‘Mesabi Pioneers’ spins fiction amid rich history

This archival picture from the University of Iowa collection shows one of the mines at Mountain Iron in the late 1890s or early 1900s.

This archival picture from the University of Iowa collection shows one of the mines at Mountain Iron in the late 1890s or early 1900s.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Ever since humans first crawled from the primordial ooze they have made futile attempts to write novels, ultimately abandoning these crude failures inside file cabinets crafted from the bones of long-extinct beasts. So it was in the beginning, so it shall be in the end. I’ve got a botched literary bun in the stone-cold oven myself.

Thus, when I first heard about the daughter of a late professor peddling an incomplete manuscript of an local historical novel, I was duly skeptical. Most unpublished works are better left that way, especially if crafted by a person fixated on their own legacy or that of previous generations. These become precious family archives, not necessarily something of literary value. Case in point, my great-great-great aunt’s story about my Pennsylvania relatives after the U.S. Civil War. To her way of thinking, nobody in the family ever did anything wrong and anyone who didn’t vote for Ulysses S. Grant was a cockamamie fool. These elements substituted for plot.

In this, “Mesabi Pioneers” is a notable exception. An internet crowdsourcing campaign funded this novel by the late Dr. Russell Hill and Maryland writer Jeffrey Smith, spurred by Hill’s daughter and the book’s publisher Cheryl Hill Gordon. The Kickstarter project raised funds to bring Smith, a Maryland writer, to the Iron Range to work over Hill’s incomplete manuscript, and to flesh out the historical facts surrounding the events of the story.

The result is a refreshingly enjoyable read that greatly exceeded my expectations. In “Mesabi Pioneers,” Hill and Smith kindle complicated emotions, important questions and a driving curiosity about Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.

This month marks the 122nd anniversary of the first shipment of iron ore off the Mesabi. Translated from missabe, or “giant” in Anishinabe, (“sleeping giant” in full reference) the Mesabi would prove to be the greatest supply of iron in the United States, providing the ore for steel that supplied two world wars and the industrial growth of 20th Century America. It remains today the single-largest source of iron ore for this nation.

The novel “Mesabi Pioneers” tells the story of how it all began through the eyes of a Finnish immigrant hired by the Merritt Brothers to build the first camp at the site that would become Mountain Iron. Arthur Maki, or Arvid Måkelå by birth, is penned as an almost-too-perfect carpenter who goes on to lead the camp he would build with his own hands. He bonds with an Anishinabe man named Charlie, who, like Arthur, goes to work each day with a name that others gave him. Their friendship, and the understanding of both the land and humans of this place that it brings, is among the book’s most engaging aspects.

Here is where “Mesabi Pioneers” is at its best. The novel’s opening chapters give us a remarkable point of view, a vision of the Iron Range before it was anything like our modern understanding of the place. The size of the forest, the difficulty of travel, the majesty of the Missabe hills before they were opened up and moved like chess pieces: we see all of this in fresh prose.

Arthur becomes a stand-in for every immigrant great-grandfather. In fact, we may only wish our dead relatives were as kind and magnanimous as this stoic Finn. We certainly wish we could find a carpenter as sure (and fast!) as this one.

Interestingly, the weaker portions of the novel come when the authors interject extraneous stories. We learn about Virginia, a fascinating young character who sets into the woods to do her own mineral prospecting, only to have most of her most dramatic actions occur outside our view, retold or estimated by the middle-aged men of the camp.

The heavily foreshadowed threat of two bad men who come to Mountain Iron culminates in the literary equivalent of a slap fight, less “High Noon” and more “Medium 3:45.” And while it ultimately works in the narrative, the late hour Mark Antony-style monologue from the camp cook, a drunken pig of a man, seems somewhat misplaced. It also seems like people say “shut up” a lot more than I imagine they would in 1892.

But where “Mesabi Pioneers” thrills (at least for this student of Range history) is in its dramatic imagination of what people faced in the wilds of 1890s Mountain Iron, and how the mighty wheels of industrial commerce slowly crushed the spirits of the ambitious Merritt Brothers. Fiction, yes. But the spirit rings true. Knowing how it turns out in real life only enhances the reading of this book.

Smith and publisher Hill-Gordon will hold a “Mesabi Pioneers” book release event at the B’nai Abraham Museum and Cultural Center at 428 5th St. South in Virginia at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 6. It appears “Mesabi Pioneers” is only the first of a series of books to be written in this style. In this, Hill’s unfinished work is finding the audience it truly deserves.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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