Book Report: First-time novelist can tell a story

by Dave Wood

I was told years ago by my English teacher Sara Keeler that one should never judge a book by its cover.

But I couldn’t resist the wrapping of Minnesota author Carla Hagen’s new book from North Star Press of St. Cloud, “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.”

On the cover is a beautiful college of photos taken by Ben Shahn when he worked for Franklin Roosevelt’s FSA office.

So I jumped in.  Hagen is a first time novelist and can she tell a story? You betcha.

The setting is northern Minnesota mired in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

One of the narrators is Emil Rousseau who comes to Baudette from New York City.

His assignment is to photograph the natives with a view to publicizing Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to relocate them to more fertile ground so they might not starve to death.

Emil checks in to a down-at-the-heels hotel in Baudette. The owner is Sadie, a half-breed who formerly ran the hotel as a House of Ill Fame during the Roaring Twenties.

Times are tough now, so she supplements her income by partnering with a fellow from Minneapolis named Magnus, who has a still up in the woods and is the area’s leading bootlegger.

Prohibition is over but that doesn’t mean much up in the north country.

Emil drops in at Ruby’s grocery store in Williams, where he runs into Rose who can’t pay her grocery bill. So he pays it for her.

This does not go over well with Rose.  Why? Because Emil grew up in  the neighborhood and was Rose’s high school sweetheart.

But now there’s a problem, Rose is married to Magnus the bootlegger, who is somewhat crazy.  There’s trouble ahead.

All the characters mentioned have their say I the story, which is full of history and scenes from the 30s, as when Rose follows Magnus to Minneapolis for an assignation after she gets off the train at the Milwaukee Road station and trudges up Washington Avenue past the drunks in gutters and the prostitutes on every street corner.

I was charmed by this book, so thank god for the cover.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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