The North East Minnesota Books Award winners were announced last week, and the winner for fiction is….the North Shore and Lake Superior!!
Actually, it was the debut novel of Peter Geye, Safe from the Sea. Ostensibly the story of reconciliation between father and son, the real star of the book is ominous Lake Superior and the colorful communities and people that cling to the lake’s edges.
This is a short novel sprinkled with cultural references familiar to anyone who’s spent some time in Duluth and on the North Shore. The names have been changed, but you can spend time at the Anchor Bar (transplanted to Canal Park), the Blue Water Cafe, Grand Marais itself (known here as “Gunflint”, at the base of the “Brule Trail.”), and the varied neighborhoods of Duluth’s hillside.
The central story concerns Olaf, the aged survivor of a famous Lake Superior shipwreck, and his son Noah, who has moved to Boston and runs an antique map business. One of only three survivors, Olaf’s life had been in decline ever since the wreck, threatening his family and his health. But he can’t escape the pull of the lake, serving on the lakers for two more decades, never fully telling his story of the shipwreck.
Noah meanwhile has not become fully a man himself. This generation gap between hard-working immigrant and class-conscious son has been plumbed to great depth by Garrison Keillor for comic effect, but this is the first time I’ve seen it done for northeastern Minnesota and with such serious intent.
|Author Peter Geye, 2/10/2010|
The language is lovely, and some perfectly crafted and luminous sentences emerge from the page like a Lake Superior agate shows through cobblestones on the beach. The storyline is predictable; the book is even meant to be cataloged in libraries under “Prodigal Son (Parable)-Fiction.” Yet the predictability makes it easier to follow the characters and their evolution.
The book could have been strengthened in two ways. One would have been to have a knowledgeable copy editor catch what were to me glaring factual mistakes. The doomed ship would not have been carrying “twelve tons” of taconite, as it often is stated, but twelve thousand.
Second, it could have been an even better novella than a novel; there is a whole level of extraneous detail, from the press of a waitress’ apron to a fascination with cinnamon rolls. Chop out the extra detail, focus on the main storyline, and this would be one tight novella.
Thanks to the folks at the North East Minnesota Book Awards for bringing attention to this book. It is obviously the product of love and admiration for Lake Superior, the North Shore, and the unique qualities of this region.
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