Coming of Age in the North Woods

Winter Loon     Susan Bernhard     (2019)

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The loon, a large migratory aquatic bird, can be spotted in the far northern reaches of Minnesota,  Wisconsin, and Michigan (and up into Canada) only in the height of summer. The cry of a loon echoing across a lake is haunting and unforgettable, emblematic of long days in the North Woods. But if you spot a loon in these parts in the winter, the bird is probably injured and is unlikely to survive.

Wes Ballot, the teenage first-person narrator of this novel, is perhaps like a winter loon in rural Minnesota—disoriented, separated from his family, facing grim odds for survival. On the very first page, Wes’s mother falls through the ice of a semi-frozen Minnesota lake and drowns, just out of the reach of Wes’s outstretched arm. If you’re a reader who, like me, has a hard time with fictional death scenes, you may waver in committing to the story, but I’d encourage you to read on, as the path of Wes’s life winds twistingly toward adulthood.

When Wes’s father deserts him, supposedly to find work, Wes is left to live with his insensitive maternal grandparents. A local Native American family is sympathetic toward him, and Wes is smitten with a member of this clan, Jolene, who’s also had a tough life.  “She smiled at me then, a funny, crooked, closed-mouth sideways smile that I would later try to imitate in the mirror. It was like she could see something in me that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to try on that expression so I could know it, too.” (98)

Although Wes has plenty of setbacks, he keeps seeking to learn the facts about his troubled parents, particularly on classic road trips through the American West. “I tried to organize my thoughts, but the miles I’d traveled logged in my veins and I could feel the tire treads rumbling the marrow like I was still driving.” (279)

Some of the people Wes Ballot meets are selfish and cruel. Well, no, a lot of the people he meets are selfish and cruel, and sadly, many teens around the globe find this to be the case. But a few people are generous and kind. Wes doesn’t give up looking for the people who will affirm his worth.

 

Intertwined Lives in Minnesota

Virgil Wander     Leif Enger     (2018)

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The title character, Virgil Wander, narrates this enchanting tale, starting with his improbable survival from a catastrophic car crash: In a freak autumn snowstorm, Virgil sailed his Pontiac off a cliff and into 90 feet of Lake Superior blueness. It was an accident, the result of slick roads and white-out visibility. Or was it? Virgil is a conundrum, suffering from a traumatic brain injury that robs him of some memories and some elements of language, especially adjectives. He's dizzy and unfocused. Having met Death and walked away, he’s more appreciative of small wonders and less tolerant of bullshit. His name alone would have told us this. He does indeed wander in his post-accident days and weeks, but he is Virgil, the Roman poet of the Aeniad, who guided Dante. This modern-day Virgil now guides us to depths of understanding of the human condition.

Virgil Wander is a movie projectionist and part-time city clerk in fictional Greenstone, Minnesota, about as far north in the continental United States as you can go—even north of Duluth. The winters start in early October and are harsh, but the Lake Superior shoreline is spectacular. The inhabitants who remain in Greenstone now that its mining boom is long past are there because they crave the ruggedness, the quiet, and the slow pace, or maybe because they have nowhere else to go. (National reviewers of this novel who reside on ocean coasts clearly don't waltz to this leisurely beat, since they use the word "quirky" excessively and irritatingly.)

Into Virgil's post-accident world comes an elderly fellow from Norway, Rune, who is searching for Alec Sandstrom, who he just learned was his son. Problem is, Alec, a promising minor league baseball pitcher, flew off over Lake Superior in a small plane a decade before and never returned. Rune, whose name carries connotations of magic and inscrutability, is also a master kite builder who captivates the Greenstone natives with his whimsically festooned flyers that sail on the breezes and gales of this marvelous inland seaside. Many other characters join the ensemble, each swiftly and convincingly limned:

  • Alec's presumed widow, the luminous Nadine

  • Alec's teenage son, the loner Bjorn

  • Virgil's garrulous journalist friend, Tom Beeman

  • Virgil's enthusiastic co-worker Ann Fandeen and her sadsack husband, Jerry

  • mysterious Adam Leer, returned from Hollywood to Greenstone

  • ambitious snowplow driver Lily Pea and her young brother, Galen.

Novelist Enger skillfully intertwines their lives, in the way that lives naturally do intertwine, and crafts a plot that centers on the potential for revival of the ill-fated town and the gradual recovery of Virgil Wander from his near-death experience.

Good Lord, the folks in this novel have every manner of trouble accost them. Virgil himself was orphaned at 17 when his lay missionary parents died in a train derailment in Mexico. Other characters endure financial ruin, alcoholism, the bite of a rabid raccoon, or death by crushing (don't ask). A mist of magic realism suffuses the scene, as townspeople find happiness flying kites with Rune or watching classic movies with Virgil at the ramshackle but comforting Empress Theater.

Clearly, I loved both the plot and the characters of Virgil Wander, but the richness of Leif Enger's language stopped me in my tracks to read many paragraphs a second time, for the sheer joy of the words. Opening to a random page (9), I find this description of Rune: "He pulled a kitchen match from his pocket, thumbnailed it, and relit his pipe, which let me tell you held the most fragrant tobacco—brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel. A few sharp puffs brought it crackling and he held it up to watch smoke drift off the bowl. The smoke ghosted straight up and hung there undecided." Of course I'm pulled to the smell of the tobacco ("brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel"). But the verb "thumbnailed" tells you right away what kind of a guy Rune is, that he struck a match—a "kitchen match"—with his fingers. The puffs that Rune took were "sharp," and the smoke from the pipe didn't just rise, it "ghosted and hung there undecided," with a mind of its own to make up or not. Every page holds such images, seemingly tossed off. Aphorisms of startling clarity also jump out: “Memory's oldest trick is convincing us of its accuracy.” “I would say projectionists aren't more sentimental than blacksmiths except that we probably are.” (both on page 84)

You might put Leif Enger in the company of Richard Russo (reviewed here), for his bang-on portrayal of a decaying small American industrial town. You might compare Enger to Kent Haruf (reviewed here) for his laconic Midwestern characters. But for God's sake don't compare him to fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor, who doesn't reside in Enger's sphere of genius at all. Read Virgil Wander, definitely.