“If travel expands our experience and broadens our minds, the anticipation of travel helpfully narrows our reading list.”
— Thomas Swick, The Joys of Travel

Reading about Minnesota

Reading about Minnesota

A recent trip to Minnesota was a good excuse to resurrect my Armchair America project.  Before I go on any trip, I like to read books about the places I will be visiting and books by writers who live(d) there.  I was especially looking forward to reading books about Minnesota or by Minnesota authors because I spent my childhood and college years there.  I thought my reading list should include an old classic, Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, that I had never read.  And I wanted to re-read some familiar and favorite books from my past.  It turned out that instead of narrowing my reading list, my anticipated Minnesota trip did the opposite for me.  I have been mired in books, simply because so many of them are so good!

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

Two of my all-time favorite books by Minnesota authors — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and Letters from the Country by Carol Bly — have held honored spots on my bookshelves for most of my life.  I’ve read both books a few times, and I wanted to give them one final reading.  (I’m old enough now to start donating books that I will never read again in my lifetime, but I had been holding on to these for one last look before parting with them.)

I wasn’t expecting to find another favorite author, but after reading Leif Enger’s Peace Is a River I liked it so much that I also took the time to read So Brave, Young, and Handsome.  And I was thrilled to discover a “new to me” nature writer, Paul Gruchow, whom I like to think of as Minnesota’s Thoreau.

I remember reading a couple of Bill Holm’s books when I was preparing for my trip to Iceland in 2013, and although I did not take the time to reread him for this blog post, I did go back to find this quote from The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland: “The paradox was that the farther away I traveled, to places utterly unlike Swede Prairie and my father’s farm, the more the wisdom it had to offer revealed itself to me.”  And yes, as I was reading through my Armchair Minnesota books, I did look for traces of my past, echoes of a landscape so familiar to me, and stories that these writers have in common with me.

I asked for recommendations from the expert librarians at the Hennepin County Libraries, and Lee gave these suggestions (and I read the ones marked with *):


  • *Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota by Gwen Westerman
  • Minnesota Real and Imagined: Essays on the State and Its Culture by Stephen Graubard
  • *Through No Fault of My Own: A Girl’s Diary of Life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age by Coco Irvine
  • Frog town: Photographs and Conversations in an Urban Neighborhood by Wing Young Huie
  • Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative by Ignatia Broker
  • Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota by Stewart Van Cleve


  • *War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (fantasy fiction).  (While the Twin Cities are the settling for this novel, I found that the action could really have taken place anywhere without hurting the story line.)
  • The Year of Ice by Brian Malloy (teen realistic fiction)
  • *Guy in Real Life by Steven Brezenoff (teen realistic fiction)

I also asked my siblings for their favorite books about Minnesota or by Minnesota authors, and here are their suggestions:

  • Mapping the Farm by John Hildebrand
  • William Kent Krueger series
  • Nancy Carlson picture books
  • Maud Hart Lovelace Betsy-Tacy books
  • Deb Hoven, children’s book author and illustrator
  • Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
  • Old Turtle and Granddad’s Prayer of the Earth by Douglas Wood
  • Betsy Bowen books
  • Vince Flynn’s thrillers featuring Mitch Rapp
  • Louise Erdrich novels
  • Laverne Spencer books
  • How to Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr (here’s s short video clip from YouTube demonstrating how to talk Minnesotan.)

Here are the books I actually read before my trip to Minnesota and that I would recommend for capturing the essence of the state and its people:


  • Staggerford by Jon Hassler.  This is a novel about Miles, a 35-year-old bachelor and teacher in the town where he grew up.  The cast of characters also includes a superintendent who is convinced he has a bad heart and leaves running the school to his capable secretary, the coach whose wife is having an affair with the town dentist, a promising student whose home life is in shambles, Indian students who leave school the minute they turn 16, and an elderly spinster teacher in whose house Miles is a boarder.  This is a good depiction of the ups and downs of ordinary small town life, but shows that those ordinary lives do matter.


  • Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.  It was a nice surprise to find this book which I liked as much as To Kill a Mockingbird.  The main character is 11-year-old Reuben, who suffers from asthma so often times he has to fight for breath.  His 9-year-old sister Swede is as endearing as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Their father is so wise and gentle and beloved, like Atticus, that he is the vehicle for miracles.  (Reuben once saw his father walking on air.)  When Reuben’s big brother defends the family and their home from two bullies and kills them, he is arrested.  But escapes jail, becoming an outlaw.  The family embarks on a trip in an Airstream trailer to find him.  The journey proceeds on a hope and a prayer.  I liked this novel so much that I took the time to read another of Enger’s books, So Brave, So Young, and Handsome, which is about another outlaw who is paradoxically a good man, and his friendship with a writer who had phenomenal success with his first book but is unable to write another.  They, too, embark on a journey.  “In times of dread it’s good to have an old man along.  An old man who has seen worse.”


  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.  This has been on the list of my all-time favorite books for a long time.  It is the autobiographical story of a man who takes a motorcycle trip with is son.  The man, in his past, had been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital where we was given a series of shock treatments.  Although he now feels he has become a new man, he carries the ghost of his former self.  Now his son has been diagnosed with having the beginning symptoms of mental illness.  The motorcycle journey is the vehicle for confronting his past, recreating his personal story to find its meaning, and building a relationship with his son.  The story is full of philosophical musings about living a meaningful life, making choices, and being good.


  • American Boy by Larry Watson.  It is 1963 and Matthew Garth is in his senior year of high school.  He is best friends with the doctor’s son and is taken under the doctor’s wing so he believes himself to almost be part of the doctor’s family.  Then a young woman, victim of a shooting on Thanksgiving Day, is also taken in.  The novel portrays the unraveling of this “perfect” family.


  • Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.  This novel takes place in the fictional town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, “a  town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.”  Carol, an orphaned college graduate is casting about for something to do and she fantasizes that she could be the inspiration for waking up and beautifying small town America.  She marries Will Kennicott, one of the town’s doctors, and tries to live her dream.  But she is disheartened and stymied by the smug, boring, complacent, staid, and righteous people she encounters there.  She observes, “The people are savorless and proud of it.”  I didn’t like Carol or the story and I couldn’t force myself to finish.  Another classic remains unread!


  • In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien.  This novel explores the fallout and repercussions from secrets.  John Wade, a former Minnesota state senator and lieutenant governor, makes a run for the U.S. Senate.  But shortly before the election, his participation in a My Lai-type massacre is exposed, and he loses by a landslide.  He and his wife retreat to a remote lake cabin in northern Minnesota to lick their wounds.  Then, the wife disappears.


  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich.  Through a series of strange incidences, Agnes assumes the identity of Father Damien, who travels to Little No Horse on the Ojibwe reservation to become its missionary priest.  Years later, Father Jude is sent by the Vatican to investigate the report of miracles surrounding Sister Leopolda, one of the locals there who became a nun.  The writing evokes the sense of loss and despair and pain in the lives of every family on the reservation as their existence is threatened.  This is an intricate and complex story, well written.  Father Damien’s last words are, “What is the whole of our existence but the sound of an appalling love?”  I also read Erdrich’s memoir, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, written for the National Geographic Directions Series about special places in the world.


  • Safe from the Sea and Wintering by Peter Geye.  Both of these novels take place in northern Minnesota — the first in Duluth and the second in the old voyageurs boundary waters near Canada.  Both involve fathers and sons who reconcile after years of misunderstandings and emotional separation.  The stories resonate with the themes of returning to one’s childhood home, aging parents, and acceptance.


  • Vermillion Drift by William Kent Kruger.  This author has written a series of books about a private investigator, formerly a sheriff, who has some Ojibwe ancestry.  In this book, he investigates the missing sister of a Vermillion mine owner, and in the process discovers six bodies whose homicides go back 50 years to when his father was sheriff.  Hidden secrets come to light.


