Author Stonich creates memorable cabin characters

With a strong sense of place, Sarah Stonich writes of life Up North on an Iron Range lake.

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Minnesota author Sarah Stonich took her dog, Betsy, for a walk at Silverwood Park in St. Anthony.

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Minneapolis author Sarah Stonich is adept at plumbing the complicated relations between townies and tourists. She should be — she’s observed them all her life.

Stonich and her siblings spent every summer at their grandparents’ place on White Iron Lake near Ely, where her parents’ large clan grew up. She now has a cabin nearby.

“I’m kind of an anomaly on the Iron Range,” she said. “My surname is known by anyone over 50, yet I’m a city person, an outsider.”

She found out just how much of one in 2008, when she resisted a proposal for Hwy. 169 to be rerouted through the land where she built a cabin between Tower and Ely. The project was favored by many residents, who saw Stonich as a “612-er.”

She got two conflicting pieces of advice from locals: “One person suggested I put my name on a piece of wood on our road so people would know it’s local and not vandalize the property,” she said. “Later, someone said I might want to take it off.”

Still, she says, “If you can get past the country mouse/city mouse assumptions, we all have more in common than not.”

That philosophy flows through “Vacationland,” a collection of intertwined stories imbued with such a strong sense of place that anyone who’s ever spent time “Up North” will experience a frisson of familiarity. Despite having published three well-praised previous books, two of them set in Minnesota, Stonich has flown somewhat under the radar in her home state.

Early reviews suggest that “Vacationland” — out this week, just in time for cabin season — may change that.

Changing seasons, life cycles, generational connections and mortality are strong themes running through the book. Its central character is not a person, but Naledi Lodge, a dilapidated resort on fictional Little Hatchet Lake. Caretaker Vac, an immigrant whose wife abandoned him for a Nazi, winds up rearing his granddaughter Meg, whose parents are killed in a plane crash (the harrowing subject of one chapter). Over the years Naledi and Hatchet Inlet play host to a variety of guests and residents, among them the returning adult Meg, now an accomplished painter (whose dog brings home a severed human hand in the first story).

Todd Orjala, senior editor at University of Minnesota Press, which published “Vacationland,” grew up in northern Minnesota. “Sarah nails the people, capturing the essence of small-town life without romanticizing it or making them sound like hayseeds,” he said. “She doesn’t peddle in stereotypes, just quietly authentic characterizations.”

Stonich (pronounced STOH-nitch), who at 55 looks more like 40, seems to be one of the lucky few in her profession who don’t suffer from writer’s block.

“I don’t understand people who can’t make themselves sit down and write,” she said. “To me it’s a treat. I’d rather do it than watch ‘Downton Abbey’ with ice cream.”

She only has one rule: “It has to sound OK when I read it aloud. I didn’t do well in school, and I don’t think I’d be a writer today if I’d gone to a writing program. I’d have been paralyzed by the rules.”

MacGyver childhood

Stonich’s first memory of feeling awe-struck by nature was “what psychologists call an oceanic experience,” she said.

“I was too young to describe it in words, but it’s that instant of feeling you are a part of everything, with the trees and their roots and the water in the lake. I’ve had it a couple of times as an adult, triggered by water, but it can only happen when you’re empty enough to take it all in. It’s much harder for people to feel now, because of cellphones we’re always on.”

She grew up the fifth of six siblings in Proctor, Minn., a railroad town abutting Duluth. Her alcoholic mother divorced her father, an accountant for an oil company, when Sarah was 6. Mom was subsequently excommunicated from the Catholic church, quite a scandal in those days, and the family lived on food stamps for a time. At 14, Stonich went to live with her father.

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  • ‘Vacationland’ launch party

    What: Readings and music to fete Sarah Stonich’s new story collection.

    When: 7 p.m. Sat.

    Where: Clown Lounge, downstairs at the Turf Club, 1601 University Av. W., St. Paul.

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