by Sarah Stonich
From the first page, Laurentian Divide was a delight to read. Immediately, I felt a connection to the town of Hatchet Inlet and the characters that weave in and out of each other’s lives in the small Minnesota town near the Canadian border. In the book, Sissy and widower Alpo, twenty years her senior, prepare for their upcoming wedding. The town needs a celebration after a tragedy the fall before that rocked the community. Tragedy threatens the town again when Rauri Paar, the last private landowner in the Laurentian Reserve, fails to make his annual appearance at the beginning of spring. Pete, Alpo’s son, a recovering alcoholic, navigates his own minefield trying to stay sober.
Stonich writes beautifully, and she expertly creates a millieu believable and sympathetic. With good-natured humor and an appreciation for the foibles of Hatchet Inlet’s residents, she compellingly sketches themes surrounding trust, secrets, and forgiveness. Sissy, who has always worked at her family’s diner, questions her calling and attacks the future with determined persistence. Alpo, who was exempt from the Vietnam War due to his employment in a vital war industry, struggles to justify his dispensation. Peter, who has left a trail of devastation in his wake, must learn to live in a society with constant temptation.
The Laurentian Reserve, a million acres of wilderness, and a site of peace and renewal, provides the backdrop to the story, and a history of forty-years of conflict over land use represents a microcosm of environmental debates, and I like to think comes down on the side of protecting the land for future generations. One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the ubiquity of dogs and their presence as family members, exhibited most charmingly, by Jeff, Sissy’s dog, and in her mind, the most handsome man in town.
In Laurentian Divide, even the most peripheral characters matter, even if they don’t realize it, and are bound to the community. Their absence matters, and key events reverberate through the residents. Despite the challenges, they remain interconnected, and the novel concludes on a hopeful note.
When I was reading the book, it reminded me of Richard Russo, who also so skillfully renders small town living, and it wasn’t too surprising to me to later see that he had provided an endorsement for Laurentian Divide. It was truly a book I was sorry to finish. I didn’t want to leave the people of Hatchet Inlet.
Luckily for me, this is the second in a planned trilogy centered on the denizens of the area. I have not read the first, Vacationland, though I plan to, and I eagerly await the third.
Thanks to Netgalley and the University of Minnesota Press for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.