Gathering “Gathering from the Grassland”

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Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal, is my most recent prose book. With publisher Nancy Curtis of High Plains Press in Glendo, WY, I’ve been working on it for several years.

In order for me to get copies of the book as soon as it was printed, we agreed to meet in Lusk, Wyoming, between our two ranches. We’d have lunch at The Pizza Place, and catch up on our personal and professional news. She’d hand over my author copies– 5 clothbound and 5 paperbound– and we’d discuss how we will each encourage sales of the book in the coming months. Many publishers, large and small, don’t do much promotion. High Plains Press supports its authors in dozens of ways, including buying lunch in Lusk– the New York City of our neighborhood.

LMH car detail 2017So “One Misty, Moisty Morning,” as Schooner Fare puts it, I loaded a handful of CDs, jugs of water, a rain coat and coffee. With Bob Seger, I declared at the top of my lungs that I was headed for “Katmandu;” If there’s a good song about driving to Lusk, I haven’t found it, but I won’t be surprised if this post generates suggestions.

When Jerry and I lived in Wyoming, I drove five and one-half hours from my ranch to Cheyenne regularly, but since we moved to my ranch home, my trips have been rare.  So I was delighted to hum a “Prairie Lullaby” (Stephanie Davis) as I headed “Beyond the Horizon” (Bob Dylan.) Since I’ve made this drive hundreds, if not thousands, of times, I knew I’d see familiar scenes, but would also surely see the unusual.  And the Wyoming breezes– “Four Strong Winds” from all four directions– would keep me alert.

CDs in car 2017We’ve had some frequent, though small, rains around home, so our hills are fairly green for this late in the season, though not nearly as vivid as those “Green Rolling Hills” Emmylou Harris was singing about. “Under a Rolling Sky,” (Michael Martin Murphey) the sun blazed red, stained by the smoke of fires in Montana and other areas west of us. Thick gray smoke muffled the outlines of the Black Hills and cast a nasty yellow tinge over the grass. I hummed with the “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (Bob Dylan) clouds as I turned west on SD 18, and zipped past Hot Springs. I soared up to Coffee Flats while Janis Joplin crooned about “Summertime.”

And there I got a surprise: two bicyclists! Each wore a helmet, and a skintight outfit striped in bright colors; their panniers bulged. Heads down, oblivious to the “Thunder on the Mountain,” (Dylan) they were headed west.

Just how much did they know about the arid country ahead of them? From Edgemont, it’s almost sixty miles to Newcastle, and almost seventy to Lusk, WY. There are no towns or settlements along the route, and most of the ranch houses are a considerable distance from the highway. At Mule Creek Junction, 21 miles west of Edgemont, a rest area offers water and “rest,” but little else.

Wyoming Highway near Lusk stock footage

As I accelerated past them– not in the “Mercedes Benz” Janis was warbling about– I tried to visualize what the bicyclists might be seeing. That “Peaceful Country” (Murphey) looks spectacular from that high plateau: down toward the tree-lined Cheyenne River and Beaver Creek drainages. Silver-blue sage sweeps up the hills, and many of the gullies are jagged and deep. With their heads down, would the riders see anything but their feet and the pavement?

When I drove this route nine years ago, I often thought of Murphey’s “Hardscrabble Creek” as my eyes followed ranch roads winding from the highway into the distance beyond the sagebrush. Often a beat-up car or pickup was parked beside the gate. I knew if I got into that vehicle, I’d find the keys under the floor mat or behind the visor, where ranchers always leave them. The transportation wasn’t abandoned, but meant the family had a child of school age who drove to the highway to be picked up by the school bus headed for Newcastle or Lusk. Is the ranching population aging? I saw few vehicles beside the ranch roads on this trip.

LMH autographs GATHERING 2017In Lusk, I parked on the wide street in front of The Pizza Place, and chose a booth that allowed me to see the front door while I wrote in my journal. When Nancy arrived, we enjoyed our visit and our pizza, noticing as the place filled with folks headed to a local funeral, or just having lunch in their work day. Then we explained to one of the waitresses that we’d like to keep using the booth awhile to sign books. “No problem,” she said, and we started lugging boxes of books in from the car. Once in a while after that, a waitress would peek around the corner, but they left us alone for more than an hour as I signed books, and smiled when we refilled our water and tea glasses.

