Minnesota novel revisits meth crisis of the '90s

Raymond Strom's debut novel "Northern Lights"
Hibbing native Raymond Strom's experiences growing up in small towns in Minnesota during the methamphetamine crisis of the 1990s form the basis for his debut novel "Northern Lights."
Rhe De Ville | Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Hibbing native Raymond Strom's debut novel "Northern Lights" revisits the dark days of the methamphetamine crisis in the 1990s. The novel reflects Strom's own experiences growing up in small towns around Minnesota at the time.

The book opens with a search.

Day was breaking when I rang the buzzer. Birds chirping, morning traffic sighing eastward, the sky lightening. When I was sure that my mother wasn't home I rang the super and he showed up red-eyed and angry, wearing boxer shorts and an old T-shirt, the long white hair that circled his dome standing in an odd comb-over. I stuttered a hello and began to tell him why I had come.

"Wait," he interrupted. "Are you a boy or a girl?"

"A boy," I said, and then finished my story.

It's 1997. Shane is a teenager looking for his mother. He wears his hair so long he's regularly asked his gender. His father has died, and his uncle kicked him out of their house in Grand Marais in northeastern Minnesota the day he graduated from high school. All he has is a return address on an old letter from his mother, who took off years ago with another man. The address leads him to the town of Holm, Minn.

"And when he doesn't find her, he sticks around town looking for her and gets distracted by some friends and enemies," said Strom.

He said there are a lot of distractions in "Northern Lights." For one, there is Jenny, the academically smart and artistically talented young woman whose boredom leads to self-destructive behavior. Shane is attracted to her intellectually but realizes his love life may take another path. And there's Sven, the town bully, who has it in for Shane.

The other distraction is drugs, Strom said, which were part of his life back in the 1990s.

"I did witness the effect of crystal meth on the Midwest," he said. "Like, first through my own circle of friends, and then later in drug treatment centers that I went to, you know, to get off of it."

Strom lived in many small towns over a relatively short period of time.

"We moved around a lot. My dad was in management of both Pamida and Hardees," he said. "And when we were working with Pamidas, we went to a lot of towns that were competing with Walmart, so that is where the initial background came from. We eventually ended up in Cambridge, Minn."

There he witnessed another incident that was to become part of "Northern Lights." A student at the high school was suspended for driving around with a Confederate flag on his truck; he launched a First Amendment protest in town, attracting the attention of local TV.

"The news followed them around my town for a couple of hours as they paraded their flags," Strom said. "And then interviewed him in the parking lot of the mall for the 9 or 10 o'clock news that night."

In "Northern Lights," Sven, the bully, leads the protest. Strom said some of Sven's abuse directly quotes some of the insults hurled at him as a teen.

"I guess it's a part of many people's high school experience," he said. "That is something that I am learning now as people read the book and tell me they actually had very similar stories."

Strom now teaches in New York state, but he'll read from "Northern Lights" Wednesday night at Subtext Books in St. Paul and Thursday evening at Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis.

He said people tell him they have heard of the meth crisis 20 years ago, but know little about it. Many people might be surprised to learn how close the epidemic came to them, Strom said.

"And it's the assumption that it's only the poorest of the poor, and everyone's cooking in their bathtubs and stuff," he said. "But it really is confused people of all walks of life that are walking into this."

The young people who get in trouble are usually those without a parent or other adult watching over them, he said, adding that the central aim of "Northern Lights" is to focus attention on those youngsters. He said the new scourge of opioids is hitting the same people.

"I began writing this story on and off since the 1990s," he said, "and it's become more and more relevant in the last couple of years."

Strom said he hopes to see some old friends when he returns to Minnesota, including an enigmatic tagger known as HOPE4, whose work inspired him and is also in the book.

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