Saint Paul Pioneer Press Sunday, September 4, 2011
A look at worthwhile fiction by Minnesota authors and publishers
By Mary Ann Grossmann
“Walter Meets Mack” by Michael Stoesz (Beaver’s Pond Press, $15);
If you’re looking for young-adult fiction that doesn’t involve fantasy and takes an interesting look at Minnesota history, this well-written novel will fill the bill.
Michael Stoesz, a Minneapolis public-school teacher, says his debut story about a young lumberjack would be a good resource for history and social studies teachers.
Sixteen-year-old Walter arrives in Minneapolis at the turn of the 20th century from Finland, which he flees because the occupying Imperial Russian Army is looking for soldiers. He was “broke, bewildered and lost in Minneapolis…a country boy far, far afield.” Walter eventually ends up working in the northern Minnesota logging camps, and Stoesz writes so vividly about the hard and dangerous work, stinky bunkhouses and cold winter he puts the reader right in the woods.
Walter is sensitive and thoughtful, and though he makes a living felling old-growth pines, he thinks this clear-cutting will devastate the environment. The story ends with Walter riding the rails to the West with bullets “screaming through the air.” Clearly, his story is going to continue.
Walter Meets Mack is an engaging read that paints a vivid picture of the life of a Minnesota immigrant in the early 1900′s. It is meticulously researched and does a wonderful job of bringing a bygone era to life. Walter Meets Mack would be a perfect addition to 6th grade Minnesota History curriculum. It brings Minnesota history to life!
Brooke Lundgren, Social Studies Teacher, Sanford Middle School
“Michael Stoesz is a teacher and it shows in this children’s book. It is a story told with a teenage immigrant who flees the oppression of Russia in his native Finland and we follow Walter Myllymäki in his quest to find an uncle in the landscape of shifting jobs – logging, farming, and the low ranking work of early Minneapolis. He is penniless, without an adult to guide him, and only an uncle’s name and Minnesota as his touchstones.”
I really enjoyed Walter Meets Mack and look forward to reading it aloud to my students. It amply addresses new fourth grade MN social studies standards regarding physical features influencing human settlement and activities and the migration of people to this area. It also touches on fourth grade MN science standards related to geology and the positive and negative impacts the “designed world has on the natural world.” Walter is an exciting and endearing character that my students will like and care about, and his story is highly engaging. My hope is that reading this historical narrative to my fourth grade students will foster a greater depth of perspective and establish interconnectedness between culture, history and science in local and global contexts. This story creates a cognitive framework to build upon.
Brenda Schmit, Educator, Hope Community Academy
Walter Meets Mack weaves story of Minnesota’s history and culture, nature and science.
If we learn by story more than by assemblage of factoids and dates, Walter Meets Mack should be required reading for Minnesota middle school students. This is a highly revealing (as well as entertaining) story about adolescent Minnesota as seen through the curious eyes and senses of a teenage Finnish immigrant struggling to survive in a new land. Readers witness the cacophonous bustle of a young Minneapolis with its noisy flour mills, lumber mills and street life, a harnessed Mississippi River filled with logs and waste, the smells of a loggers’ bunkhouse, and a host of colorful characters from many corners of the world.
Above all, this book is about Minnesota’s natural resources, their beauty and utility, use and abuse, and their role in driving the economy of the region. Young Walter marvels at the “cathedral” of white pines, while he gains employment by cutting them down. And he is full of questions about nature – how did the land form (there’s a geology lesson), what happens to bears when the pines are gone (an ecology lesson), how long will it take for these huge pines to grow again? We learn how snow, ice, rivers and technology are integrated in the logging process. Walter sees Minnesota as a story of grand changes to nature and the land. But Walter also thinks about people he encounters – native people whose land and graves the lumbering camp has disturbed, bosses and workers, thieves and friends. Walter Meets Mack weaves a story of Minnesota’s history and culture, nature and science. Through it we can see area landmarks, rivers and land with new depth, and consider our own place in the continuing story of our state. If we want to foster stewardship of our land and waters in the future, we need books like this that show us our past.
Lyndon Torstenson, National Park Ranger, Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
For all teachers who enjoy meaningful interdisciplinary teaching, Walter Meets Mack is a dream book.
Nowhere else will you find such a perfect blend of environmental science, history and culture, all wrapped up in a novel that is not only entertaining and fast-paced, but has great literary value. The literature teacher will be happy with ample examples of rich language and vocabulary; including an effective sprinkling of metaphor, simile, personification and hyperbole. To add to that, there is a rich cast of characters whose colloquial speech seems perfectly matched to the time period. Walter himself is a perfect coming-of-age protagonist, in that he is reflective about himself and his surroundings as he constantly changes and matures. The environmental science teacher would be thrilled with the rich descriptions of the land, and the changes that were wrought upon it through the logging industry. Even as the reader is led to witness the rapid and almost brutal removal of old growth forest, there is a richness of well-researched information celebrating basic human endeavor that would please the most exacting history teacher. Ample attention is paid to the industrial innovations of the day, as well as a focus on the hard work of the mostly immigrant work force who braved the elements to labor in the logging camps. Finally, the mix of cultures in Minnesota’s early history is brought to life through the interactions among a collection of believable characters from many backgrounds. The delicate topic of the cost of early industry to Minnesota’s first people is treated with respect and dignity. But what about the students, what will they think? That one is simple. The students will be thoroughly entertained by every single page, blissfully unaware of how much they are learning in a variety of different academic disciplines. I had only one problem when I had the honor of leading my students to read an early version of the manuscript. The kids wanted to sneak it home and read the whole thing on the very first night!
Elizabeth Dwight, Minneapolis Public Schools Educator
“A great book, lots of Minnesota History, Geography, and Natural Science plus an engaging story and characters!”
Jane Enfield, Media Specialist, Minneapolis Public Schools
“A true Minnesotan adventure! Reading about Walter and his epic journey provides students with a great historical context about their state. Students will enjoy the many humorous predicaments Walter finds himself in while simultaneously learning how the state we enjoy today came to be.”
Andrew Dahm, Minneapolis Public Schools Bilingual Educator