Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Life In Two Worlds

In the early 1980’s I painted apartments for several years. Painters usually dress up rooms after people have moved out, but occasionally we worked in apartments with a resident still present. On more than one occasion I was called upon to paint a bathroom or repair a living room wall of an elderly person who welcomed my intrusion and was grateful for company. Through these encounters I heard many an interesting yarn about life at the beginning of the last century. Up here in Minnesota, you don’t have to go very far back in time to get in touch with lifestyles fairly primitive by contemporary standards.

A book I recently acquired that peels back the pages of time is A Life In Two Worlds by Betty Powell Skoog and Justine Kerfoot, recently re-published by Savage Press. Savage Press seems to have published a number of regional books with anecdotal snapshots of history up in this neck of the woods, so it made sense when the Schroeder Area Historical Society wanted to get Ms. Skoog's memories reprinted, they looked to Mike Savage.

Last week we spent a lunch hour together talking about writing and for a brief time digressed to discuss this newest volume.

Ed: Now this book is quite an interesting read for its historical recollections. It also shows how spoiled we are today. How did you come about publishing it?

Mike: Well, it had been published by Paper Moon Publishing in Lake Nebagamon. They're out of business now, so the Schroeder Area Historical Society called and asked if I wanted to reprint it. So they acquired the rights from the author and from the Kerfoots, so that they had everything done legally, and off we went.

Ed: Would you care to comment on Justine Kerfoot and how has she been involved with Betty Skoog's story?

Mike: Well, Justine was considered kind of like the Grand Dame of the Gunflint Trail. She and her husband started the Gunflint Lodge, and they were kind of like Gunflint royalty is what I would say. Tough old customers who, you know, raised themselves up by their bootstraps.

Ed: And you knew her, or met her?

Mike: Yeah, we had had some associations regarding her books. Justine was pretty high profile.

Ed: She published how many books?

Mike: I can't remember, quite a few. She's deceased now.

Ed: So Betty, was it Justine who motivated her or encouraged her to write her story?

Mike: I think they were childhood friends and Betty, who has a pretty good story, saw Justine being successful with her books and decided to do her own.

Ed: What's your favorite part of the book? Why don't you summarize what it’s about. I mean, just anecdotal stories, right?

Mike: It’s just her life growing up on the Gunflint Trail, the border between Ontario, or Canada, and the United States. A native mother and a white father… it’s a life in two worlds. She was a white person and an Indian person simultaneously. These are stories of rugged independence. Running after rabbits, eating porcupine…

Ed: So the book was previously published and you just recently re-published it?

Mike: It actually just came out in. We announced its reprinting in December, and shipped it on the market in January of 2010.

Ed: What kind of people would be interested in this book?

Mike: Well it's kind of a nostalgic trip, and I think actually, grade schoolers would write a heck of a good 8th great report with it. And with its Boundary Waters background, camp fire stories maybe, it's a, you know, in some ways it’s a friends-and-family book, but in other ways it goes beyond that.

Ed: I think it goes way beyond that. I think it has historical relevance because we've so forgotten our roots.

Mike: Right. And in regards to the actual day-to-day living, it really is a good historical record.

Ed: I found it interesting that when she moved into her first house that had running water, it was like, she didn't know what she was going to have to do all day. “What to do? The water is running. I don't have to go walk and get water to wash and make food.”

Mike: Right, yeah, the pace of life changes.

Ed: What is the Boundary Waters, for people who are not from this region?

Mike: Yeah, people who read your website in India aren't going to know. It's a million acres of set aside land, federal property, where motorized transportation is prohibited. So canoeing, backpacking only. It's kind of a sign of wilderness, and that's where Betty Powell Skoog grew up, on the border of Ontario.

Ed: There were no roads to where she was. She had to portage and canoe.

Mike: And hike, and carry everything. Her dad was basically a trapper, and a voyageur. A fallout. A descendant.

Ed: So who were the voyageurs?

Mike: They were the French Canadian guys who paddled canoes between Montreal and Grand Portage, and that whole area that became the Boundary Waters Canoe area. They put the packs on their backs and carried them from lake to lake, and then they loaded up the canoe and paddled them. They were basically the Interstate Commerce Commission of the 1800's

Ed: And a lot of them had hernias, too--

Mike: (laughter) …and they were short--

Ed: Low center of gravity…

Mike: Right, and they wanted small people so they could load the canoe with a lot of furs. And the story is that they also wanted to hire people who didn't know how to swim, because they would stay with the canoe and save the canoe at all costs.

Ed: Interesting! Well, the book is a nice little visit back in time and I certainly enjoyed it. Hunting moose, snowshoe rabbit footwear, unique methods of preparing fish and other game, and a lot of reminiscing about a world that's almost forgotten these days… Check it out A Life In Two Worlds, and tell me what you think.

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