The rolling bluffs and farm fields of southeastern Minnesota rub like a wrinkle in Kevin Fenton's brain. They're a pebble in his shoe, a skip in his heart. It's not just that it's beautiful country; it's Fenton country, and it's at the center of everything he writes.
Fenton's memoir, "Leaving Rollingstone," was published last month by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. The book is about moving from the family dairy farm outside of Rollingstone to Minnesota City, then to Winona (and eventually to the Twin Cities).
It's a memoir both gritty and nostalgic, laced with humor and told both from Fenton's perspective as a child, and his quite different perspective as a grown man. Fenton the child remembers halcyon days on the farm, playing Twister, playing hockey, dancing in the kitchen to the Beatles on the radio.
Fenton the adult looks back on that time and sees it more fully: His father was disabled and drank too much; his older brother took on too much responsibility; his mother was always worried — about money, jobs, her husband's health.
"What surprises me looking back isn't the despair my parents felt but how bravely they fought against it," he wrote.
Fenton has been writing about that part of his life, and that part of the state, for years. His first novel, "Merit Badges," which won the AWP Prize for the Novel, is set in Winona (called, in the book, Minnisapa).
And, long before that, it was poetry. (Poetry about which he says, "I hope it's all burned.")
"It's about the same place, it's about the same thing," he said. "All my writing has been about the same basic topic. I keep taking these runs at it in different genres."
The landscape around Rollingstone, about 12 miles northwest of Winona, looks "more like upstate New York or Vermont," he said. "It's the part of Minnesota that the glaciers missed. Rolling hills, beautiful valleys, dairy farms. We lived on the ridge, just above the valley."
The town's only school was Catholic, because everyone in town was Catholic. (Truly. Everyone.) And except for the Fentons, everyone in town was Luxembourger. "My dad was known as 'the Irish guy,' because he was the only one they'd ever seen," he said.
A place this distinct, during a time that poignant, made an impression. And having it all taken away so abruptly — the family sold the farm and moved in 1969 — left everything frozen in his mind.
Not all writers have a strong tie to a specific place, Fenton said. But for him, "there was a culture there that was very distinctive and insular," he said. "And then we lost it all."
A Saturday writer
Fenton graduated from Winona High School and Beloit College in Wisconsin, moved to the Cities, went to law school, got a job in advertising. Writing, he said, was always his Saturday thing. "I write privately on weekends. I've written some version of something all my life," he said.
Over the years, he submitted manuscripts to competitions — including an early version of "Merit Badges" — and always did well but never won. Finally, "I kept thinking, I've been working at this for 10 years and I'm tired of just being close."
He went back to school, earning an MFA from the University of Minnesota in 2005. "It really did push me," he said. "I know MFA programs get a lot of flak, but I can testify that the Minnesota MFA program took me from being someone OK and promising to someone who can write a book that someone would want to read."
Fenton now lives in St. Paul and is working on a second novel — one that is inching away from Rollingstone. The protagonist first appeared in "Merit Badges" ("the single least significant character," he said), and while the book has elements of Winona and Rollingstone in it, "it's really about Minneapolis and St. Paul. So I think in some ways, as the main topic of a book, I have exhausted them, but there is still a strand in the third book."