After I’d signed books Nancy will have on hand for customers who ask, we transferred the boxes of books I’d bought at my author discount to my car, so I could head home and begin selling them. One of the most pleasant features of Lusk is those wide streets: two women with boxes of books could move safely from one car to the one behind it without being run over by a semi-load of hay.

Periwinkle Patent Leather Clogs“I love your purple Crocs!” I said to Nancy. “I had to give mine up for tougher shoes.”

“Everyone says that,” she said firmly, “but I am not wearing Crocs. I am wearing Periwinkle Patent Leather clogs.” Publishers have to be precise.

Independent authors and publishers need to “Try Just a Little Bit Harder,” and I promised to do so as I sang along with Joplin’s throaty vocals, accelerating out of town.

Rumblestrips stock footageWyoming highway officials, among whom Jerry used to be numbered, know the hazards of this two-lane highway that winds through the sagebrush. They’ve thoughtfully placed rumble strips—corrugated asphalt that make a terrible racket when your tires hit it–on both edges of the highway, AND in the middle. The purpose is to wake up dozing drivers, or perhaps alert those who are texting.

I noticed them first when they were applied to Highway 79 that goes past my house. Before sunrise, when I’m still trying to sleep, a truck hitting the rumble strips sounds like a helicopter landing on my bed.

Rumble strips and cattle or sheep that climb through fences to graze the right-of-way aren’t all that keeps a person alert on this highway. I heard a Whoosh! as another “Greenie”—Wyoming slang for speeding Colorado cars with green license plates–raced past in a no-passing zone.

I slammed on the brakes to let the idiot pull in front of me seconds before he would have been obliterated by an oncoming truck. I was angry, but I put on my “Secret Smile,” (Murphey) satisfied with being a life-saver. In the past, I may have exceeded speed limits occasionally, but no longer. I’d rather “Give A Little Bit Back” (Davis), relax, enjoy the scenery, and arrive safe and alive at home.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Gathering Windbreak JournalMy first published book, in 1987, was a diary of a year on my plains ranch. Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains was published by a small publisher, Barn Owl Books, and featured my observations of the work and life I was leading then. Over the years hundreds of readers wrote to me with thanks for letting them see ranch life.

Now, thirty years later I’ve published another book in journal form: Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal (High Plains Press, September 2017). Much has changed in the intervening decades, especially because I am no longer involved in the daily chores of raising cattle. A central part of this journal is my research into the diaries and records left by my ancestors on this ranch on the plains. ​I learned things about my relatives, their history, and this land that I never knew.

I’m more convinced than ever that it’s essential for us to tell our stories, not only for our blood descendants, but for those who will come after us in this world. Write for your children and grandchildren so they will know how you survived this life, and write for yourself.

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High Plains Press is offering a special limited-time discount for early orders. If you order directly from High Plains Press by September 20th, you’ll get a $5 discount on the limited edition hardcover.

trade paper — $19.95 plus $4 shipping
limited edition hardcover — $29.95 — Your price = $24.95 plus $4 shipping

Go to the High Plains Press webpage for my book Gathering from the Grassland

Special Offer Gathering from the GrasslandClick on the “order now” button for the limited edition hardcover.

Select how many copies you want. (Volume discount on shipping.)

Be sure to use the comment box if you would like a personalized inscription beyond my signature (for instance, “Happy Thanksgiving, Aunt Nellie”) in any of the copies you purchase.

Enter the voucher/coupon code LINDA.

Click on the “recalculate” button to update the amount due, then proceed with your payment.

(Sorry, there is no discount on the paperback edition at this time.)

Thank you and enjoy the read!

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Book Remarks: Wilderness Fever

Wilderness Fever: A Family’s Adventures Homesteading in Early Jackson Hole, 1914-1924.
Linda Preston McKinstry with Harold Cole McKinstry
Foreword by Sherry L. Smith, Ph.D.
(Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 2016)

WildernessFeverMcKinstryMost Americans think of homesteading as having occurred in the 1800s. We can all picture the wholesome farm families sitting on the seats of wagons pulled by oxen, the billowing white canvas covering all their possessions. Possibly a milk cow is tied to the back of the load beside a crate full of chickens. On the horizon— is that cowboys, or possibly Indians?

