LIFE on the lake
Northwoods fishing resort focus of new novel
Jodi Summit
Jon Ware
Sarah Stonich’s newest novel, “Vacationland,” is set firmly in the border country.

REGIONAL - An aging resort on a northern Minnesota lake. It’s a story we all know. Or at least it’s a story we all think we know.

Sarah Stonich’s new novel, “Vacationland,” will be a familiar destination for anyone who has spent a week at an old-time lake resort or for all those teenagers who have spent a summer working as a dock boy, cabin cleaner, or bar staff. Firmly set in the border country of northern Minnesota, the book is a series of interlocking short stories chronicling the life and death and rebirth of a small rustic vacation spot.

Stonich said she based the resort on the family resorts she visited as a child, small resorts on White Iron Lake outside of Ely, and another near Grand Marais. As an adult, she and her family vacationed at Camp Van Vac in Ely. And while she never worked at a resort, she remembered stories told by two of her aunts, who worked summers at Pehrson Lodge on Lake Vermilion, and Burntside Lodge near Ely, while they were going to the teacher’s college in Ely in the 1940s.

At first glance, Naledi Lodge doesn’t have much to offer. It’s a bit off the beaten track, a bit worn down, on a little lake up a long gravel road from a small town that is a bit low on its luck. But it’s also a place where life happens...the good, the bad, the frightening and the enchanting. Families are torn apart, and families are created. It’s a place inhabited by characters that we all know well. Local readers will recognize many of the people who inhabit these stories– the locals, the old-timers, the immigrants, and the newcomers.

Stonich, who lives in Minneapolis but also has a small cabin in Eagles Nest Township, understands life in the northwoods. Her first book, “Those Granite Islands,” which was recently reissued by the University of Minnesota Press, was set in a fictionalized Tower-Soudan, and sold over 80,000 copies. Her recent memoir, “Shelter,” focuses on her attempt to put down her own roots in the area her family came from, the Ely and Tower area.

“Vacationland” seems poised to take off as a bestseller. The book has received a lot of regional attention, but is also being reviewed by the LA Times and Boston Herald. Dunn Brothers is featuring her book throughout the summer as part of their Coffee and Books program.

The book has been a ten-year effort for Stonich, who said it grew from a series of short stories she had written about ten years ago. The stories sat unpublished until the inspiration came to turn the stories into a novel. It took about two more years to craft the stories needed to turn it into a full-fledged novel.

Characters move in and out of the novel the way that visitors come and perhaps return to a summer resort. Stonich said she envisioned the guest register at a resort while working on the novel– all the different types of people who move in and out over the course of a summer, and the course of years.

The stories also reflect the rhythm of life at a resort– the chapters coming and going like the constant flow of new guests throughout the season.

Her favorite character, Sotnich said, is Ursa Olson, a rather cranky 90-year old beer truck driver who develops a long-term relationship with Naledi’s owner, Vaclav Machutova, who emigrated with his young son from Prague during World War II, leaving behind his wife, who had an affair with a Nazi officer. Ursa dresses in “old dresses layered over long underwear, wrist warmers made out of old woolen tights.”

“We don’t have a lot in common,” Stonich said, “But I like her a lot. She has gotten to that particular stage in her life where she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.”

Stonich said most people assume that she relates most to Meg Machutova, the book’s main character.

Meg, orphaned as a toddler, grows up at Naledi with her grandfather Vaclav, until being sent to boarding school in Chicago.

Stonich admits to being a “failed painter.”

“I tend to live vicariously through my visual artists that I write about,” she said. Stonich’s novel “The Ice Chorus” also features a painter.

“Vacationland” captures the essence of many aspects of small town life in northern Minnesota. The book opens with a chapter titled “Separation,” set in the present. Naledi is no longer being run as a resort, and Meg and her new husband, who is from England, have moved in for the winter. The dog, a white wolf look-alike, comes inside during a fierce snowstorm, shakes herself off, and drops what at first Meg figures to be a bone on the floor. But the dog has not brought in some deer part, instead a human hand, severed at the wrist, crusted with ice and snow.

The hand, it turns out, was lost in an accident at a nearby sawmill. Local police respond slowly, due to the weather, and in a matter-of-fact fashion. Apparently such bizarre happenings are not unexpected during a long winter. Meg is asked to keep the hand on ice, so it can be sent to the hospital for possible reattachment. An artist, she spends the evening drawing the hand, before it is whisked away to a Twin Cities hospital in the morning.

Life can be brutal, especially in the winter, and life goes on.

Characters move in and out of stories at different stages of their lives. Lives begin, and lives end. Meg’s story is told in layers, chapter by chapter, and sometimes you must wait until later in the book to understand how the characters all fit together.

“I like to give the readers some credit,” she said, explaining how the readers are allowed to piece together the many parts of the story by themselves. Some chapters don’t simply fit together, but are more like ripples, slowly intersecting as the story develops.

Meg the painter devotes her life to painting water. The waters of Hatchet Lake where Naledi sits. The waters of Lake Michigan, which claimed the life of her parents in a plane crash when she was three. Reflections on the surface of the water, or underneath, but never just the water itself.

“I paint water because it’s the one thing I can count on to change,” Meg tells a high school journalist who interviews her as a school project. It is the one thing, Meg has learned, that she may never truly master.

The theme of water is also central to Stonich’s own artistic endeavors. She is currently working on a new novel, an inter-generational saga about a family with ties to both ends of the Mississippi River.

Meet the author

Stonich is set to visit 17 Arrowhead libraries in May, including Babbitt, Cook, Ely and Virginia, on a tour funded by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (see sidebar). She is excited about the opportunity to visit so many libraries, and to meet with her readers, both those familiar with her work, and hopefully some that will become new fans.

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