Beauty and Ugliness in Northern Minnesota
Margie Haack's memoir is a triumph of divinity bound up in locality—a watercolour of grey Northern Minnesota, but with the Northern Lights.
The Exact Place: A Memoir by Margie Haack. Kalos Press, 2012.
"Move over, Garrison Keillor." So says bookseller Byron Borger on the cover of Haack's first memoir, and it may also be advisable for Bob Dylan to slide down the bench. Margie Haack is introducing herself at the table of Minnesotan greats: one is the humorist, one is the poet, and the new one is the realist. All three of these native lakers have a penchant for turning very specific activities or experiences into universal hooks.
At times Haack's images are wince-inducing; at other times they are sublime. From vomit-inducing egg bombs, to wild blueberries and mail-delivered chicks, Haack's young world springs like a pop-up book from the pages, yet with smells, tastes, sounds, and, on at least two occasions, a hoof to the head.
Her memoir is not subtle. It's not really poetic either, but it is musical. There's no reason her book couldn't be adapted into an album from The Innocence Mission or a Steve Taylor feature film (here's to hoping).
Except for historical background, Haack never leaves her quarter mile radius in Lake of the Woods County. On that score alone, her work is a triumph of divinity bound up in locality. Evangelical Christians, like the revivalists her parents ran with throughout Margie's teen years, are only beginning to appreciate the "earth crammed with heaven" stuff. Back then, they didn't know any better, preferring to labour to secure Margie's eternal soul by some kind of definite re-birthday. Folk who are irritated by such reductionism will be relieved to learn that Margie one day came to rest in the arms of Jesus. She was freed from the maniacal striving that was a legacy of her church and came to trust in God's love instead.
Sadly, that same rest eluded her relationship with her adopted father. He remained aloof to her emotionally, a reality not tidily tied up by the end of the book. Readers living with ongoing, unresolved tensions will find a friend.
Though the intrusion of television and professional stud services hint at her county's transition from pure agrarianism to corporate farming, Haack's tale still strikes the reader as a window into a bygone era. She makes most of today's Americans seem utterly detached from creation in comparison with her moorings on the family farm. She does this without pretense or nostalgia, choosing instead to write with lusty and blunt detail.
Would one of today's ten-year-olds be able to write a similarly vivid memoir? If the kid is observant like Margie Haack, and if God is still going after his lost children, the answer is, of course, yes. Maybe it would sound something like this: "I rested my weary head on the cool leather armrest of our Acura MDX. Mother's reassuring smile-frown in the rear-view mirror put to rest my fears about Allison's party. Taylor Swift called to me, sweetly, from the screen on the back of Mom's seat. That day, the love of God opened my heart."
Haack recollects a beautiful life striped by ugliness. Neatly pressed linens, hay-soaked horse breath and her mother's unconditional love are tossed together with miscarriages, night terrors, and Margie's own cruelty to her dog, Bing. She exposes the bemusement we all feel as children toward a decaying creation, personal sin, and good providence.
When she moves to the city, attends university, and marries a man who loves books as much as she does, the farm life, ostensibly, is over. Her life, like ours, is made up a web of unmerited surprises and appalling pains.
Haack's tale is a powerful reminder that the matrix we find ourselves in doesn't matter. What matters is an incarnating God who shows up in the exact place we are, so we'll call out to him and know him. In The Exact Place, Margie Haack paints a watercolour of grey Northern Minnesota without neglecting to show the Northern Lights.