  • The Sixth Sense by P. J . Tracy.  This is the newest in a series about the Monkeywrench Gang, a group of four reclusive, eccentric computer geniuses housed in a mansion in Minneapolis, who donate their expertise and software to help law enforcement fight cyber terrorism.  I have enjoyed every book in this series written by a mother and daughter duo from Minnesota.


  • The Necessity of Empty Places by Paul Gruchow.  Gruchow lived in southwestern Minnesota at the edge of the tall-grass prairie.  He writes, “It is an odd irony that the places we call empty should retain some memory of the diversity of life, while the places we have filled grow emptier and emptier. . . . From the top of the Blue Mounds, I look out across the countryside of southwestern Minnesota and see a landscape that has been reduced to its simplest terms.  On a clear day I can see for fifteen miles or more in any direction.”  I love how he writes about his prairie home, the “province of the big sky.”  He says, “Experiencing a landscape is an act of creativity.  Like any creative vision, it cannot be forced or willed.  It cannot be organized on a schedule, or happen by appointment.  If you would experience a landscape, you must go alone into it and sit down somewhere quietly and wait for it to come in its own good time to you.  You must not wait ambitiously.  You must not sing to pass the time, or make any kind of effort.  The solitude is necessary, the silence is necessary, the wait is necessary, and it is necessary that you yourself be empty, that you might be filled.”  And then, “All holy places command us, if only for a little while, to keep silence. . . . In speechlessness begins awe for life.”


  • Journey of a Prairie Year by Paul Gruchow.  In this book, Gruchow again writes what it is like to live on a vast, flat prairie:  “When we are faced with vastness on the scale of the prairie, we turn inward.”  He writes of the grasses and the resilience of the plants and animals that inhabit this landscape.  He is most poetic when describing the annual migrations of geese:  “What is it in the call of a goose that is so magical?  Is it the volume of it, so deliciously brazen after the months of winter silence?  Is it the appealingly adolescent quality of it, the way it starts in a resonant baritone and suddenly tumbles out of control into a high squeak, that delirious school childish sound?  Is it the humor of it after a season of seriousness and solitude, the improbability of such an uninhibited call gushing forth from a creature so elegant in flight, so formal in adornment?”


  • Letters from the Country by Carol Bly.  This is another of my all-time favorite books, and I’ve read it several times throughout my life.  (My copy of the book is dated 1982.)  I think it saved me and gave me concrete ideas for overcoming the cultural pressures of my Minnesota upbringing.  Bly advocates for a “madly expressive” life.  She quite accurately (I think) describes the restraint against feeling that she sees in her small, rural community and she calls out the resulting disdain for literature, the positive pretending masquerading as positive thinking, the loneliness when small talk is the principal means of avoiding conflict.  I love that Bly gives actionable ideas for engaging in a more deeply felt and conscious life, especially for people like me who grew up rather isolated on a farm.


  • The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl.  This is a book of essays written at Hampl’s dying mother’s bedside, the occasion of memories surfacing about growing up in St. Paul, which she calls “the pallid capital of the frozen flatland.”  “It was a world, old St. Paul.  And now it’s gone.  but I still live in it.”  She says, “In its cloudy wistfulness, nostalgia fuels the spark of significance.  My place.  My people.”  She describes her family as follows:  “An ordinary middle-class Midwestern family, in other words.  A cozy setting for heartlessness.”  She captures something of that Minnesota reticence and stiffness:  “Always eager to assure me of our modesty, our middling safety in the middle of the continent in the middle of the century. . . . the best place to be:  the middle.  No harm done there.  That’s us: smart enough, middle-class, Midwestern, midcentury — middle everything.  Safe, safe.”  And this:  “What a romantic city it was, full of believers, wrapped in pride and insecurity, those protons of provincial complacency.   We pulled the blanket of winter around us, we clicked shut the wooden blinds of summer against the killing heat, the swatted mosquitoes of summer, the dripping ice dams of winter.  Our lives were little, our weather big.”  I found so much honesty in Hampl’s writing, her take on her Minnesota upbringing resonated with my own.  “I sit with my mother, as has been destined since time began because a daughter is a daughter all her life.”  I liked this book so much that I read another of Hampl’s books, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, about writing memoirs.  She says, “Memoir is the intersection of narration and reflection.”  And, “The beauty of memory rests in its talent for rendering detail, for paying homage to the senses, its capacity to love the particles of life, the richness and idiosyncrasy of our existence.”  She goes on to say, “To write one’s life is to live it twice, and the second living is both spiritual and historical. . .”


