An uncomfortable truth: There are far more excellent regional books than I have space to review, more than I can ever read. Local writers and publishers — filled with that magic Minnesota elixir that makes writers and readers of us all — are producing scores of books that are fascinating, important, educational, inspiring, poetic and highly readable. Sometimes all those things at once.
So here are four new books, “new” being a relative term. That is, the first two you have seen before, though in different forms. The second two are brand-new to us all.
“Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song,” third edition. Edited by Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom and Dan Campion. (Holy Cow! Press, $27.95.)
First published in 1981, then revised in 1998, and now in a lovely third edition, with a new cover and tied to Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday (last month), this anthology is nearly 600 pages long and includes work from more than 100 writers who have been influenced by Whitman. From Emerson and Thoreau, to Robert Bly and John Berryman, to Chou Ping and Sherman Alexie, the poems and essays continue the eternal “conversation” with Whitman that began with the first edition.
“Under Ground” by Megan Marsnik. (Flexible Press, $16.99.)
Set on Minnesota’s Iron Range at the beginning of World War I, “Under Ground” is a novel steeped in fact. It follows the life of a Slovenian immigrant named Katka, who leaves her native country in 1915 and sets sail for the New World. In Minnesota, she is plunged into the world of immigrants, miners and the burgeoning labor movement. While Katka is a fictional character, the book is populated with real people and is built around the tumultuous and sometimes violent 1916 miners’ strike. “Under Ground” was published as a daily serial in the Star Tribune over the summer of 2015 and was amazingly popular. Look for Marsnik to schedule book events in northern Minnesota beginning in July (she is from Biwabik, where most of the book is set) and likely some in the Twin Cities (where she now lives) later in the summer.
“Jon Hassler: Voice of the Heartland” by Ed Block. (Nodin Press, $19.95.)
Jon Hassler’s gentle, wise novels are quintessentially Minnesotan — populated with small-town characters who suffer and rejoice and worship and sin. Hassler, who died in 2008, might best be known for “Staggerford” and for the sharp and beloved character of schoolteacher Agatha McGee, but he left behind a wealth of writing, and — this I did not know — paintings, one of which graces the cover of this book. Hassler grew up in Staples and Plainview and as an adult lived and taught in a number of smallish towns in central Minnesota. This lovely book of essays by Ed Block (who grew up in St. Paul and who knew Hassler) follows the arc of Hassler’s life in relation to his many novels; explores Hassler’s themes and plots; examines his growth as a writer; and looks at each novel with a critical eye.
“A Life on the Middle West’s Never-Ending Frontier” by Willard L. “Sandy” Boyd. (University of Iowa Press, $35.)
Willard Boyd was born in the Twin Cities (“in Midway Hospital — midway between St. Paul and Minneapolis on the St. Paul side,” he notes) and grew up in St. Anthony Park. A graduate of the University of Minnesota (Donald Fraser, future mayor of Minneapolis, was one of his fraternity brothers), he took a law degree and then attended the University of Michigan for further study. This sturdy, straight-ahead memoir traces the rise of his interest in education and politics, his move to Iowa and eventual tenure as president of the University of Iowa at a particularly fraught time (the late 1960s and ’70s). Another local boy makes good.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.