Don Fraser: Minnesota’s Quiet Crusader
By Iric Nathanson. (Nodin Press, 228 pages, $19.95.)

 Don Fraser may be Minnesota’s most beloved technocrat. The Democratic politician served 38 years in elective office in St. Paul, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis, yet he was as reserved and unassuming as one can be and still survive in a career that demands glad-handing.

Fraser immersed himself in reforming Democratic Party and U.S. House rules and procedures, as well as tinkering with the Minneapolis City Charter. But he also proved to be forward-thinking — succeeding in making human rights a key element of U.S. foreign policy, banning motorized travel in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, saving the State Theatre in Minneapolis and ramping up child development programs.

Iric Nathanson’s biography is largely admiring — not surprising, since Nathanson worked as an aide to Fraser for 11 years. But it’s an honest look, and Nathanson doesn’t shy away from giving voice to critics. I covered Fraser for four years in the 1980s when he was Minneapolis mayor, and Nathanson’s portrayal of Fraser rings true.

In the book, as it was during the Fraser era in City Hall, it’s Tony Bouza who delivers the best line. “Oh, my God, after all the cretins and bastards I have worked for, I was owed Don Fraser,” the police chief said. “The city was owed Don Fraser. I love the guy. He’s thoughtful, decent, intelligent, tough. He’s everything you would want in a mayor. He’s absolutely wonderful.”

Iric Nathanson will be in conversation with former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.


House. Tree. Person.
By Catriona McPherson. (Midnight Ink, 335 pages, $24.99.)

Alison McGovern’s family has seen better times. Her husband, Marco, has run their businesses into the ground — hers a beauty shop and his a doomed fishmonger’s cafe — and forced them to move to the outskirts of a small town in Galloway, Scotland. With a brooding teenage son, both are unemployed and surrounded by barren army training grounds on one end and an ancient abbey across the way.

They need jobs, or a miracle. Then one day the miracle comes: an ad for a therapeutic beauty technician at a mental hospital on the army grounds. Ali protests that she’s not qualified to be around psychiatric patients — we soon learn of a brush with depression and withdrawal of her own some 10 years back — but Marco polishes up her résumé with grossly exaggerated titles and skills, and she gets the job.

The cast of characters is rich and spooky. The stern, high-heeled director of the hospital and her amiable doctor husband who follows her orders like a puppy dog. The hospital staff, all of whom have their own quirks but try to make Alison feel welcome. And a focus on two patients, one a catatonic 30-year-old who has lived at Howell Hall for a decade and the other a high-spirited younger woman bent on histrionics and shocking anyone who will listen.

Ali finds the catatonic patient, Sylvie, is starting to respond to her voice and calm manner. Soon Sylvie is making sounds of recognition and enjoying bouts of sun outdoors. Ali tries a basic psychiatric test she has learned from her colleagues: Draw me a house, a tree, and a person.

Sylvie’s sketch starts the ball rolling, uncovering deceptions under the well-run surface of Howell Hall. A body unearthed by rains on the abbey grounds further pulls Ali’s family into the dark mystery … and draws Ali to the brink of her own sanity.

This is Scottish author McPherson’s sixth stand-alone novel. She’s been a finalist for both the Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark award. No wonder.