Some parts of the West, especially including western Wyoming, stayed wild longer than, for example, the Dakotas. And for Linda Preston McKinstry and her husband Harold Cole McKinstry, homesteading began in 1915 when they left bureaucratic jobs in Washington, D.C. and took advantage of the government’s offer of “free” land.

McKinstry, called “Mac” of course, grew up in North Dakota and had studied agriculture and Linda was a home economics teacher when they settled in Jackson Hole. In several ways, they were not typical homesteaders. For one thing, they were thirty years late for the peak of homesteading. Both were well-educated, and most importantly, they had money. If homesteading hadn’t worked out, they could have gone elsewhere and done something else. Having a ready supply of cash also allowed them to have luxuries such as Valentine’s Day cards and gifts for each other on special occasions.

Still, their lives were hard and demanding. This book is composed of letters they wrote to Linda’s mother, which retain the freshness of experiences just lived, and from memoirs they wrote years later. Besides the dangers of their chosen lifestyle, with no doctor, no telephone, and only rare mail service, they had to become adept at planning ahead. Once winter dumped several feet of snow on their remote home, they knew they wouldn’t be able to leave for months. They ordered groceries to be shipped to the nearest settlement, Victor, Idaho.

Think about this list: 500 pounds of white flour, 100 pounds of cornmeal, and 75 pounds of whole wheat flour. There’s your bread and pancakes for the season. Several hundred pounds of potatoes. 25 pounds of navy beans, 10 pounds of macaroni, and 25 pounds each of prunes, dried pears, figs, and dried apples. One 24-can case of tomatoes. 12 cans each of corn, string beans and salmon. 10 pounds each of lima, red kidney and chili beans. 14 pounds of noodles. Add in 50 pounds of brown sugar, 300 pounds of white sugar, 10 pounds of coffee and a little tea, and you’ve got your menu for the winter.

On this diet, the McKinstrys cut ice, skied and snowshoed, and drove starving horses through drifts twice as high as the horses. In November one year, they ordered 500 pounds of potatoes. Two ranchers drove to Victor to collect a supply of potatoes for themselves and neighbors. Because of the extreme cold, the potatoes had to be unloaded and kept close to a fire each night to keep them from freezing.

They supplemented their diet with elk shot near their home. In order to eat meat in the summer, Susan had to can it, which required packing it into quart jars that had to be kept covered with boiling water on the wood-fueled stove for several hours.

Because few fences existed in the country where they lived, Mac was constantly searching for their strayed horses and cattle, sometimes in extremely cold weather conditions. Travel required hardships and risks most of us can’t even imagine today. This meant that when anyone was traveling through the neighborhood, they’d stop for a visit— and every visitor had to be fed, and sometimes bedded down in the tiny, poorly-insulated log cabins that served as their homes. Linda writes often of expecting only Mac for lunch only to have as many as 10 people show up expecting to be fed.

Yet their youngest daughter reported that the couple loved the lifestyle, and only left it when they had three children who needed schooling. In addition, they believed it was likely that Yellowstone National Park would absorb their ranch, making it impractical to continue improving it.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the comparison and contrast between Linda’s and Mac’s accounts of the same events, allowing us to see how the life affected both of them. The book designer helped the readability immensely by reserving the outer third of each page for the notes that might have been turned into annoying footnotes, providing additional information on the text, as well as information describing the photographs in the book.

For me, the hardest part of the reading was that the authors wrote often in passive voice— but that was the style of the times, and probably also because they were writing about their past, looking back at their adventures. “Thanksgiving Day was spent at the ranch,” they write, rather than “We spent Thanksgiving Day at the ranch.” But these are small matters.

Read this book for a clearer understanding of homesteading, and to enjoy the astonishing steadfastness and adaptability of these two heroic explorers. Their adventure was reality for most of our pioneering western ancestors.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Deadline Met: Report on a Solitary Writing Retreat

writing-retreat-houseMystery writer M.K. Coker came to Windbreak House Retreats for a solitary retreat in October, finishing the next book in the terrific Dakota Mystery series in time for a November deadline. This report about the experience (printed with M.K.’s permission) ought to encourage every single writer: 1,000 words on the day of arrival!