  • Mapping the Farm and A Northern Front: New and Selected Essays by John Hildebrand.  These books are about rural Minnesota, particularly the area around Rochester where Hildebrand’s wife’s family owns a farm.  This is how he describes this part of Minnesota:  “a landscape of almost pure geometrical proportions, a landscape redrawn by machines every autumn as combines level the buff-colored fields, followed by chisel plows working in from the edges until black dirt frames the bare rectangles and the countryside resembles nothing so much as a plat map itself.”  I was most interested in reading about his family’s experiences with working out a way to pass the family farm to a new generation.  “If this farm is lost, it won’t be because of crooked bankers or poor markets or even bad luck.  It will be a failure from within when, after four generations on the land, the line of descent finally runs out.”  His family’s story is the story of America’s loss of small, sustainable, family farms, and he reflects on what this means.



  • Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass by Gary Paulsen.  This book lovingly describes the rituals of farm life in the era when everything was not yet mechanized.  Paulson describes many things that brought back memories of my childhood on a small Minnesota homestead farm.  For example, here he describes milking:  “Milking was all the time, not just in spring, but it was different then because the milk smelled, the air was of calves.  It was regular, so fitted into our rituals that it became more than just a chore. . . . And it became more than work, became something of spirit or grace, almost a benediction.”  He goes on, “Much is made of the bond between men and animals, horses, dogs.  But this is beyond that.  The milk stool is set just so and the forehead is put into the soft spot where the cow’s gut meets her back legs so that the stomach rumbles and gurgles as part of the person’s thinking, breathing, low sounds and the hands work in a rhythm perhaps as old as all rhythms, the movement that is the giving of milk, so that the person becomes the calf and the cow the mother and the milk hisses and sputters into the bucket, into the white foam . . .”  His descriptions are almost stream of consciousness reminisces: “By seven the chores were done and breakfast was done and it was time to go to work and all worked, young, old, all, and if we were too young to work we went with and ‘helped’ those who did work.”  I also loved the illustrations in this book, paintings by Ruth Wright Paulsen.




  • Millions of Cats and Gone is Gone by Wanda Gag.  Gag was born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota, a German and Czech community.  The first title was a Newbery honor book in 1929 and tells the story of a lonely old man and woman who decide to get a cat.  They happen upon a hill with “Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats,” and finding that it is impossible to chose among them, a catfight ensues.  When the dust settles, only one cat is left.  Too homely to even hope it would be chosen, it was overlooked in the fray and survives to bring joy to the couple.  The second title plays on the switching of roles — wife to the fields and husband to care for the baby and keep house for a day.  The inept husband creates a series of disastrous mishaps and learns that his wife does not have the easy job after all.  I also read about Gag’s life in Growing Pains:  Diaries and Drawings from the Years 1908 – 17.


  • North Woods Girl by Aimee Bissonette.  I enjoyed the scratchboard and watercolor illustration in this picture book about a granddaughter who visits her plain, outdoorsy, flannel shirt-wearing grandmother.


  • The Betsy-Tacy Treasury by Maud Hart-Lovelace.  These were the first four books in the Betsy-Tacy juvenile novels based on stories from the author’s childhood in Mankato, Minnesota.  We follow the gentle exploits of two neighbor girls engaged in ordinary childhood activities like playing dress up and going calling, playing store in a discarded piano box and selling dyed sand in bottles, writing a letter to the King of Spain, making a trip to the new Carnegie library.  I also looked at The Betsy-Tacy Companion: A Biography of Maud Hart-Lovelace by Sharla Scannell Whalen, which goes chapter by chapter, looking at the historical basis for the people, places, and incidents mentioned in the fiction series.