Minnesota has an image as clean as the first November snow and, thanks to the Coen Brothers, a somewhat bent reputation as well. But Minnesotans have always known that they're better than other Americans (I know because I'm from there), and now the country is finally bowing to their superiority.
Minnesota has an essence that is mysterious and romantic, but hard to peg. Maybe it's the deep woods lining the prairie's edge, or the extreme weather. Whatever the reason, Minnesota's magnetism draws natives back home from wherever they may roam, even if only in their imaginations.
Three recent novels set in Minnesota underscore this magical attraction. Each features folks skedaddling off in search of something, though all return.
Robert Clark's Love Among the Ruins takes place in St. Paul during 1968's tumultuous summer. William Lowry is a poetic teenager who can't quite articulate his anger. He is devoted to his mother yet longs for independence. He falls for Emily Byrne, a good Catholic girl who does her parents' bidding. Just as the new rebellious generation smacked into stolid postwar traditions, William and Emily collide like nuclear fusion, and begin a journey that surprisingly affects both their families. Clark's elegant prose allows the story to unfold delicately, even as the tension between generations escalates.
Also set in the '60s, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River takes place in a small Minnesota town, but it's another country compared to Clark's Twin Cities. The narrator, 11-year-old Reuben, chronicles his family's plight. After his older brother gets into serious trouble, they head west to the Badlands in an effort to keep things intact. The story is folksy and fun, with the good and bad guys blurring into a fascinating gray area. Reuben's fine narration sets the right tone, while his child-prodigy sister, Swede, evokes the Wild West with her epic poetry.
The Wild West appears again in Duff Brenna's The Altar of the Body. This story is set in another small Minnesota town where George McLeod lives an uneventful life until his bodybuilding cousin Buck returns, needing new ways to support his steroid habit. Buck has his stripper girlfriend in tow, along with her addled mother, who confuses her life with a Western novel, West of the Pecos. Brenna's Minnesota is filled with "men scruffy and rough and sort of distant and shy until they had a few beers; the women vaguely Nordic, lots of dishwater blondes, casual dressers, very little makeup, good feeders and beer drinkers, inclined to plumpness and low laughter." And that's as deep as his characters get.
As different as these novels are, they share striking Minnesotan traits. Each opens the freezer door to convey a bitter sense of the nation's icebox. Snow is a convenient metaphor for burying one's problems in stoicism. It works for hiding dead bodies, too.
Another parallel is something only a Minnesotan would get. In varying degrees, the canoe represents the ultimate in happiness. The land o' lakes is lousy with canoes, and in these novels they become vessels to Valhalla. Or not: Sometimes they are simply vehicles for skimming over suggested but unplumbed depths.
These authors were raised in Minnesota and, like their characters, have returned, if only to share dreams of canoe rides across nearly frozen lakes.
Leif Enger will read at Twenty-third Avenue Books, 1015 NW 23rd Ave., 224-6203. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Oct. 16.
by Robert Clark (Norton, 333 pages, $24.95)
by Leif Enger (Atlantic Monthly Press, 311 pages, $24)
by Duff Brenna (Picador, 322 pages, $24)