Almost as soon as I arrived for my solitary retreat, I found the distractions of ordinary life– the insistent and unceasing demands of phones, Internet, and the never-ending to-do list– disappeared. I was able to write a thousand words on my novel that very afternoon before a scheduled get-together with Linda’s bookclub.

As it was the first time I’ve ever been on the hot seat as an author, I was a bit nervous but the informal potluck was just the right introduction to the bewildering world of fans. They asked probing questions, ones I hadn’t expected, such as whether I would go back and write the many books I had once started years ago and never finished (the answer: for the most part, no, I’d moved on). The only bad part of the evening was that I was so busy answering questions that I didn’t get to eat until it was all over! So I wasn’t able to thank them personally for the excellent repast.

The next several days, I was able to get down to work and pumped out about five thousand words on most days, with some thinking time when I hit snags. Daily walks from the retreat house to the highway kept my brain supplied with oxygen– and beauty.

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Sunset — photo by M.K. Coker

A truly spectacular sunset over the Hills and a giant moon-set the morning that I left reminded me of what I often forget in town: Nature is the best inspiration. And a meeting with Linda to talk about the life of a writer was something I will always treasure, as I have no one in my life who truly understands that aspect of my life.

Without this retreat, I have no doubt that I would have missed my editing date. But I made it, by the skin of my teeth!

If you haven’t yet read a book by this author, you’re way behind. Get acquainted with Detective Marek Okerlund and Sheriff Karen Mehaffy and the fictional Eda County in southeastern South Dakota, that “bastion of corn, beans, wheat, bluffs, and rivers.” Every word, every scene, every community activity, rings absolutely true.

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Start with the first in the series, and by the time you’ve read all those available now, the new one should be out. First is Dead White, followed by Dead Dreams, Dead Wrong, Dead Quiet, and Dead News.

mkcokerdeadhotAnd in March of 2017, look for number six: Dead Hot.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Read my “Book Remarks” blog about M.K. Coker’s Dakota Mystery series here:
https://windbreakhouse.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/dead-in-dakota-the-mysteries-of-mk-coker/

Find M.K.Coker’s website here:
http://www.mkcoker.com/

Book Remarks: There Used To Be A Guy But He Died

WilkinsonGuyDiedThere Used To Be A Guy But He Died
Alan Wilkinson
Injury-Time Ltd., 2016

How could anyone resist a title like that? I couldn’t, and the title justifies itself in the first few pages of this saga of Alan Wilkinson’s 630-mile bicycle ride across Nebraska, from the lowest point to the highest in the state. The lone stranger rides into town as the wind blows tumbleweeds across the dusty street. Taciturn as any hired gun, and saddle-sore, he’s looking for— well, I won’t ruin the surprise.

Wilkinson is English, and has visited Nebraska many times since developing a fascination with the west as a child; he speaks regularly at gatherings to discuss the work of Mari Sandoz in Chadron. But despite my own heroine-worship of Sandoz, we’ve never met. Through his writing, however, I’ve come to enjoy his wry and muted sense of humor, and his deft way of picking holes in American conceit.

Why would anyone ride a bicycle across Nebraska? The author says he’d like to emulate the experience of the Oregon Trail as pioneers saw it, “pitting myself against the elements and attempting to compare the actual experience of crossing the Plains with the feelings I might have when it was over.”

He gets his wish; he’s blasted by heat, scoured by dust, and worn out by the sheer effort of propelling himself across the plains. Like those pioneers, he writes, “To be honest, I wanted to surrender. But there was nothing to surrender to; nowhere to go. . . . It was only by pressing on, that I was able to keep my spirits up.” If we Americans could talk to those among our ancestors who followed the Trail, surely they would say the same.

