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A cougar attack, life and love in the ’70s and a novel set in Ukraine – Twin Cities


It’s Minnesota fiction Sunday, with a deadly cougar attack (or is it?), a story about a couple who live and love in the ’70s and ’80s, and a novel set in Ukraine that’s written for young adults but everybody should read, given the war going on in that devastated country.

“Cougar Claw” by Cary J. Griffith (Adventure Publications, $16.99)

Much of what Sam had found at the kill site was troubling, but as he considered the possibilities, was it realistic to think someone had somehow used a cougar to have Jack killed? … There was a prominent citizen who had been visciously killed in a frightening and bizarre manner. And there was plenty about it that didn’t make sense. 

It’s reassuring to know that if you wander the Minnesota River Valley bottoms near Savage, you probably won’t be attacked by a cougar. Unless someone wants you dead.

In his second adventure featuring U.S. Fish & Wildlife special agent Sam Rivers, natural history writer Griffith takes us to the wild area around Savage, where a prominent businessman is found dead, apparently the victim of a cougar.

The local sheriff, Rusty Benson, is running for reelection, and he wants the case closed quickly. Law enforcement officers don’t know much about cougars, whose range is north of the Twin Cities, but there is enough evidence to credibly suppose there’s a dangerous wild animal in the area.

When Rivers is called in to verify the kill, he’s suspicious. There are too many clues inconsistent with cougar behavior. Cougars are almost never seen near metropolitan areas. The animal’s footprints are odd. and cougars always feed immediately after a kill. But the victim’s body was not mutilated. And why didn’t the cougar stay nearby guarding its feast?

After testy exchanges with the sheriff, Rivers joins a party of hunters to take down the animal, accompanied by Gray, his big wolf/malamute cross in training to become a search and rescue dog. With them is Diane, a newspaper reporter Sam met during a case on the Iron Range  in the first Rivers novel, “Wolf Kill.”

As the sheriff’s patience with Rivers’ questions runs out, he assigns a deputy to keep track of the agent to be sure Rivers isn’t snooping where he doesn’t belong. But he does it anyway, interviewing the dead man’s widow, who will inherit a lot of money because her husband’s company is being sold. Then there’s the company executives who stand to make money from the sale. And who, the reader wonders, are the people who call themselves by phony names as they plot behind Rivers’ back?

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that, in the end, this case is not fully resolved and Rivers will surely meet the killer again.

Rives is an interesting character, a quiet guy who sometimes seems distant because he concentrates so completely on the case. His knowledge of nature and predators offers insights city people might not know about. For instance, cougars are also known as mountain lions, puma, panther and catamount. The animal has four long canine teeth embedded in lower and upper jaws that can open to an angle of  nearly 120 degrees.

Sam Rivers is a welcome addition to  the growing list of crime fiction protagonists by Minnesota writers. His love of nature and creatures, even predators, permeates the plot.

Griffith, who lives in Rosemount, has a master’s degree in library science from the University of Minnesota. Besides the Rivers series he writes non-fiction, including the Minnesota Book Award-winning “Opening Goliath,” about the discovery, exploration, and politics surrounding a cave complex in southeastern Minnesota.

If parts of this book seem familiar it’s because the Minneapolis Star Tribune published the original version, titled “Savage Minnesota,”  in a summer serialization. But there were no printed copies of the book and five years later the first Sam Rivers novel, “Wolves,” was published.  After a rewrite with suggestions from mystery author Mary Logue, this retitled version of the story is now in print.

About the main character, the author says: “I’ve always liked Sam Rivers, and though he had a difficult childhood and is flawed, his love of remote places and the solace he finds in wilderness are passions many of us share.”

Griffith will sign copies of his novel from 10  to 111:30 a.m. Friday, June 24, at Lake Country booksellers, 4766 Washington Square, White Bear Lake.

