A debut novel revolving around a small town tells the stories of several generations.
Fenske’s tent-pole tale focuses on Arthur Finstead, a restless but unambitious man who moves from the Twin Cities to a small town to become a teacher and, he hopes, avoid getting drafted to fight in Vietnam. He returns to Sturgeon Falls to take care of the family homestead and teach science. It’s a good position from which to learn about his own history and small-town politics. This is a place where parents don’t want teachers keeping their children too busy or filling their heads with nonsense about geology. Some of the instructors even have an annual pool to bet on which of their female students will get pregnant that year. The book also stretches back to the1930s to cover the lives of the Martilla brothers: Mikko, Olaf, and Carl. Mikko is the major character here, a high school football star who winds up in jail for a year for running moonshine. There are also satellite tales about a ne’er-do-well named George and Augustine “Augie” Goodyear, a young Native American who dreams of playing baseball for a living. Fenske eventually weaves the intriguing stories together, however loosely, as Finstead settles in and has to decide if he really wants to stay a teacher simply to avoid becoming a solider. It’s an engrossing collection of tales, and the author has created a wonderfully vivid backdrop in Sturgeon Falls and the surrounding Rainy River. He displays a talent for creating atmosphere, from the local baseball games to a cliff overhanging the river into which is carved “the Shaman,” who sometimes feels like a real character. But at times, the book offers too many players. There’s not enough room to fully delineate everyone in the cast. Augie in particular is a bit underdeveloped. Still, this story’s faults never overwhelm its considerable charms.
An appealing collection of homespun tales; Sturgeon Falls remains a place well worth visiting.