Friday, June 15, 2007

Return of the Native

I guess you could say my recent trip back to my native Minnesota, to promote my book about growing up on a Minnesota dairy farm, was a success. I had three readings in the area where I grew up, along with an appearance at the tiny, former Hamel, Minnesota, branch of the Hennepin County Library, now a heritage building in the village named after my maternal great-grandfather, that I used to ride my bike to from our farm, three miles away, to check out as many books as I was allowed.

I started my Minnesota "tour" with eighty copies of my book, bought at the publisher’s forty percent discount, and sold them at the price on the jacket cover—sold all of them except the four I gave away—one to the little Hamel library to add to its local history collection, three to possible reviewers—and thereby made just enough money to pay for the trip. The cost of the trip included the books I bought and had sent by University of Toronto Press, my publisher’s distributor, to where I stayed in Minnesota, my airfare, and the two-week rental of a car.

I stayed with my sister and brother-in-law in Mound, on Lake Minnetonka, the town west of Minneapolis where I attended my first two years of high school. Took them out to dinner one evening by way of thanks for their hospitality, as well as for all the work they’d done in preparation for my visit: the venues they’d lined up, all their phone calls to folks who might be interested in seeing me and hearing me read. Most of the faces I looked out upon during my readings—at the Hamel Community Center, the Plymouth Creek Community Center, the Bookcase in Wayzata—I recognized, though I failed to remember a lot of their names until I was reminded with forgiving smiles. I saw surviving aunts and uncles, old and young cousins, old friends, old schoolmates, old neighbors. All I could do was accept their warm appreciation, smile back at them, sign the books they bought with this or that personal note, enjoy the fifteen minutes (all right, the hour or so per "event") of the fame they gave me.

By now I’ve lived more years in Canada than I did in the country where I was born. I joined the Navy and left home, the farm I write about in my memoir, at twenty, and apart from the two and a half years I lived in Minneapolis while attending the University of Minnesota on the GI Bill, after my release from the Navy, the two years I lived and worked in Chicago, the three years I lived and worked in Detroit, and finally the two years my wife and I spent in Minnesota before emigrating to Canada, I’ve been away from the place that made me except for yearly visits between 1987, when my father died, and 2004, when my mother died. So this trip back to where I came from to promote my book about the place was indeed some kind of triumphal return of the native. Oh yes, I basked in it. At the same time, knowing how much better my book might have been, I was humbled by its, and my, reception among people I grew up with, and quite a few with whom I didn’t—strangers, people of younger generations. Little did they know . . . One was touched by their enthusiastic, uncritical response.

Apart from the above, I was touched, as always, by the country, that south-central Minnesota landscape that nurtured me and that, as you drive west out of Minneapolis, out into what is no longer farmland but a region of mansion-like houses, partially or completely hidden in leafy woods, outside of which, in what once were cultivated fields, you see pastures in which the owners’ riding horses are grazing—that country is still beautiful.

It’s still the country of my heart. And yet, standing in it not long ago, I couldn’t remember the last time I heard the tinkling call of the western meadowlark. It was the sound of summer mornings on our old farm some fifty years ago, and now it’s gone, like the farm itself and those of our neighbors.

Not that I miss the farm, really, which I left, after all. What I miss are all the birds that once surrounded us, that were part of our world, that gave us the idea we were sharing theirs.