“Other People Manage” by Ellen Hawley (British-based Swift Press; Kindle edition available in the U.S. for $16.88)

Book jacket for "Other People Manage"As surely as the kids got older, so did we, although we didn’t notice it the same way. Time slid past while we were drinking coffee, or tossing our dirty clothes into the washing machine, or walking the kids through the zoo, and it was only once in a while that we noticed a change. I switched to decaf after supper, and then Peg did. We hadn’t gone to the bars or a dance in ages, and when the Coffehouse closed we didn’t even hear about it for months.  

Ellen Hawley has lived in Cornwall, England, for 15 years, and this novel is her first published in the U.K.

But  Minnesotans who were in the local literary community before she left will remember her. She edited The View From the Loft for the Minneapolis-based literary center where she taught. She won Loft-McKnight and Minnesota State Arts Board grants, and worked on the North Country Press underground newspaper.

Hawley was living here when two of her novels were published by local small presses.

Her experiences as a cab driver inspired her 1998 debut, “Trip Sheets”(Milkweed Editions), named for the records cab drivers kept to show where they drove each day and how much money they made. Her second Minnesota book, “Open Line” (Coffee House Press), is political satire about a bored radio talk show host who suggests to a caller the Vietnam War was a hoax. She unleashes public paranoia, but loves the attention. (Does that sound timely?)

Which brings us to “Other People Manage,” a quiet novel about the love between big Marge, a bus driver, and Peg, in training to be a psychotherapist. They meet in a Minneapolis Coffee House in the 1970s and stay together until Peg’s death 20 years later. Marge is the sometimes sardonic, sometimes baffled, but always loving narrator of this story with family at its heart.

During their lives the women often act as parents to the two children of Deena, Peg’s sister, who leaves the kids with her sister Jude for months at a time. As the children grow and become family, Marge and Peg have the same everyday challenges other people have.

Hawley’s writing is spare but Meg and Peg are fully realized characters. Even Deena, who abandons her children now and then, is sort of sympathetic. Marge and Peg manage, as other people do.

“The Hidden Room” by William Durbin and Barbara Durbin (Lake Vermillion Press, $11.99)

Book jacket for "The Hidden Room"“‘Run!’ I shout, stunned that we’ve been caught in the middle of a German and Russian tank battle. We bolt across the bridge, veering toward the woods just as a tank behind us returns fire.”

This riveting story of a Jewish family who lived in a cave in Ukraine during the last year of World War II is written for middle grade readers but it should be read by everyone who watches the horrors unfolding in that country now.

Written by the Durbin husband/wife team, it’s based on the true story of Esther Stermer and her family, who took refuge in a cave, as did many others, when the Nazis invaded their village in Ukraine.

Less talented authors could have made this story almost too difficult to read, since it brings up the holodomor, when Josef Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians (and others) in the early 1930s. The Nazis of course are no better than the Soviets, shooting Jews into their graves. And some Ukrainians were eager to reveal Jewish neighbors’ hiding places.

Yet the fictional family in the book finds ways to laugh as they try to grow used to the darkness of their cave. Jacob, who’s 14, tries to look after his 4-year-old brother, Eli, and 9-year-old sister, Rachel, when he’s not cutting wood with his dad under cover of darkness. They have supplies, thanks to Stepan, son of their kind next door neighbor who is risking her life to help them.

Much of the book is about how people stay alive and sane living in darkness (they do have lamps) always worrying about when the food will run out. When they take in Elena, a Ukrainian girl, the food supply gets tighter, but they consider her a daughter even though she’s a Christian. Elena and Jacob are the only ones capable of sneaking out under cover of darkness to forage for nuts and other foods the mother can use for making stew. But as winter lingers, there isn’t anything to forage for in the surrounding forest and the family is close to starvation.

Besides interesting historical information about Ukraine, this fast-paced novel is also exciting when Jacob and Elena evade enemy tanks, with humor provided by Eli’s obsession with thoughts of jelly doughnuts. And there’s bravery, including the mother’s insistence that things are gong to be OK and how she somehow finds ways to celebrate Jewish holidays and the kids’ birthdays, even though there isn’t much to eat.

Bill Durbin, winner of two Minnesota Book Awards, has written 14 novels. He and his wife, a teacher, lived on Lake Vermillion on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and reside now in Duluth.



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