At last, Minnesota! I think Minnesota may be the state that inspired this Andrea Reads America reading project. Several years ago, my husband, our two small children, and I moved from Florida to Minnesota. I had lived on the southeast coast my entire life, with a few years in Maryland and a winter in Maine thrown in the mix for variety.
The midwest, though, and Minnesota. Those places were foreign to me. I had no idea what to expect. In my anxious anticipation of this big move, I wanted to learn about the region we were moving to, and I wanted to learn in a way that would sink in for me: through fiction.
The most effective and lasting way I am going to understand a place, a people, or a time period, is through a well-written story. I remember hating history in elementary school and high school, and even when I first started college. Then, college history professor assigned novels for a post-civil war US history course, and history came alive me. It became human, absorbing, and relevant.
So before we moved to Minnesota, I researched Minnesota authors. I compiled titles set in the state. I devoured wintry, prairie, and Twin Cities-set books: Summit Avenue, An Untamed Land, Long Quiet Highway, On the Banks of Plum Creek. And when we arrived, the state was not a shock to me. I felt like I knew it a little bit, and was prepared.
Book: Main Street
Author: Sinclair Lewis, born Sauk Centre, Minnesota 1885
Setting: Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, 1910
Categories: Literary Fiction (Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his body of work)
Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, in the early 1900’s, is a frontier settlement to Carol Kennicot, an educated woman from the city who has a grand idea to descend on a small town USA: she will make it beautiful, snazz it up, bring in culture.
She thought of the coming Northern winter, when the unprotected houses would crouch together in terror of storms galloping out of that wild waste. They were so small and weak, the little brown houses. They were shelters for sparrows, not homes for warm laughing people.
To the residents of Gopher Prairie, who built the settlement with their sweat and their blood and their own hands, it is already beautiful, perfect, solid, and working. They don’t need the outside ideas of an educated city woman to come stir things up, a woman who says provocative things at parties, who didn’t play a part in building the town yet wants to come in and criticize and change it.
Main Street is about many things: provinciality, conservatism, hard-working people close to the land, the subtle ways women are kept down and powerless, and the tension between disruptors and those who are set in their ways. To Carol, the outsider who swooped in on this prairie town,
I came trusting them. They beat me with rods of dullness.
Whereas to Vida, a woman who helped build the town,
These people that want to change everything all of a sudden without doing any work, make me tired! Here I have to go and work for four years, picking out the pupils for debates, and drilling them, and nagging at them to get them to look up references, and begging them to choose their own subjects — four years, to get up a couple of good debates! And she comes rushing in, and expects in one year to change the whole town int a lollypop paradise with everybody stopping everything else to grow tulips and drink tea. And it’s a comfy homey old town too!
Lewis’s descriptions of the town and of the prairie are gorgeous. It is clear that the setting is deep in his bones: he knows this place. I highlighted passage after passage with descriptions of wheat, emptiness, land, prairie clouds. The themes Lewis explores are in this novel are timeless and important, but it is this sense place that I loved most about Main Street.
Book: The Late Homecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir
Author: Kao Kalia Yang, lives in Minnesota
Setting: Laos, Thailand, and St. Paul, Minnesota, 1960s-today
The Latehomecomer begins in Laos with a family and a people recruited by the US to fight in Vietnam. They are promptly abandoned to be slaughtered in their own homeland when the US withdraws. This memoir tells of their escape into Thailand, where they are contained by fences in transition camps for years, starving and homeless before finally being transitioned to the US for asylum.
The author’s family is split once they arrive in the US — some go to California and some go to Minnesota — and this book is Kalia’s telling of that journey from a home that was no longer a home, the journey of no longer being of a land, and the journey to a new country: poor, not speaking the language, in a new climate, and ostracized by the country her people died for.
Kalia was a child in Thailand, when she and her family were kept in a transition camp there. She absorbed the stories of their past through her grandmother, whose gift for storytelling Kalia inherited, and at whose knee Kalia would sit, asking to be retold the stories again and again. She preserves them now through her own writing.
This was one of those books — those nonfiction books — that I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe this is real, that people actually have to endure these things.” It is humbling. There is great beauty, though, in the grounding that family and tradition provide, even when you’ve lost everything.
Book: The Real Minerva
Author: Mary Sharratt, born Minneapolis, Minnesota
Setting: Minerva, Minnesota, 1923
Categories: Historical Fiction
I didn’t write any notes for myself after reading this one, but I know enough to say that this was one of my favorite reads from Minnesota. I read it before we moved there, and this book was one of the re-reads I was looking forward to when I started this reading project. It is earthy, with strong women, and I enjoyed it as much the second time I read it as I did the first. Rather than write a recap without notes, I’ll just leave you with a quote from it that captures some of the scenery I love:
Cora’s farm was so cut off from Minerva, Penny began to think of it as an island. Standing at the mailbox, she looked out over the fields. The wind skimmed the wheat, a tawny ocean stretching to meet a horizon unbroken by silos or rooftops.
The Real Minerva provides Sharratt’s portrayal of rural Minnesota, while her novel Summit Avenue, which is equally good, transports you to St. Paul and Minneapolis during the first World War. I recommend both for Minnesota reads.
For Further Reading in Minnesota
Books I’ve read:
– Long Quiet Highway, Natalie Goldberg
– Summit Avenue, Mary Sharratt
– On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder
– An Untamed Land, Lauraine Snelling
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.