Along the way, though, Wilkinson accomplishes something I didn’t expect: he brought me to tears. He attends an event where more than a hundred “middle-aged Americans” join together in singing “Over There.” For the honorary Limey in the crowd, dressed in cowboy boots and denim jeans, the song is ironic: Sure, the Yanks are coming, “Chewing gum and silk stockings and chasing our women. Muscling in.” Hearing those voices, though, Wilkinson realized more fully the “heroic and self-sacrificing nature of the commitment.” Through his eyes, I could see those Great Plains farm boys, one of whom was an uncle I never knew, cheerfully putting on his uniform to fight for an ideal.

This book is subtle; no car-chases, lightning strikes or other drama. He even downplays a dog bite. If I hadn’t already been a fan, Wilkinson would have won me over when he said he’d been tempted to slip in some incidents from more dramatic trips, but he resisted. What the book does offer is an honest assessment of Western people. Wilkinson used to be a freight train guard, so he pays particular attention to trains, but he also provides a considerable amount of Nebraska history, and recommendations on the best books to read about the subject, all the while suffering from the heat and exposure.

When he finally jolts down gravel section line roads to arrive at Panorama Point, at 5, 424 feet the highest point in Nebraska, Wilkinson triumphs:

Here for the first time I could see what it must have been like to arrive in an ox-drawn wagon and at last, after all those hundreds of miles, start looking around for a place to settle. It would be a feeling of true freedom, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. With no reference-point, no neighbor, in those days no crossroads, a pioneer would have a very real sense of what liberation meant: not just alone-ness, but total self-reliance. It’s this self-reliance that makes westerners such dyed-in-the-wool conservatives.

Many writers have written travel tales that, as the hackneyed phrase goes, “share with me,” a lot more than I want to know about the writer’s sexual preferences, fears, triumphs or problems. Wilkinson lets me far enough into his mind so I can appreciate his reason for riding, but he doesn’t drag me down into a personal abyss. He’s honest; getting this book ready for publication some years after the ride, he says he’s tried, “to stick to the way it felt then, rather than the way it looks now. Back to my journals and maps, and no fabricating.”

A conscientious reviewer always proves her perspicacity by mentioning something negative about the book, so here goes: I wanted a map. Sure, I have a perfectly good Atlas, but Rulo, Wilkinson’s starting point, isn’t on it, nor are some of the other towns he mentioned. Sure, I could find Red Cloud, Willa Cather’s home town, but my map doesn’t tell me exactly where Dix is.

WilkinsonRedHouseAs long as I’m here, I’d like to applaud Wilkinson’s The Red House on the Niobrara, the book in diary form he wrote while experiencing life in a hundred-year-old hunting lodge, also in Nebraska. He’d barely moved in when he was hit with a genuine April blizzard as only the Plains delivers them; then his road washed out. Wanting to live like a pioneer, he planted a garden. In true Plains style, hail destroyed his first effort and grasshoppers his second.

Still, like the real pioneers, he persevered, getting acquainted with the locals by helping them with their work and drinking in their bars. He probably made the neighbors nervous by camping out at the gravesite of Mari Sandoz, but he also wrote a fine book demonstrating his real relationship with the land and its people.

Find The Red House on the Niobrara on Kindle for $4.95, or paperback for $13.95.

There Used To Be A Guy But He Died is available on Kindle for $4.95 or paperback for $10.95; and if you want to read more of this deft writer’s work, look for Alan Wilkinson’s blog at http://walkinonnails.blogspot.com/

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Book Remarks: Cook to Change the World

PollanCookedDuo

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Michael Pollan, Penguin Group, 2013. 480 pages

As the title suggests, Michael Pollan has written something more than a cookbook. He notes that cooks are really alchemists, working with the primal elements of fire and water, earth and air. How many of us, he asks, still work with those fundamentals of the material world. Cooking, anthropologists tell us, was a defining human activity, maybe THE single activity that defines us as human. So for us to hand over that power to hawkers of additive-laden fast food is even more dangerous than you may think.

Cooking, says Pollan, gave us not just better food but different bodies. When we ate raw food, we had little brains and big bellies, and spent hours every day just chewing and digesting whatever food we captured. We hunted food alone and ate it alone. Perhaps today, as we grab food from gas stations and eat in our cars rushing to and from work, we are in danger of becoming solitary again.

