Walter Meets Mack
On 4th street, in the University of Minnesota neighborhood known as Dinkytown, there is a Chinese restaurant that has been an eating establishment for decades. My dad remembers eating there when it was a diner style place back in the 50’s and my maternal grandmother worked there before that. I love to sit at a window table, watch the street life and imagine my college student dad doing the same years ago and my first generation Finnish grandmother; her nickname was Diamond Lil, waiting tables to help feed her five children. A streetcar line passed right by and I can see Diamond Lil, stepping off the streetcar, tying an apron around her waist, tucking a pencil behind her ear and joking around with her co-workers and customers.
History is making personal connections with the past. Using the right lens we can examine how people interacted with the world and with each other, each individual a small part of a global whole. Evidence of this shadow world of history is all around us. Scrape off a bit of tarnish and it shines through.
Certainly history carries the heavy baggage of serious lessons, but historical fiction need not be dreary and dry. The world has always been available to compel and amuse us, and historical fiction should do the same. Students of all ages can read Walter Meets Mack, connect the past and present, consider how human issues are universal and timeless, travel the crossroads of human and natural history and enjoy a good story.
Walter Myllymäki lived in the world of 1900 when issues like immigration, natural resource use and economic justice were important as they are today. He worked and traveled through a place of emerging technologies, new citizens seeking opportunity (sometimes finding economic injustice) and a people developing the rich natural resources of Minnesota. Walter, or just plain “Mack”, is the rare individual who questions what he sees, appreciates the beauty of his world and wrestles with moral dilemmas he faces.
Camping and exploring in Scenic State Park and Chippewa National Forest along highway 38 gave me ideas for the setting. The area is picturesque and wild, with places with names like Dead Horse Lake, Suomi Hills, the Lost Forty and amazing Ice Age remnants like Chase Point Esker. Looking at the map and hiking the trails really sparked my imagination. This is a region full of human and natural history with stories lurking in the woods and wetlands. The more I learned about Minnesota History the more I was sure that the transient lumberjacks who clear cut the old growth forest likely arrived via the rough and tumble city that was Minneapolis in 1900. The central city of that era was a robust, bustling urban scene. Imagine the grand Metropolitan Building with its open atrium and walkways of glass and St. Anthony Falls Milling District where the power of the river was harnessed to process a natural bounty of wheat and lumber. Electric trolleys, bicycles and horse drawn wagons crowded the streets and new citizens spoke a variety of languages. There were vaudeville shows, taverns, greasy spoons and hardware stores. Imagine all of this flavor in the concentrated area known as the Gateway. Railroads and the Mississippi River connected the city to the rest of the state in one big rollicking sprawl of regional splendor. Human and Natural History converges here, providing a setting to help paint a bigger picture of the region and the world. Think about what an adventure it must have been to journey by train from the city to the north woods of Itasca County with all your worldly possessions tied up in a blanket roll. Although such a life meant hardship, the dangers real and wages low, the story of the turn of the century transient worker has a strong romantic quality.
So, hop on a boxcar and jump off in a rail yard in Minneapolis, when live wires sparked above the streets and a wild land waited up north a train ride away. Join Mack as he tramps the risky roads of adventure and life, through the stormy, changing Minnesota seasons.
Michael Stoesz is a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools. He has a masters degree in Natural Science and Environmental Education from Hamline University Center for Global Environmental Education. He lives in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis with his wife Amy, daughter Eva and three chickens Jeckel, Speckel and Freckle. A former bicycle messenger, he used to sneak out on his mountain bike on the Stone Arch Bridge before it was restored as a public space.
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