Novak’s ‘Steel’ holds enormous weight

SteelGood fiction tells truth that nonfiction struggles to spit out efficiently. As I’ve been toiling on a thick tome of Iron Range history, along comes a novel that cuts right to the point. 

The story of the Iron Range isn’t just mining and immigrants, unions and politics. It’s an untold trauma that lingers for generations, bequeathed by elders who shuffle along the aisles of Super One. They are trying to make sense of a confounding past like it was a strange and hazy dream.

That’s the subject of Kathleen Novak’s newest novel, “Steel” (2022, Black Cat Text), set in the Morris Location of Hibbing, Minnesota, on the cusp of the Great Depression. And true to northern Minnesota, her story takes us through the hot pleasures of summer and the unforgiving coldness of winter.

Novak writes with impressive authority about the Iron Range. She’s in Minneapolis now, but was raised here. Her grandparents were Italian and Croatian immigrants. Anyway, the world she crafts is authentic. Most of the story takes place in 1929, but some of it takes place in the recent past. She has a good handle on the differences.

She also portrays a thoroughly accurate take on life in a 1920s mining location. Novak deftly contrasts life in one of the cheap mining company houses on the other side of the pit with the middle class existence found in town. I’ve heard many accounts of this cultural dynamic. She apparently has, too.

Stylistically, Novak is a poet and it shows. “Steel” wastes no words. The result is a compelling set of characters and a story that rolls like an ore train picking up steam.

We read several points of view in “Steel,” among them the miner’s son Tony, the grocer’s daughter Vita, and the former miner turned Chicago cop Luka. But its most revelatory narrator is an old man in the distant future, Tony’s younger brother Johnny. 

Johnny is a narrator you will recognize. Right now, a version of him may be found in the waiting room of a nearby clinic or in one of the coffee klatches at the local coffee shop. If you live on the Range, you know a guy like Johnny. He’d tell you he was nothing special, just a guy who worked a lot of years and did the best he could. He loved a woman but she’s been gone a while now.

He’s also the kind of narrator that makes historical research so hard. He knows something about what happened back in the old days, but he was just a kid. Mostly he remembers the other kids. The big events were like shooting stars, memorable and yet so easy to miss. He knows what the past did to his family, though, and that’s the part that haunts him. It’s the part he can’t quite figure out. 

Several ominous threats converge as the end of the story comes crashing down like a cave-in. You realize something bad is coming. Will it be the Chicago mob? The dangers of the mine? The stern, unrelenting fathers from an old world that is slipping away from them? Or will it be love lost?

The tragic answer comes as a surprise, and begs the kind of questions that keep an old man up at night 80 years later. 

Anyway, it was already done. Long ago. And you can’t change the past. But you do wonder, reading this book, if these old ghosts can somehow guide us today.

Kathleen Novak’s “Steel” is available this week. You might recognize the cover. It’s the iconic John Vachon Works Progress Administration photograph of a miner standing on the rim of the Hull-Rust pit. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Kristin wilson says

    Where can this be purchased?

  2. Aaron must have received a reviewer’s copy, since the publication date is Tuesday, February 15th.

    The Kindle edition of the book is $1.99. It is hard to go wrong buying a book that costs less than a Snickers Bar. The book is only 162 pages, so you can probably read it in a cold afternoon. You will get it on Tuesday if you order today.

    I will give the link to the web site to purchase the Kindle book, but in a separate comment, since including links wakes up Aaron’s content watchdog and delays posting for quite a while sometimes. Perhaps Aaron won’t want the link up because it is too commercial, but we’ll see.

  3. Before someone starts in on Kindle and hurting authors, a short review of the facts of the mainstream book industry might be of use.

    My comments are based on the mainstream book industry, not on small presses or university presses, and are based on having known someone who was an editor at two different large New York publishers, plus on comments on line from people involved in the industry.

    For e-books, the standard royalty from Amazon on Kindle books priced between $ 0.99 and $9.99 is 65%. There are usually no promotional deductions, unless special arrangements have been made.

    Ms. Novak will get $1.29 for each Kindle sale. How that will be divided between her and her publisher is subject to their contract, but the price makes me think that she may have separate contracts for hard copy and for e-books, which may give her the whole Kindle royalty.

    The print book is being published in what is called trade paperback format — as opposed to hardback or mass market paperback (the little pocket books we are all familiar with.). The industry standard author’s royalty for trade paperback is 10% for the first 5000 sales and 15% for sales over 5000. There are a couple of steps higher for real bestsellers, but we won’t go into that.

    HOWEVER — The author’s royalty in the mainstream publishing industry is not based on the retail price of the book, but on the wholesale price. Wholesale prices vary with the type of book, promotional considerations, and contracts with sellers, but the standard ranges from 66% of the retail price to 50% of the retail price. For trade paperbacks it is usually 66%.

    So, if this book were being published by a mainstream publisher, the author’s royalty on a hardcopy sale would be $15 x 66% x 10%, or $1. Even after reaching the 5000 sale level (which is a big sale for most books) the royalty would be $1.50.

    Meanwhile, the Kindle edition will be listed on the catalogue of the largest book retailer in the world, available everywhere from New York City to Frost, MN, in print and displayed permanently, and delivered in seconds to minutes. And you don’t have to sweep the snow off your car.

    The reason a $1.99 sale can return a royalty so high compared with a $15 sale is that the costs of making and selling a hard-copy book — paper, printing, shipping to the warehouses, shipping to stores, handling at stores, returns of unsold copies — are so high. Kindle’s costs are low.

    As I said, this applies to the large commercial publishers, not to small presses like the publisher of this book.

    Unsurprisingly, many of the less best-selling authors who worked with my source in the industry chose, over time, to leave their publishers and work directly with Amazon. They made more money, In some cases a lot more. And their books stayed available, not disappearing after a few months and out of print.

    Kindle competes with and hurts the big publishers’ ability to control the industry, which is why they have entered into a conspiracy to collude in pricing Kindle books at higher levels than are justified and to keep Kindle royalties artificially lower — the publishers actually make more money on a Kindle sale than on trade paperback and even than on many hardbacks that are involved in promotional programs with deep discounts to sellers — Harper Collins provided that information one year in response to a shareholder question at the shareholders’ meeting for News Corp, their owner. The publishers were actually caught at this once before and lost an anti-trust case, mainly because they left a trail of e-mail and paper communications of the negotiations between themselves. They subsequently re-negotiated the deal in face-to-face meetings one year at the Frankfurt Book Fair (the largest book convention in the world,) and have carefully avoided leaving any trail for anti-trust enforcers to find.

    The one inarguable negative about Kindle is that it hurts bookstores. While this is not that much of a negative when the stores are giants based out of Texas or departments in big box retailers, it is not a good thing for small independent stores. Of course,, the small stores were being hurt just as badly if not worse by the large chains before anyone ever heard of Amazon, and many of them have found a niche that allows them to continue in business, at least up to the pandemic, by providing services and relationships that Amazon and the big chains cannot or do not provide.

  4. Ordered my copy from Drury Lane books in Grand Marais.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.