A pull toward North

  • Article by: ELIZABETH FOY LARSEN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2011 - 4:51 PM

A Twin Cities woman wants to re-create the Up North experience of her youth.

Sarah Stonich

For some Minnesotans, the pull toward even an uninhabited sliver of mossy lakeside granite feels as predetermined and forceful as a compass needle pointing north.

Newly divorced, Twin Cities author Sarah Stonich finds herself pining for a lake place to call her own. Although she describes herself as a "612er," Stonich's family has deep roots in the "butt end of the Canadian Shield." They once owned a cabin on a Lake Vermilion island that still bears their name. That retreat was lost during the Depression.

But Stonich's father, who was raised in nearby Tower, leased a modest patch of land to give his daughters the Minnesota cabin experience.

That Stonich's plugged-in son, Sam, doesn't feel that same tug toward quiet, watery vistas worries the author. Perhaps, she reasons, a cabin will connect her son and her father, even though they never met in person.

Stonich's fantasy doesn't include a two-story picture window looming over Gull Lake. Instead, she dreams of tall pines, craggy shorelines and the kind of stomach-sucking chill that rips through your body when you dive into silky Iron Range water.

She gets that -- and then some -- with the purchase of a roadless tangle of wilderness near where her father was raised. There's no electricity or septic system. There is, however, wireless Internet access, thanks to a tower twinkling in the distance.

Stonich's descriptions of the natural assets of this region are as gorgeous and detailed as a spider's web at dawn. Thankfully, the author of "These Granite Islands" stops short of a full-on romance. Her sendup of the agony of a typical Boundary Waters canoe trip should make anyone wonder why they'd ever willingly endure -- much less repeat -- the burn of pack straps against shoulders and "a half-cooked, unidentifiable meal charred over butane."

Stonich shines in her intimate portraits of the northern Minnesota experience. But "Shelter" is also a satisfying exploration of family, immigration and middle-age romance in the age of online dating services. It's also a tour of the region's literary culture, with nods to the works of Sigurd Olson, Helen Hoover and Justine Kerfoot.

"His relationship with the land seemed a true and utterly serious one, as if he heard its very voice in his head, like some spruce whisperer," she writes of Olson. That Stonich's own connection to the same rugged earth is more conflicted -- she openly wrestles with how to respectfully fit in with the Ely locals -- gives "Shelter" a humble and authentically Minnesotan glow.

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is a writer in Minneapolis.

  • related content

  • Shelter by Sarah Stonich

  • SHELTER

    By: Sarah Stonich.

    Publisher: Borealis Books, 209 pages, $24.95.

    Review: Stonich shines in her intimate portraits of northern Minnesota, but her book is also a satisfying exploration of family, immigration and the region's literary culture.

    Event: 7:30 p.m. March 23, Common Good Books, 165 N. Western Av., St. Paul.

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