It’s an eclectic mix here today; a memoir about growing up as the only Jewish girl in a suburb, fiction about two bad brothers, and trickster trolls and other creatures.
“Departure Stories: Betty Crocker made matzoh balls and other lies”: by Elisa Bernick (Indiana University Press, $22 paperback)
Elisa Bernick grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of New Hope in the 1960s and early ’70s. In that white, Christian community, Bernick’s family was “different” (that all-encompassing Minnesota word) because they were the only Jews who lived there.
Under the norms of Minnesota Nice, the author explains, “it’s not polite to acknowledge difference. It’s considered rude, like staring at someone who’s in a wheelchair. Differences make Minnesotans uncomfortable, and the word itself is a common Minnesota pejorative — a not-so-secret code that politely expresses your discomfort at something outside of your White Christian experience … thanks to Minnesota Nice, unless I brought up my Jewish difference, neither my religion nor my difference existed. I was the same as all the other White Minnesotans around me. Insider-outsider status confers both difference and invisibility, belonging and not belonging, at the exact same time. … Back then I didn’t understand the consequences of never having my Jewish identity acknowledged positively (or at all) by the dominant culture. I didn’t sense that a core part of me was constantly being erased and diminished, or that I was actively taking part in my own erasure and diminishment.”
Bernick, who lives in St. Paul, mined family stories, scrapbooks, archival material and recent research on generational trauma as sources. She is the author of articles, how-to books and a travel guide and was a radio and TV reporter and producer, including at Minnesota Public Radio. Her documentaries have been aired on PBS national public television.
Her book is a melange of musings on Jewish culture, Ole and Lena jokes, and stories from her Grandpa. At the heart of her story is how her family imploded in 1968 when her volatile, unhappy mother and her father divorced, something so shameful young Eliza kept it a secret until she couldn’t anymore.
Bernick reveals the emotional pain of having to be silent when you don’t share beliefs:
“… my stories existed alongside the dominant Christian stories of Jesus, Mary, Christmas, Easter — none of them mine.” she writes. “Each Christmas I donned my cloak of invisibility, stood on the wooden bleachers at Zachary Lane Elementary during winter choir concerts, and sang ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Away in the Manger.’ ” She mouthed the words “Christ the savior” and “little Lord Jesus” so as not to betray her faith.
Set against Bernick’s discussion of Minnesota’s horrific history of antisemitism is her more positive take on what this does to outsiders. Is it possible, she asks, that Jews and other victims of long-term trauma have a predisposition for resilience?
Bernick will introduce her book with a free reading at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, at SubText Books, 6 W. Fifth St., St. Paul.
“Radium”: by John Enger (North Dakota State University Press, $29.95)
Two bad brothers. One is 15-year-old Jim Quinn, who’s brain-damaged and has crippled hands after a car accident. He adores his older brother, Billy, who Jim considers nearly a god. No matter how much trouble Billy gets into, Jim is on his side:
“My brother wasn’t just some garage redneck. He was a wild, dangerous, joyful beast, wearing the skin and bones of a man. He could do anything,” Jim tells the reader.
John Enger has created two marvelous characters who might not live according to society’s rules but still get our sympathy. Enger’s effortless writing isn’t surprising, since he’s the son of Leif Enger (“Peace Like a River”) and nephew of Lin Enger (“American Gospel”). His award-winning work reached a million listeners each week on Minnesota Public Radio and his byline has appeared in national publications.
The Quinn brothers live in a nothing town in western Minnesota in a trailer house on the ditch side of a beet field. Jim, who narrates the story, describes their lives:
“This is what my brother and his friends did at night, when their energy became too much to bear. Who cares if someone loses a tooth or some synapses? To hell with it. Good things had a way of slipping through our fingers. Bad tings had a way of happening to careful people. No point in trying. The young men of Radium saw no good future for themselves, so they raised their fists and felt the rush and fear and desperation. Everything at once.”
When Billy gets into serious trouble, the brothers go on the run. Much of the story after that is how they live by stealing and fighting. And always near them seems to be the quiet marshal who is waiting to capture them. There is a woman, Laina, and her young daughter, who loves both men. No spoiler here; let’s just say Billy shines too brightly.
“Troll Magic: Hidden Folk from the Mountains ad Forests of Norway“: by Theodor Kittelsen, translated by Tiina Nunnaly (University of Minnesota Press, $21.95)
This bestiary of Nordic folk creatures was conjured by artist Kittelsen and first published in 1892. When Kittelsen died in 1914 he was one of Norway’s most popular artists, best known for his paintings and illustrations from Norwegian folklore, including interpretations of the little nisse, mermaids, and trolls who are tricksters making mischief that is silly and horrible.
Kittelson writes of the Dragon, once so fierce skulls littered his cave until time conquered the creature who became a legend as he sleeps. The mermaid has a sweet song. We learn that in bygone days supernatural creatures would steal human infants and replace them with ugly, big-headed babies of their own. All his creatures haunt the fields, forests and waterfalls of Norway.
What’s striking about this book is Kittelsen’s beautiful black-and-white drawings that bring to life these creatures in a Nordic world of wonder, myth, and magic.