The Crops Look Good: News from a Midwestern Family Farm
By Sara DeLuca. (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 240 pages, $9.99.)
Reading someone else's letters can feel like you're snooping, even if you're invited to peruse them. But like most things snooped upon, you often learn something.
When Sara DeLuca's mother gave her a pile of family letters saved over the years, she received them as "a burdensome gift." The assumption was that she'd put them "to some good purpose." No pressure, Mom? Almost 20 years later, she revisited the letters, which took on a new light given the changes in farming itself, but also in her outlook.
She focused on the letters to Margaret, the oldest daughter of family who farmed around Centuria, Wis. Margaret went off to school in Minneapolis, and eventually moved to California, making her a distant sounding board for letters from her sisters and mother. The initial letters from the early 1920s seem almost too ordinary, partly because we're not invested in these people. But then, slowly, we get to know them. We learn their back stories, quirks, dark challenges, dreams and setbacks. Anyone with a farm background may rightly feel a poignant familiarity here with their grandparents' era.
The letters conclude in the mid-1950s, as telephones and travel made letters less crucial. To her credit, DeLuca stays quite out of the way here, providing context where it's helpful and letting the exchange of confidences and news reveal her family's story, without sliding into sentimentality. There's no dramatic arc, really, just the stuff of life, snooped upon and fairly presented. DeLuca has put the letters to good purpose, just as her mother knew she would.
DeLuca will read and sign books at 7 p.m. March 18 at Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.
By Cecilia Eckback. (Weinstein Books, 370 pages, $26.)
In the early 1700s, Maija and Paavo, Finnish refugees from war and family turmoil, arrive in a remote, mountainous area in Swedish Lapland, seeking a home for themselves and their two daughters. But from the moment they settle into a dilapidated homestead on the mountain, life darkens. The young girls stumble across the rotting body of a murdered man in a forest glade.
The few other people on the mountain are closed and mysterious, and disturbing events mount as the long, dark "wolf winter" sets in, bringing with it flesh-eating cold, hunger and fear. Paavo leaves to seek work far away, and Maija — along with her increasingly secretive and mystical oldest daughter and a village priest with secrets of his own — struggles to keep her family alive and to comprehend some of the mountain's crimes and mysteries.
Ostensibly, this haunting, poetic story is a mystery, but it is far more: a meditation on fear, courage and independence, and a surprisingly timeless story, despite the primitive setting. Eckback's descriptions of the boreal winter mesmerize and chill, and Maija, along with several other characters in the book, not all of them alive, will stay with you for a long time.
West/North Metro Team leader