Cooking made us social; we began to eat together, to share food, to sit around the fire becoming human. Cooking, says Pollan, “implicates us in a whole web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, with the soil, with farmers, with the microbes both inside and outside our bodies, and, of course, with the people our cooking nourishes and delights.”

We live in an age where we’re told to specialize. One restaurant guide, reports Pollan, even suggests that people should stay an extra hour in the office doing what they do well, and let bargain restaurants do what they do best—feed the workers. This is the classic argument for division of labor, which has blessed our civilization as it has changed it. While Pollan admits that this view of progress is what allows him to make a living writing while others “grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house,” he insists that such specialization also “breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance, and eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.”

Maybe this explains what seems to be happening to our culture!

Specialization, says Pollan, obscures the lines of connection, so we don’t understand our responsibilities. We no longer understand the consequences of our actions. “Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the back-breaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal. . . . neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.”

Is this why some of us don’t understand that in order to keep the air breathable, the water pure enough to drink and enough food on the table, we need to decide our priorities?

“The Big Problem,” Pollan continues,” is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us. . . . and the rest of them made by others in the name of our needs and desires.”

A lot of people talk about “changing the world,” and anyone planning to do that has to work hard in the public eye, but Pollan suggests such work is no longer sufficient. “We’ll have to change the way we live, too,” and that means that what we choose to do with our kitchens, gardens, houses and cars will “matter to the fate of the world in a way they never have before.”

In a world where so few of us really have to cook, then, to choose to do so “is to lodge a protest against specialization. . . . Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives,” he asserts. “To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.”

Yes, Pollan provides recipes—but only four or five in the whole 480 pages of the book because he wants us to understand what’s truly behind each of these eating experiences. I was especially intrigued by the chapter on bread-baking, since, as he notes, baking bread is merely “an ingenious technology for improving the flavor, digestibility, and nutritional value of grass.” Grasses occupy two-thirds of the planet’s landmass and are particularly efficient at collecting solar energy. Before we learned to eat grass, we began eating the ruminants that ate it and sometimes the predators that ate them, consuming our grass second- or third-hand—a wasteful way to use energy.

Cows have four stomachs so they can process all parts of the grass into sustenance. Our single stomach isn’t nearly as efficient, so we needed to figure out a way to use the grass seed more directly. Baking bread enabled us to eat lower on the food chain, and was a lot less work than chasing an antelope and beating it to death with a club.

The book is huge, of course, but full of fascinating information, a blend of history and personal narrative, though occasionally he drops into journalistic reporting. This is not a book to be read quickly, though depending on your interests, you may skim a bit. Still, take time to think about his comments; this is definitely one of the two or three best books I read in 2015. Every day since reading it, I’ve been delighted to trot into the kitchen and fight corporate takeover by cooking something wonderful. I recommend you do the same.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Dead in Dakota: The Mysteries of MK Coker

I read myself to sleep every night. Ideally, my bedtime reading is a mystery that lifts my mind away from the subjects of my own writing and eases me into rest.

For some reason I no longer remember, because I am not trying to break any speed records, I write down the title of each book I read, many of them mysteries. My records show, for example, that I read 367 books in 2011.

Classics like the Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, and whodunits by John Creasey, Elizabeth Lemarchand, Margery Allingham, Gwendoline Butler, Georgette Heyer, and Michael Innes have helped me to rest for years. The Brother Cadfael series written by Ellis Peters (Elizabeth Pargeter) have made me laugh and taught me about history on the Welsh border between 1135 and 1145. The names flow past: Ngaio Marsh. Arthur W. Upfield. Reginald Hill (Dalziel and Pascoe.) Martha Grimes (Richard Jury). Jonathan Gash (Lovejoy, a British antiques dealer with flexible morals). In 2012, I read 345 books, but only 344 in 2013.

