Out on Highway 61

Well Abe said “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61.”

I’ve never been one to try to make much sense out of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.  I’ve enjoyed the pinwheeling imagery, or occasionally delighted to the sudden inkling of understanding where a metaphor came from (the allusion to chess in “ceremonies of the horseman,” where “even a pawn must hold a grudge” from “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”).  And I’ve learned never to trust Dylan’s own glosses, including his remark to the effect that he was just trying to make the words rhyme.

sundstolAnd so it was one of those moments of surprise recently to discover that Highway 61 is the thoroughfare that runs along the northern coastline of Minnesota, keeping Lake Superior in sight most of the way, from Duluth to the Canadian border.  If you inscribed an equilateral triangle with one corner to the south in Duluth and another to the west in Hibbing, Dylan’s home town, the third corner would lie on the Superior shoreline, about midway between the towns of Two Harbors and Grand Marais.  And that eastern terminus lies smack in the middle of the country where a different killing is chronicled in Vidar Sundstøl’s detective novel, The Land of Dreams (University of Minnesota Press, 2103, ©2008).  It is also where any similarly to the surreal adventures of Dylan’s motley cast ends.

The Land of Dreams  is the first novel in Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy. The second installment, Only the Dead, was published on September 1 of this year; presumably there will be another year’s wait for the conclusion: this may prove problematic for some readers.  Sundstøl is a Norwegian author, and  The Land of Dreams was the first of his works to be translated into English.  I picked up the book out of curiosity over the idea that a Norwegian would set his story in this remote part of the United States, albeit one that was heavily settled in the nineteenth century by Scandinavian immigrants.  I found it even more curious that the chief detective is a Norwegian sent across the ocean to assist in the murder inquiry, and that the murder victim is a Norwegian tourist visiting the area.

And yet these seeming oddities all contribute to the pleasure of the book.

The plot looks at first to be fairly straightforward.  Lance Hansen is a “forest cop,” a policeman whose jurisdiction is in the Superior National Forest, where he pursues campers and fisherman who violate federal regulations in minor ways.  Reports of a tent pitched in the wrong locale draw him to a spit of land called Baraga’s Cross, where he discovers two naked Norwegian canoers, one in hysterical shock, the other viciously beaten to death.

After the FBI and the Norwegian cop, Eirik Nyland, take over formal responsibility for the murder investigation, Hansen remains disturbed and curious about what appears to be the first recorded homicide ever to occur along Highway 61 and environs.  Forest cop Hansen is also the local archivist/historian and his researches turn up a tantalizing possibility of a nineteenth-century killing in which one of his distant ancestors may or may not have played a role.  As he travels up and down the Superior coastline, visiting his mother in Duluth, his brother in Two Harbors, and his ex-wife and son in the Native American community of Grand Marais, Hansen begins to develop ever more disturbing theories about the modern murder, theories that he is unwilling to confront and unable to flee from.

Sundstøl clearly absorbed an immense amount of local history and local color during the two years that he lived in northeastern Minnesota—and that latter fact went a long way towards explaining away my initial puzzlement over his choice of characters and locale.  But even without knowing that little detail of his personal story, I had enjoyed his extensive history of settlement, his stories about early encounters between the immigrants and the Ojibwe natives, his accounts of the development of the fur trade, and his recountings of the political maneuverings amongst the English, French, and Americans seeking to control the wealth of the district.  I imagine he must have felt that such stories would add interest for his Norwegian audience, but they turned out to be a source of much of the enjoyment for this American reader as well.  (I am as ignorant of the general history of the Midwest as I am of the finer points of Dylanology.)

Although Sundstøl points the finger of suspicion and guilt strongly in a single direction with fairly minor and unconvincing red herrings dangled along the way, the book ends without resolution.  Lance is wracked by his fears about his knowledge of the true killer’s identity, but is unable to translate that knowledge into action.  It turns out that this suspension of animation will inform the second volume of the Minnesota Trilogy.  And that ultimate resolution may be attendant on the publication of this final book, The Ravens.

Still, The Land of Dreams is a satisfying read.  The major characters are well drawn and often interesting, the local color unimpeachable. (When I looked on Google Maps for Highway 61 I was surprised to discover the exact locations of streets and cafes mentioned throughout story popping up as I zoomed in and along the shoreline.)  This is not your typical Nordic noir, a genre that I’ve grown overtired of in recent years.  Rather it is a book full of life, loyalty, and love—all of which came as a welcome surprise.

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1 Response to Out on Highway 61

  1. Pingback: Highway 61, Revisited | A Lifetime Is Required

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