Friday, March 16, 2018

Some Personal History, and How It Turned Into a Book

In 1958 our family moved from California to Minnesota. My father had grown up in Minneapolis and met my mother there. They were sad to leave the avocados and artichokes and mild weather behind, but happy to be back amongst “their people.”

They bought a house on the outer edge of St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. Back then there were still working farms within walking distance.

The day we moved in, my dad took me for a walk in the woods behind our house. I was five years old. He taught me the names of the trees and the animals. He taught me about poison ivy and wild berries.

We lived on a dead end street with a few hundred acres of woods and fields behind our house—most of it had once been the Westwood Hills Golf Course, a twenty-seven hole public course. My dad and his brothers had golfed there in the 1940s and early 50s. In the mid 1950s, the course was reduced to eighteen holes.

A few years later only nine holes remained playable. Part of the course went to a housing development, the rest of it was left to nature. When my family moved there in 1958, only the last nine holes of the golf course was still being maintained. I golfed those holes when I was eight years old. My handicap must have been about fifty.

During our first walk in the woods, my dad showed me where an old fairway had been—four years after that section of the golf course had closed, the fairway had become a long, narrow field of  knee-high grasses, weeds, and saplings. At the end of the field we discovered a large patch of creeping bent—the tight, low grass variety used for golf greens.

In 1961, the last nine-hole golf course closed. That same year, a water main broke, and sixty acres of the old golf course flooded, forming a marsh that would later would become known as Westwood Lake. My friend and I built a raft out of scavenged construction pallets and poled out onto the newly formed marsh. We could see through the clear water to the bright green turf below. In one place, gas built up beneath the underwater turf, creating a huge bubble that rose up out of the water—a bright green, perfectly circular island about ten feet across. Of course, we jabbed a pole into it. The marsh farted, complete with sulphury reek.

Late that fall we had a hard, early freeze. The water turned to glass. You could see through the ice to the green grassy bottom. The ice was only an inch or so thick—just enough to support a ten-year-old on skates. An infinity of utterly smooth ice to skate on!

Although we were only six miles from downtown Minneapolis, the area still had a rural feeling. In the early 1960s I and several other kids in the neighborhood trapped muskrat and mink in the marsh. We sold the pelts to Berman Buckskin for pocket money. For several years I subscribed to Fur-Fish-Game magazine. I still have my copy of The Trapper’s Companion, the first book I ever bought. My literary hero was Jim Kjelgaard, who wrote about dogs and the outdoors. I wanted to be a trapper, like Danny, the hero of Kjelgaard’s novel Big Red.

What it looks like today.
The woods and the marsh were my playground, my refuge, my universe. Every part of the woods had a name: First Woods, Second Woods, Bone Woods, the Twin Peninsulas, the Swamp, the Field, the Fort, the Hill, the Sand Pit, Gopher Bazaar, the Poplar Woods, and so on. I swung across a ravine on a grapevine swing, and spent many hours playing inside a deadfall fort. I sank to my knees in peat bogs, suffered countless mosquito bites and nettle stings, and built memories that will be with me to the end of my life.

Today, most of that land has been leveled to make room for housing, auto dealerships and office buildings. About 200 acres, including the marsh, has been preserved as a nature center. It’s no longer the wild place I remember—there are fences and woodchip trails, interpretive signage and rules. I still go there a few times a year to search out the old paths and reawaken memories, but it is not the same. The magic is still there, but it has become civilized, lethargic, mundane.
My novel Otherwood is my eulogy to the woods that live now only in my memory. I have taken great liberties with the woods—made them bigger, and more recent—but I hope that some of the wonder and mystery and magic has survived.

Otherwood will be published by Candlewick Press on September 11, 2018.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cover Reveal

Otherwood is a middle-grade novel about...well, I haven't yet figured out how to describe it. I guess you could call it a contemporary story about friendship, family, and secrets—with ghosts. I'll let the reviewers sort it out. I've never written anything quite like it before. But I always say that, don't I? Anyway, here's what it's going to look like:

Pub date is September 11. More info to come.