It’s the dead of winter in northernmost Minnesota and Meg’s dog Ilsa has just dragged a human hand into the house from the frozen tundra. Drop your kids at the mall, silence your iPhone and cozy into a chair, because Minneapolis author Sarah Stonich has you by the lapels, and honey, you’re not going anywhere.
“Vacationland” is a brilliant collection of linked stories centered around Naledi, a fictive northern Minnesota fishing resort long past its housewives-on-holiday heyday.
Naledi inherits in Stonich (“These Granite Islands”) a chronicler with storytelling gifts reminiscent of our most holy mother of the frozen north, Alice Munro. She has a similar flair for ferrying readers back in time for several pages, deepening our regard for a character, then softly dropping us back into the present without a moment’s confusion or jostling. She’s gentle that way.
Stonich isn’t so soft on her characters, and her Nordic precision with words shows best as late-in-life leading ladies of the collection’s standout story, “Destination,” journey to visit their ailing sister. They reflect on their own Naledi summers: “During these vacations, the sisters read fat paperbacks … and tossed coins to see who would venture to the lodge basement to launder beach towels in the shuddering aqua Maytags.” The sisters’ combined 11 kids were old enough to require only the occasional head count with binoculars. As with Munro, things here are not what they seem beneath the surface, both metaphorically and literally, and Stonich delivers beautiful storytelling without ever resorting to sentimentality.
Stonich is also funny as hell, not the easiest thing to pull off in serious literary fiction. “Omission” follows Ursa, an elderly Swedish battle-ax, as she prepares to leave the solitude of Naledi for a retirement home. “The phone rings again. She rarely answers anymore since Daniel [calls] daily from Minnetonka. Ursa reads the real estate section, knows what her son knows — that her peninsula and the twenty acres that back it are worth a million and maybe half again. But being rich at her age would only mean going on cruises with people she doesn’t want to meet and buying new clothes in sizes she’d rather not. … [daughter] Carina gets the property by default, if simply for having bred.”
Fantasies of the quintessential summer by the lake are the unassailable right of Minnesotans, carrying hopeful folks through the long winter months of “corn snow” hitting the windows. Even if Stonich’s razor-sharp stories in “Vacationland” remind us that black-fly July gives way to cabin sheets stained by mosquito-bitten legs, her lovely, multilayered writing proves that even the most imperfect nights around the campfire are worth every moment of March yearning.
Andrea Hoag is a Lawrence, Kan., book critic who spends summers in northern Minnesota.