Gichi Bitobig, Grand Marais
By Timothy Cochrane. (University of Minnesota Press, 272 pages, $21.95.)
In October 1823, Bela Chapman arrived in Gichi Bitobig, the original name for Grand Marais, and began building a fur trading post. Before the month was out, he had dubbed it "Fort Misery."
Chapman wasn't alone in finding life on Lake Superior's North Shore to be severe. He was replaced a year later by George Johnston, who described Grand Marais as a "lonely and dismal place" and lamented his "Siberian exile."
Today we are drawn to the North Shore by its rugged beauty, but it was no vacation for these fur traders. The remote location, harsh weather, leaky roofs, scarcity of food and tensions with the Anishinaabeg (the autonym for Ojibwe) made for a challenging stay.
Chapman and Johnston's journals provide a detailed look at the privations they endured and the battle between the company they worked for, John Jacob Astor's American Fur Co., and the rival Hudson's Bay Co.
Like the journals, which are reprinted in the book, author Timothy Cochrane has a relatively narrow focus, zeroing in on Grand Marais and the North Shore rather than offering a sweeping picture of the U.S. or even Minnesota fur trade. Nevertheless, the book is populated with interesting characters from Minnesota's days as a territory — traders and Anishinaabeg alike, who eked out an existence in and around Gichi Bitobig.
Dennis J. McGrath
The Latecomers By Helen Klein Ross. (Little, Brown & Co., 432 pages, $25.98.)
Long-buried family secrets threaten to surface throughout "The Latecomers," the third novel by Helen Klein Ross. Bridey Molloy, one of the millions of poor Irish flooding into New York's Lower East Side in the early 20th century, teams up with Connecticut lady Sarah Hollingworth to raise her son. Sarah will be the adoptive mother, Bridey will be the nursemaid, and the two will never tell a soul where Vincent came from.
"Sarah was his mother. She would always be his mother. But he was raised by the woman who'd given him birth," Ross writes.
Such an uncomfortable alliance brings the expected tensions, but it all could have worked out, if not for the arsenic.
Ross gives the novel an epic sweep of history, ranging from 1908 to 2018, with New York as its epicenter. We watch the convulsions of history, from Prohibition to the Sept. 11 attacks. But the power of the story comes from the interlocking narratives of the family drama, told in turn by Bridey, Sarah, Vincent and their descendants. We inhabit each character and see from their perspectives the intersections of class, gender and privilege.
We learn that there is more than one deep, dark secret at the Hollingworth estate. Indeed, each generation has hidden something from the others. But as in real life, we see that some family secrets can't be buried forever, no matter how hard people try.