“Virgil Wander” Debuts in Duluth

Leif Enger

Duluth scored a literary coup yesterday when award-winning, multimillion-copy bestselling author Leif Enger launched his new book, “Virgil Wander,” here.

One of the reasons we were able to get him here versus, say, Minneapolis or New York or San Francisco, is because, as of seven weeks ago, Enger and his wife Robin live in Duluth. What a boon for our (relatively) remote city on the shores of Lake Superior!

Most news stories will say it took the Minnesota-born Enger, who is best known for his debut novel “Peace Like a River,” ten years to write his new novel. During questioning after his reading at Zenith Books, he said it actually only took him four years to write “Virgil” and that he spent the previous years writing 400 pages of something else that didn’t work out – it didn’t have the vital combination of character, setting, and story.

Enger said another thing that delayed his writing was a “dark patch” due to the failing health of his and his wife’s parents. Plus he contracted meningitis, which I suspect is is a good excuse to delay just about anything.

The novel’s setting is the mythical town of “Greenstone, Minnesota,” which he said is an amalgam of Silver Bay, Beaver Bay and Grand Marais – small towns along Lake Superior’s North Shore. It’s the story of Virgil Wander, a movie house owner who survives a plunge in his car into Lake Superior. He loses his memory and language, awakening to an unfamiliar world. He pieces his life back together with the help of “affable and curious locals.”

The promotional blurb about the book on Goodreads says, “With intelligent humor and captivating whimsy, Leif Enger conjures a remarkable portrait of a region and its residents, who, for reasons of choice or circumstance, never made it out of their defunct industrial district. Carried aloft by quotidian pleasures including movies, fishing, necking in parked cars, playing baseball and falling in love, Virgil Wander is a swift, full journey into the heart and heartache of an often overlooked American Upper Midwest by a master storyteller.”

During his reading, Enger said the owner of an Art Deco movie house in Florida inspired the main character of Virgil. The passion of the owner to restore the theater stuck with Enger and emerged when he was fishing his subconscious for ideas for his new novel.

20181002_200515A hike on a hill above Beaver Bay with one of his sons inspired Enger to set the novel on the North Shore, and then the story came to him.

When a member of the audience commented about his use of humor in the book, Enger said he wanted to write something he would enjoy because he’d be “spending a long time with it.”

Before and after the reading, audience members feasted upon snickerdoodle cookies and brownies made by Robin. I even took a photo of them. Why? Must be because I am so affable! No, really, I thought that was cute, supportive, and very Minnesotan.

“Virgil Wander” is now in my pile of books on my bedside table. Can’t wait to read it!

The Taste of Hope


Chef Sean Sherman

Native American chef, Sean Sherman, visited my fair town several weeks ago to promote his book, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.” Given my interest in cooking and gathering wild edibles, I had to go. He spoke to a packed house along with his co-author, Beth Dooley, who is the food editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The event was sponsored by Zenith Bookstore.

One of the first things Sherman did was to disabuse the audience of the notion that Native American cuisine involves any type of fry bread. He works with pre-colonization food made with ingredients the natives grew themselves or foraged. These are things like squash, wild rice, chestnuts, fish, berries, and cedar boughs.

Sherman talked about how natives used all parts of edible plants and animals and how every one of those things had a purpose, “Except for wood ticks. They don’t have a purpose,” he joked.

A member of the Sioux tribe, Sherman grew up in a hardscrabble life on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  He became interested in learning about the foods of his ancestors when he was twenty-nine and was burned out from working as an executive chef in Minneapolis.

He took a year off in Mexico and ended up consulting for a restaurant there that focused on local foods. In his book, Sherman writes, “In an epiphany, I tasted how food weaves people together, connects families through generations, is a life force of identity and social structure. After seeing how the Huicholes held on to so much of their pre-European culture through artwork and food, I recognized that I wanted to know my own food heritage. What did my ancestors eat before Europeans arrived on our lands?”

Re-energized, Sherman returned to the U.S. with a plan in mind. After a lot of research and consulting, he formed The Sioux Chef in 2014 in Minneapolis.  He worked with other indigenous team members to cater events, operate a food truck, host pop-up dinners, and soon they will open a restaurant.

Sherman’s vision for revitalizing indigenous foods reaches beyond the Midwest. He hopes to spread an indigenous food system model across the country, which involves providing education and tools to native communities to reclaim their ancestral cuisines and an important part of their cultures.

And why not? It’s a diet that is hyperlocal and uberhealthy in more ways than just the physical. At the end of his talk at Beaner’s Coffee House (thank you Beaner’s!), samples of cedar tea sweetened with maple syrup were passed around. Man, was that good!

As I drove home with his book on the car seat beside me, I was excited to learn more about Native American cuisine. I could still taste the tangy cedar and sweet syrup on my tongue. To me, it tasted like hope – hope that this movement will undo some of the damage to native cultures, and hope that it will interest more people in taking care of the natural world. You don’t pollute places where you gather your food. If we look on our whole landscape as a big grocery store, perhaps we will take better care of it.