The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
I’ve got a perfect summer read for you – atmospheric and witty, satisfying and emotionally resonant. Twin Cities-based Sarah Stonich’s new book, “Vacationland,” is a novel in stories, all of which revolve around characters connected somehow to Naledi, a fading lakeside vacation getaway in Northern Minnesota, spitting distance from Ontario. Stonich draws each short tale vividly but economically, her motley cast of characters rendered with so much care, such an eye for evocative detail that each one leaps off the page. “Vacationland” is a place filled with people displaced by choice and by circumstance, a place where intimates – husbands, wives, sisters and brothers, childhood friends – become estranged, and where old loves are rekindled. Kids and dogs run free, but that doesn't mean the place is harmless. Drowning, hypothermia, encounters with critters and machinery gone terribly awry – such misadventures are as commonplace here as campfires.
Stonich eschews easy small-town caricatures. Polka tunes and geezers abound, but “Vacationland” isn’t some townie farce. Instead her characterizations render the time-out-of-time sense of "vacation" as if it were a spot on the map, a place you could visit where unlikely epiphany meets up with far-flung memory, where people get lost and found. Funny and peculiar, those whose fates intersect over the decades at Naledi are as contradictory as the surrounding landscape; all of them are flawed and, at the same time, stubbornly attractive for their foibles. For her keen sense of place and the revealing idiosyncrasies of character, I’d put Stonich on the shelf next to authors like John Irving, Richard Russo, Annie Proulx, Bill Holm.
A recurring character in these stories, an orphan-turned-artist who called Naledi home throughout her childhood, revisits the place in her paintings. The following description of her work seems to me an apt articulation of Stonich’s own achievement in these interwoven stories, too:
Surely the place she has captured on the canvas isn’t precisely as it is, or was. … Each eye, he supposes, has its own lens to the past. And while his own is a pinhole, he can see now how [she] might have seen it – a succession of laps and ripples hemming and expanding the borders of her summer days. And while it’s impressionistic, it’s also visceral; he can imagine that if he reached out to touch it, his fingers might come away dripping with lake water.“Vacationland” by Sarah Stonich (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) is available in bookstores everywhere. Keep track of readings and other author appearances on Stonich’s website: www.sarahstonich.com.