Book: Vacationland (March, 2013) by Sarah Stonich
Many families look forward to each summer’s lake vacation. That is particularly true in Minnesota, “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” and the setting for Vacationland.
Don’t go looking for the idyllic summer retreat at Naledi Lodge near the tiny community of Hatchet Inlet in far northern Minnesota. Sarah Stonich gives us some flashbacks to the days when the lodge, always spotless if a bit run down, entertained dozens of people on lake vacations every summer. However, in the present, not much is left except the lake and the fishing and the memories. While that could make for a depressing setting, instead, the humanity of the characters ends up encouraging and refreshing the reader. (Please note that I am trying to avoid the obvious “life-affirming”.)
Also, don’t go looking for a linear story following the life of Meg, who grew up at the resort and moved away to hone her talents as an artist. Although we do see her life from girlhood to her adult return to Naledi, the novel’s structure is as patchy as the splotches of sunlight through the leaves of trees at the resort. Sarah Stonich has written a series of short stories, stitched together by their relationship to the lake and the summer lodge. Characters appear, disappear and reappear from one story to the next.
Most of us only experience such summer retreats as a place where we go away to experience something different in our lives for a week or two. But reading Vacationland is like getting a backstage view of the life of a summer place and the year-round life of its permanent community. After I wrote that previous paragraph, I discovered that the author agreed.
In an interview quoted on her website, Sarah Stonich says:
The idea of a resort from varying perspectives of visitors, proprietors and locals seemed like a concept I felt worth weaving characters around. In Minnesota, a lot gets written about the wilderness experience, but less about resort life, and very little about the people and the communities that line the roads leading to such places – like the beer truck drivers and bait shop owners. I wanted to tell their stories. But I was also moved to challenge the tired Minnesota stereotype – not all the men in Vacationland are good looking and not all the children are above average – or white for that matter.
If you prefer a straight line from conflict to resolution, with clear good guys and bad guys, this is not your book. I can understand that its meandering ways would drive some people crazy. However, just as we call it a lake “vacation” when we spend time in a place different from our everyday life, your reading life will be shaken up a bit, and perhaps refreshed, by reading this different arrangement of story. And the characters are fascinating. They include the grouchy Czech, Vac Machutova, Meg’s grandfather who owned Naledi when she is a girl; the Objibwe builder; the gang of men who gather at Pavola’s, the town restaurant; the lesbian who returns every summer even after her lover departs for South America…and we learn their stories and many more.
Although I’m definitely not in the “every year at the lake” category of vacationer, and even though I really don’t care all that much for small towns, I did find this book left me with a hopeful feeling. It definitely belongs on the shelves of a traveler’s library, if only because it pictures a small corner of the United States in vivid detail. But also, of course, because it focuses on a lake vacation.
When asked in that same interview quoted above what the books appeal is, Stonich said:
The themes of vacations – seems everyone has a memory, of a resort; an old cabin; scout camp, or maybe had some fishing or canoe trip go either very right or very wrong. Vacations can be awful or wonderful, even life-changing. For some, maybe those two weeks in July are just a yawn in time, a pause in life with enough leisure to take a real look around or even inward.
Join the conversation. As you plan your summer travel, is a lake resort on the agenda? Are you a lake vacation kind of person? Why? Do you know northern Minnesota? Tell us about it.
Note: The publisher provided an electronic copy of the book for review, but that does not influence my opinion. The links here to Amazon make your shopping easier, but they also benefit A Traveler’s Library, since I am an Amazon affiliate. Thanks! Photos used here are from Flickr and used with a Creative Commons license. Please click on each photo to learn more about the photographer.