‘Dirty Shirt’ a rough hewn yet moving tribute to BWCA, family

Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters MemoirMy Sunday column referenced a new book by Jim Landwehr called “Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir.” I figured I’d spend a little more time talking about that book today.

Here’s what I said in “On Wilderness“:

Landwehr, a St. Paul native now living in Wisconsin, writes about he and his family’s special relationship with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in far Northeastern Minnesota. From childhood on, Landwehr, his friend and brothers found the daunting prospect of “wilderness” to be a unifying force across multiple generations.

… I appreciated Landwehr’s heartfelt, honest telling of how a city boy learned to manage the wilderness over several decades. I’m a country boy, but the modern kind who has access to the internet. These skills are hard won.

A recurring theme in Landwehr’s “Dirty Shirt” is the idea that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to survive in the wilderness, but you do need to learn from your mistakes. He relates this well to how the same is true for relationships. I’d recommend the book, especially for those mulling a first-time trip to the BWCA.

Landwehr’s approach is not from the point of view of a local expert, nor is it the political approach one often finds in a book about the spiritual value of the BWCA. Landwehr comes at this from a wide-eyed, innocent take — beginning with his childhood experiences, through his teenage years and beyond. The stories take on more meaning as his memories become more fully formed — so, too, does the book.

It’s clear that Landwehr’s large, close family (which includes Minnesota DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr) is important to him. If the book suffers, it suffers because he tries too hard to protect everyone’s feelings or make the narration of the story more polite than the reader would prefer. Sometimes this has the effect of “talking” the meaning of anecdotes beyond their inherent humor and purpose.

But themes on the idea of family are also the best part of “Dirty Shirt.” In particular, a tense scene involving Landwehr, his brothers and friends in a Park Rapids bar provided a compelling connection between the events of the book and Landwehr’s unresolved feelings about his father’s early death. Indeed, Landwehr’s father is a quiet, ever-present character in this book.

Further, seeing the way the brothers and their relationships change over time will affect readers of all ages, seeing their brothers, fathers, grandfathers and sons all at once. The chapter dedicated to the end of one brother’s life is particularly moving.

The book focuses on brothers and their friends, so while a woman who loves the BWCA could enjoy the book, it is inextricably tied to the Midwestern boy and his relationship with the outdoors and fellow man. A Father’s Day gift or primer for your first trip to the BWCA, “Dirty Shirt” isn’t just a BWCA memoir: It’s about family surviving the elements of life.

Jim Landwehr is also out with a new book of poetry called “Written Life.”

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