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Stonich's new novel revisits her North Country Minnesota roots

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Sarah Stonich's new novel is titled "Laurentian Divide."
Sarah Stonich in front of a list of British women writers she intends to read written on a chalkboard in her Minneapolis home. Her new novel is from a trilogy of books about a northern Minnesota community and the griefs and joys it experiences.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Sarah Stonich may live near downtown Minneapolis, but she sees herself as a small-town northern Minnesota girl. Her new novel, "Laurentian Divide," delves into the joy and grief of people living in a community facing everyday issues on the edge of the wilderness.

Hatchet Inlet is the kind of town where people make do. There's the story of the kid taken to a party to celebrate the return of a young man who slipped over the border to Canada to avoid the draft and a likely trip to Vietnam. Everyone is in high spirits until young Pete loses his first tooth — which then drops in the dirt. Despite a multi-person bended-knee search by flashlight, it is never found.

"After Pete had bawled himself to sleep, Bo Baltich shucked off a boot and trimmed off a thick section of his own toenail with his pocketknife. They all sat in a semicircle drinking warm beer and watching Bo whittle it to the approximate shape of a child's incisor. They woke Pete under the light of a ritual moon and somberly if not soberly presented him the tooth and a jangle of coins. Rauri happened to have a Canadian centennial silver dollar in his pocket. Alpo wonders if Pete still has it."  

Alpo, his son Pete, and their distant friend Rauri are central characters in "Laurentian Divide." They are many years past that lost tooth. Alpo has lost his wife, Pete's mother, to cancer. Now, after years of mourning, he's about to marry Sissy, a woman three decades his junior. Pete grew up to become the town vet, but as a recovering alcoholic continues to stare down his own demons. 

And Rauri? Well, Rauri is causing concern. He's the one person still living in the wilderness area near Hatchet Inlet. He was grandfathered in when it became a government-controlled wilderness. He winters alone in the wild, but this spring he has yet to come in for supplies. The locals fear the worst. 

Sarah Stonich says it's just a story about the kind of people with whom she grew up.

"It's about northern Minnesota. It's about a small town and the people who live in it. And they go through stuff and they experience things, and it's the relationships, one to the other."

"Laurentian Divide" is actually a sequel. The first book, "Vacationland," published in 2013, was a collection of linked stories all set around a northern Minnesota fishing resort. The tales covered decades of the resort's history, but perhaps the most memorable was the one that opens with a woman whose dog has just brought in a severed hand it found in the snow. Pete was in that story, and Alpo appeared elsewhere.  

"I wasn't really done with them when I finished that book," she said. "In fact, I wasn't intending for this to be a trilogy, but I just can't let these people go." 

She's now working on that third book. "Laurentian Divide" is more linear than "Vacationland," but Stonich tells the story from the viewpoints of several characters. They face the realities of small town life and the sometimes unwelcome attention of those the people in Hatchet Inlet still deride as the 612-ers. They deal with illness, addiction, family squabbles. 

The novel is wryly funny, but there is an undercurrent of sadness. Stonich has had two recent deaths in her family, and she recognizes the results in the story.

"I think it's authentic grief, if you are going to be reading the book," she said. "I hope it comes off as such. I no longer fear grief. It's part of us and we should experience it. And we should experience it to its fullest in order to move on." 

Stonich will launch "Laurentian Divide" Tuesday night at Eagles Club #34 in Minneapolis. She intends to do it right.

"We are going to have a meat raffle and a pierogi bar," she said.

There will be music, and a host of other Minnesota writers to read sections of the book. And as a writer from a small town writing about a similar community, Stonich may have to deny again that any characters are based on anyone she actually knows.