Land of 10,000 Stories
Sex, canoes, and the quest for the ultimate
Minnesota summer read
On the book jacket, her sweater is so tight you could see the outline of her bra—maybe even read the washing instructions—if she were wearing one. Everything else, from the model’s pouty lips to the breathless cover line, is as fast and loose as you might expect from a 1962 slab of very pulpy fiction entitled, Sleep With Me! “I love the exclamation point,” says Pat Coleman, the longtime acquisitions librarian for the Minnesota Historical Society; his eyebrows are only slightly bushier than those of his younger brother, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, his wit only slightly drier. “‘For adults,’” he reads off the jacket. “Indeed.”
We’re standing in the center’s stacks, where a couple long rows of books comprise the entire history of Minnesota literature, or at least as much as anyone has attempted to collect. There’s Keillor and Fitzgerald and Lewis and Erdrich. And in the great democracy of library filing, the most earnest tracts are spending eternity beside tomes like No Sense of Shame, another potboiler penned, incredibly, by a former secretary to Hubert Humphrey named Dan Brennan. “‘One woman who would do anything for a man,’” Coleman reads from the cover. “‘Another who would do anything to a man.’ Hmm.”
Coleman is gamely assisting in my quest for the ultimate Minnesota summer reads. For several years now, in honor of the state’s 150th anniversary, he’s been blogging about the 150 best Minnesota books. For great summer reads, we don’t have to be so picky. We just have to be open-minded: this isn’t Florida, where summer was invented. This is Minnesota, where summer is more a state of mind than a date on the calendar and where some wit once cracked that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in Duluth.
The first few books Coleman pulls don’t offer bikini babes on the cover but canoeists—being shot at, dumped over waterfalls, attacked by wildlife. It seems like a bizarre coincidence until Coleman admits to perhaps the ultimate Minnesota fixation: collecting canoe covers. His personal collection includes about 600 in total.
In the Sinclair Lewis section, he pulls a personal favorite: Mantrap, from 1926, which sounds promisingly like something involving handcuffs. Nope: it’s mostly about canoeing. Coleman once patiently listened to a lecture on the title’s embodiment of gender biases until he felt compelled to explain that Mantrap is a lake in northern Minnesota.
Minnesotans just aren’t very sensational, even when we should be. Sensing this perhaps, Coleman says, “I can recommend some soft-core!” and finds a section devoted to LaVyrle Spencer, of Bowerville, who was a powerful enough romance novelist in the late 1980s to have banned Fabio from her book covers. I ask Coleman if he’s actually read her work. “Start to finish?” he says. “I don’t think so. My life’s just too short.”
Which is how we came to Brennan, the moonlighting Humphrey aide. There are many great Minnesota reads, from Jon Hassler’s Four Miles to Pinecone, about a resort up north, to Tim O’Brien’s suspenseful In the Lake of the Woods, to just about anything Keillor has written, especially Pontoon. But those are actual good books. Summer is for guilty pleasures.
“Oh my,” Coleman says, pulling out Insurrection!, in which Brennan imagines a Black Power militia taking over the Woodhill Country Club in Wayzata. The cover line: “A surprise for whitey.” Indeed for anyone. Beside it is a World War II–era Brennan book with the coverline, “The enemy waits for you, my love,” and a woman parachutist. “Looking hot,” Coleman says.
And that’s really all we need here in the summer: a little tease, a little tension—just a little something to get the blood flowing.