of social rebellion onto his son to carry.

My favorite scene in the book involves the subtle satirical humor at a dinner party where all the men complain about small town hicks who repeat the same things over and over again during their dinner parties because they are so uncultured. Each big city cultured Zenith man at the table expresses this same complaint, just in different words.

Although Lewis is an astute observer of human nature and his story is meant to be a cutting social commentary, the language makes it rather quaint today. It’s full of words like “zip” and “pep,” and such shocking swear words as “golly,” and “rats.”

But I liked the story. I gave it three out of five stars on Goodreads. I feel I’ve done my duty in reading a local author. Next time I drive by his former house, I’ll utter a couple of “gollies” in his honor.

A Tribute to Mary Oliver

I happened to be reading Mary Oliver’s “Dog Songs” book of poems over the course of several evenings when I heard the news of her death last week. What a momentous passing for the poetry world! The thought that she will never write another word for the world to read is depressing. I’ve been in a funk for a few days.

One of my friends said that when he heard the news, it hit him like that scene in “Star Wars” when Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan is destroyed by the Death Star; a giant scream passes through the galaxy, heard only by those who are strong in the Force. In the case of Mary Oliver, I imagine many poets emitted silent screams when they heard the news.

20190121_143759I’ve long been a fan of her work. I even was able to see her read in person in the hinterlands that are Duluth way back in 1987. Her autograph is on my copy of “American Primitive” as proof!

I appreciate how Mary made poetry accessible. Her consistent weaving of themes from the natural world and the sensual world spoke to me unlike the work of any other poet.  Thank you thank you Mary Oliver for having the courage to put your words to paper and the perseverance to publish them!

I’d like to share with you some of my favorite poems from “Dog Songs,” which, as if you couldn’t guess, are poems about her dogs.

These lines are from one entitled “Her Grave,” and they echo thoughts I have almost every time I walk my dog:

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the

smells of the world, but you know, watching her,

that you know

almost nothing.

In that short phrase, Mary explains the different worlds that dogs and humans inhabit, yet how closely they are connected.

Another favorite is, “The Poetry Teacher.” This poem describes how the university gave Mary a “new, elegant” classroom to teach in – one where her dogs were not allowed. She would not agree to that and instead moved into an old classroom in an old building. She kept the door propped open and eventually her dog would arrive with his friends . . .

all of them thirsty and happy.

They drank, they flung themselves down

among the students. The students loved

it. They all wrote thirsty, happy poems.

Then there’s “The Wicked Smile,” about a dog who seems famished for breakfast and “talks” Mary into feeding it, only to “confess” afterward that someone else fed him breakfast already.

While her dog poems are not quite as strong as her people-oriented poems, they are certainly worth reading. You won’t look at dogs in quite the same way afterward.

May you all write thirsty, happy poems!

Psycho Dads: A Comparative Book Review of “My Absolute Darling” and “The Marsh King’s Daughter”

Warner bros the shining

One of the scariest psycho dads of all time: Jack from “The Shining.” My post is not about him, but it is about psycho dads. Image by Warner Bros.

Fathers. They can have a profound impact on their daughters’ lives. Unfortunately, the two daughters in these books hit the jackpot when it comes to living in a family headed by psycho dads. Both books make for compelling, disturbing reads.

I read them back-to-back by happenstance. I was lured into “My Absolute Darling” by an intriguing and glowing New York Times book review. Alas, judging from all the complaints on Goodreads, I wasn’t the only one misled by the review, which glosses over the nasty bits about incest and the fact that THE DOG DIES in it. (I hate books where the dog dies, especially when scavengers pull its intestines out of its anus afterward.)

Instead, the review focused on positive comments by other writers, including Stephen King, and the author Gabriel Tallent’s background (this is his first novel).

The unfortunate daughter in “Absolute” is Turtle, a young teen living in the woods of northern California with her dad. Her mother died when she was young, leaving her at the mercy of her father who has an inordinate fondness for guns, and a paranoia about societal collapse. Turtle eats raw eggs for breakfast and wears combat boots to school. Her only friends are her grandfather, who lives in a trailer home next door, and a teacher who sees the signs of abuse and tries to help.

Later, Turtle befriends Jacob and Brett, two boys near her age who are lost in the woods. These well-read surfer dudes provide a foil for Turtle’s dark story, and are the catalyst for her father’s abuse to escalate.

The story of Turtle’s escape from her father is often profane, violent, heartbreaking, frustrating, stark and sometimes funny. On Goodreads, I rated the book 3/5 stars, mainly because some of the violence felt unnecessarily exploitive.

I read “The Marsh King’s Daughter” at the recommendation of my book group and because it’s set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – not far from my stomping grounds. The unfortunate daughter in this story is Helena. Her father kidnapped her mother when she was young and brought her into a remote marsh in the wilds of the U.P. Born in the marsh, Helena grows up in blissful ignorance of her true situation because her family is so isolated from the outside world.

Like Turtle, Helena is at home in the woods. Her father has taught her well how to survive and track animals. These descriptions are especially vivid and believable, as are the scenes of Helena’s eventual escape from the marsh.

The abuse in “Marsh King” is tamer than that in “Absolute.” Another thing that puts readers at more of a distance is that the story is told in retrospective. Helena is grown and out of the marsh, with a family of her own when she begins relating the tale. Even when the action is in the present, Helena is prone to bouts of rumination and repetition that slow down the action. There was so much of this in the climax scene where she has a death match with her father that I could hardly tell it was taking place in the present. But the story hooked me enough that I kept reading.

Another scene that stuck in my reader’s craw, however, was the one where Helena’s father tries to drown her mother in punishment for what he thinks is an escape attempt. Helena’s mother is canoeing alone across a lake (to search for strawberries on the other side) – something she is apparently forbidden to do. The father comes home and asks Helena where her mother is. Helena points to her mother who is out in the canoe. Somehow (I don’t recall exactly and no longer have the book to refer to), the father reaches the mother in the canoe and manhandles her out of it. To punish her, he almost drowns her. But does he do it in the lake where there’s plenty of available water? No. He drags her up to the porch, gets a bucket full of water and does it there. That just seems inefficient and weird to me, even for a psycho dad.

I gave “Marsh King” a higher rating on Goodreads (4/5 stars) than “Absolute” because the violence seemed less exploitive. I would have given it an even higher rating but for the rumination/repetition issues and the near-drowning scene.

Neither book dwells on how the fathers became psycho. They just deal with how the fathers’ actions impact their families.

In both books [spoiler alert!] the daughters triumph over their fathers both physically and emotionally. So if you want to read a book about “girl power” these are for you.