Jack Pine: A murder mystery set in Minnesota that few real Minnesotans would recognize

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Review by: KEN KORCZAK

This is not so much a book using Minnesota as a backdrop, but a novel that creates a kind mythological Minnesota that does not exist in reality – unfortunately, the mythical Minnesota elements are largely gleaned from Hollywood movie clichés and bland, surface-level stereotypes.

Yes, this is fiction so anything goes and I believe in granting any writer all the poetic license they want to make up a story in an imaginary world – but for me, this novel comes off as a clumsy mish-mash of standard fictional props, well-worn plot gimmicks and jarring inconsistencies.

The setting is present-day Minnesota where people carry smartphones, yet there are beads-and-sandals wearing hippies that seem to have time-traveled from 1960s California to reappear as “tree huggers” in the Boundary Waters; there’s a Minnesota cop who is essentially a Clint Eastwood cowboy from a 1970s spaghetti western; there are Native Americans who are still using bows and arrows and painting their faces (that’s right) and journalists, doctors, loggers and country attorneys who never seem to have progressed out of the 1940s.

It’s also breathtaking how much the author gets wrong about Minnesota – I kept asking myself throughout this book: “Where was this guy’s editor?”

For example, take this sentence:

“The ice melted and filled the thousand lakes of Minnesota and then the trees grew on top of the rock.”

Say what? A thousand lakes? Or course, Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” It’s on our license plates. Technically, Minnesota has 11,842 lakes if you want to Google it.

Or this sentence:

“Diane had the frankness that comes from watching a father die of black lung disease and going to work full time when she was just sixteen.”

There is no black lung disease found in Minnesota miners. We have taconite mines and black lung disease is not associated with taconite mining, but rather, coal mining. Black lung disease is something you find in West Virginia or Kentucky – true, Minnesota miners have higher incidence of lung disease, but this is associated with asbestos and/or silica dust in mines. This produces a condition called mesothelioma, a disease of the outer lining of the lungs. To invoke black lung disease in a Minnesota story is simply culturally and scientifically ridiculous.

Or this sentence:

“Thought maybe it was the girl who was in the shed, but she didn’t sound like she was from the lower forty-eight.”

Again I have to ask in utter perplexity: Say what? I mean: “The lower forty-eight”?

What on earth is he talking about? Again and again, the characters use the term “lower forty-eight” to refer to anyone from outside of Minnesota – except that Minnesota IS ONE OF THE LOWER FORTY-EIGHT!

No one that I know of here my home state of Minnesota refers to outsiders as being from the lower forty-eight, and why should we? We are among the lower forty-eight, we all know we are among the lower forty-eight, and so why refer to someone from, say, Illinois, as being from the lower forty-eight?

It’s just inexplicable! Again, where was this guy’s editor?

Speaking of bad editing, the books is loaded with clumsy sentences, downright grammatically incorrect constructions and confusing elements of time. As an example of a bad sentence, try this one:

“Tom Jorde stabbed a computer resembling a large egg in a green T-shirt of white lettering—SAVE THE SPOTTED OWL FROM EXTINCTION.”

Did the author really mean to suggest that an egg-shaped computer was wearing a t-shirt?

Throughout reading this novel, I found myself literally gasping and searching with frustration for the best superlatives to describe what I was reading: absurd, ridiculous, painfully wrong … even though this is merely fiction. But even when writing fiction, there should be some adherence to plausible reality unless you’re writing out-and-out fantasy, not a mainstream novel.

Much of my exasperation is with the way the author tries to handle “Minnesota Speak,” – his effort is clumsy and just beyond absurd (there’s that word again.) I mean, whether the character is a doctor from Minneapolis, a lawyer, a redneck logger, a Native American or resort owner – they all talk like 100% Norsky-hillbilly hicks who just fell off the boat from Norway, smelling of pickled herring and lutefisk.

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William Hazelgrove

Oh ya, you betcha, everyone talks like this here, you know … ya, oh ya, fer sure, that’s right there then what do yer think of that there here?

Even Minnesota’s Native Americans are portrayed to speak this way – and if you grew up with and have known Minnesota Natives for your entire life like I have – then you would understand how just exasperatingly ludicrous it is to make a Minnesota Indian sound like Sven Swenson from the old country, even in a work of fiction.

Take it from me. I was born in Roseau, a small hockey-power town where the snowmobile was invented, and where the Polaris factory is still the primary employer. I also have worked as a newspaper reporter and Minnesota state government official – I have lived in a remote corner of Minnesota all my life — but I have traveled all 87 counties of our state interviewing thousands of Minnesotans while writing about Main Street Minnesota over the past 30 years.

So you can believe it when I say the only place in Minnesota where people speak like Ole and Lena is in Hollywood movies – such as Fargo — and the occasional sketch on Minnesota icon Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show.

It’s not that I am insulted by the way Mr. Hazelgrove or any fictional media like to play up the mythical Norsky-Hillbilly Minnesota speak – far from it – I think it’s fun. I love it. I was delighted by the movie Fargo (one scene was filmed practically right in my back yard) – I loved police chief Marge Gunderson and auto dealer Jerry Lundegaard – and the way Frances McDormand and William H. Macy mastered and really nailed the faux-Minnesota accent – except this movie was CLEARLY PLAYING IT FOR LAUGHS.

In JACK PINE, a serious murder mystery, we are expected to believe that regular, everyday Minnesotans from all professions and all walks of life, young and old, all talk like Ole Olson – he was a guy from my home town of Greenbush. Ole owned a Swedish potato sausage business in the 40s, 50s and 60s, died at the age of 97, born in 1905 – so yes, sure, he had that distinctive Scandinavian sing-song gate to his speech – but his generation are largely gone from our state and culture now.

To be clear: My low rating of this novel goes well beyond my problems with the portrayal of the language – the writing is frequently muddy and unclear, the time sequencing of key events is confusing to say the least, the characters are cookie-cutter cliché props borrowed from Hollywood movies, the metaphors are strained, the descriptions of the Minnesota wilderness misfire … and on and on.

All this and I’m a big WILLIAM HAZELGROVE fan – this is the fourth of his novels I have read, and I have reviewed all here and given all my top rating. Hazelgrove is a fiercely talented novelist who is one our finest modern American novelists working today – but nobody is perfect – and Jack Pine is a certified bust.

As penance for penning this disaster, I hereby sentence William Hazelgrove to read five JON HASSLER novels, two Sinclair Lewis novels, say three Hail Marys, strive to amend his life, and go in peace.

IMPORTANT FINAL NOTE:

Despite filling every page with characters aping the Hollywood faux-Minnesota Speak, the author fails to use even once the most genuine, ingrained and ubiquitous Minnesota idiom of them all, the one word that all Minnesotans actually and truly do use: UFF DA!

That’s right – not once! Minnesota! Home of the uff da taco! (A taco made with lefse for a wrap).

Not one use of uff da! within a 300-page novel set in the culture of Minnesota.

That is absolutely ridiculous.




Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

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