Among more modern writers I like both Laurie King’s Mary Russell and her Kate Martinelli series. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher allows me to picture myself driving her Hispano Suiza at unwise speeds through the curves of the Black Hills, and the Corinna Chapman books, centering on a bread baking heroine of real human proportions, always makes me hungry. Sharyn McCrumb’s Elizabeth MacPherson series are hard to find, as are her unusual novels set in the Appalachian South, but I persist. I only buy books I’ve read and enjoyed once and am sure I will re-read, so I just bought all of Jane Langton’s Homer Kelly series. I own most of both Ann Perry’s William Monk and her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series. Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books are on one shelf and Louise Penny’s Three Pines books will soon occupy another. Elly Griffiths has given me an acquaintance with Ruth Galloway, a slightly overweight archaeologist, whose humanity keeps me coming back. The historical density of the sixteenth century settings of Cora Harrison’s series featuring a female judge in Ireland keeps me turning pages, though their weight and detail may be why I read only 260 books in 2014.

If you recognize any of those names, you know I read writers who love language, and who use scholarship and humor at least as much as criminal activity to entertain their readers. While plot and characters are important, eloquence can keep me reading even if I lose track of the action. Conversely, spelling and grammatical errors cause me to startle the dogs by hurling the book across the room. (To my friends at various libraries: if the book belongs to a library, I write a sticky note pointing out the error, tuck it in the book and place the book gently on the floor.)

When the discards that I own pile up in the corner of my bedroom, I toss them down the stairs into the box that I’ll take to the secondhand bookstore to trade in on better books.

Now that I have established the seriousness of my interest in mysteries, here’s the punchline: I’ll never sell my copies of the South Dakota mysteries by MK Coker.

MKCokerBookGroup

SPOILER ALERT — though the comments below do not reveal any critical information about whodunnit, they do mention a few plot and character developments in each book that may spoil your speculations about the future. Proceed at your own risk.


 

In Dead White, the first in the series, we met Detective Marek Okerlund as he drove through a Dakota blizzard with his pickup door open far enough so he could see the interstate’s center line. I’ve driven in storms like that, so I was hooked by the accuracy of the description. By page two, the reader has been ushered into the town of Reunion and the presence of Sheriff Karen Mehaffey, whose experience as a police dispatcher has spurred her to hire Okerlund, a more qualified detective. Already the reader is wrapped in the storm and the intertwined relationships typical of a small Dakota town like that where the author grew up. I live in the western half of the state, but I went to school in the part where these books are set, so I was ready to pounce on any wrong note, in spite of the fact that the book was autographed to me by the author.

By page 3, as the blizzard howls, the story had captured me as completely as the dying man who had been chained to the barbed-wire fence. Hired by Sheriff Karen because he has the experience she lacks, Detective Marek Okerlund had arrived with a silent daughter and a shadowy past. As Coker began to populate the mystery with a cast of characters that are varied but believable, I found myself slowing my reading, both to keep the players straight and savor the writing. As is clearly indicated by the number of books I read each year, I can finish some light mysteries in an evening. The Dakota books take longer, but they are worth it.

In each book, several small stories play out against the broader backdrop of the mystery, but all fit into a portrait of a small town woven together with generations of interaction, with loves, hates, disagreements and blood. Still, the writing is tight and always pointed toward the outcome, even while the story appears to ramble all over the landscape. Everyone in town fulfills several roles; the town drunk may also be the town comedian or a news reporter; the minister may coach the basketball team. I know Coker was not on the playground where I learned how to make my place in the rural heartland after moving there from a city—but the writing touches on my memories because the author knows what went on there.

Dead Dreams, the second book in the series, brings a failed actor back to his home farm just in time for the murder of his mother, who has been declining mentally and is surrounded by city sharks who hope to use her land for the disposal of hazardous waste. Coker was able to draw on actual events in the state’s history to lend credibility to the story; South Dakota officials have fallen for the lure of “money and jobs” in several instances, to the detriment of our citizens.

Similarly, every plot is linked to authentic problems that confront Dakotans and other citizens of the plains. These difficulties sometimes center on situations typical of the region and connected to its latitude, like a blizzard or a flood. At the same time, each book features a problem that is associated with a broader view. In each case, the author has researched actual events and skillfully woven them into the story, while creating a foundation of typical Dakota behavior.

Dry Dakota humor is an integral part of the writing in these books and I find it impossible to describe out of context. Dakotans, and some others, will chuckle as they recognize landmarks in local culture. The one finger wave in Dakota is not the same as the one finger wave in some other areas of the country, for example.

Coker interweaves characters and social commentary in a dense forest of writing, but always keeps the underbrush clear so the reader can follow the path of the plot. Each book leads us deeper into the thicket of relationships that typify every small community; everyone is related to everyone, or has a history with everyone else. Except for the Bosnians in the basement. In each book, the author leaves just enough questions to lead us cheerfully onward to the next.

Dead Wrong opens with a dead man who was headed the wrong way at the exit ramp for Reunion, South Dakota, but his death may be accident, suicide or homicide. Complications include a new female pastor who is a widow, an illegal immigrant or two, and someone who pulls the plug on the Sheriff’s husband, who has been in a coma for years. Naturally, the Sheriff falls under suspicion, which complicates her murder investigation, as do the meth addicts. Coker’s plot is enlivened by two women basketball stars known as the Twin Towers. She slips in a good word for grass-fed beef and a dig at a former governor of South Dakota who blew through a stop sign and killed a motorcyclist.

The murder that launches the fourth mystery, Dead Quiet, is announced via horse and buggy, and occurs in the peaceful German Anabaptist community near Reunion. This mystery is so full of tricky situations it opens with a family tree revealing that Sheriff Mehaffey is related to members of the secretive sect; the author admits on her website that she needs a family tree to keep the relationships straight for herself. As always, the plot is decorated with references as varied as Shakespeare and song lyrics; in an earlier book, for example, the Sheriff drives her Chevy to the levee but the levee is dry. The characters are so comfortable with themselves and each other in this book that I found myself having conversations with them when I put the book down to fix lunch.

Here’s the required disclaimer: I first met MK Coker when she came to Windbreak House Retreat with the dream of writing and publishing mysteries. We had a wonderful time analyzing, discussing, dissecting, and comparing our tastes in mysteries. She returned in 2010, and then, after her four long years of hard work and disappointments in the world of publishing, the first book in this series, Dead White, appeared in my mailbox. For more information about her work, look at www.mkcoker.com.

I’m sure it’s an unwritten rule that reviewers must always say something negative about the book; I seldom see a review without a smug adverse remark or two. So, to prove that working with MK has not tainted my reviewer’s detachment, here are my negative remarks.

The paperback books measure 9” by 6” and are 1” thick, so they are heavy, requiring that I hold one in both hands while reading. This means I must be very careful when I can’t put one down even though I’m taking a bath.

But here’s a positive note, which also proves that MK is a dedicated reader of mysteries: the books are numbered on the spine so you can read them in their proper order!

And there’s another solution to that weight problem: the books are available as ebooks on Amazon USA (and worldwide sites), AppleBarnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. The trade paperback is available at AmazonBarnes and Noble, and independent bookstore Powell’s. It can also be ordered from your local bookstore.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

Book Remarks: Suggestions by Wendell Berry

The 3/20/15 issue of The Week features a book list chosen by Wendell Berry, who is one of the nation’s strongest advocates for wise land use to save our lives, as well as being a poet. If you love the earth and haven’t read Wendell Berry, start today!

Berry recommends six books that inspired his thinking, including an account published in 1911 of the organic farming practices in China, Korea and Japan, Farmers of Forty Centuries, F. H. King. How did the people keep their land productive for 4,000 years? Not with pesticides and herbicides, but by returning all “wastes” to the soil, leaving the fertility cycle intact.

Of the books Berry cites, I can recommend the following:

AgBook GroupAn Agricultural Testament, Sir Albert Howard. Published in 1943. Howard argues that farming can last only if it obeys the laws of nature. “Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock,” he wrote. “There is no waste; the process of growth and the processes of decay balance one another.”

Home Place: Essays on Ecology, Stan Rowe, insists upon the importance of the ecosphere (not just the biosphere) as context of our lives. Rowe writes that we should “live on the annual interest and leave the land’s capital alone.”

Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson. Berry says this 2011 book addresses “The problem of agriculture” and the prospects for practical solutions.

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold. This, of course, is one of the bibles of wise stewardship. Leopold’s ethic is simple and clear: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

On a large scale, the problem of how we treat our land is complex, because companies who “use” the land in some way want to make a profit. But at the very least, we who occupy a small portion of the earth can do a great deal toward improving the world by following Leopold’s ethic in our lives as much as possible.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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