A rich narrative
MARSHALL – While researching her latest book, Anya Achtenberg found her favorite type of tractor, a Case from the 1930s with a sunburst grill.
Achtenberg, who is from the Minneapolis area, will be doing a reading at 7 p.m. Monday in the Whipple Gallery at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Achtenberg teaches creative writing online, works with writers on an individual basis and teaches workshops around the country. She also does visiting writers series.
Her latest book, “Blue Earth,” was released last year. In the novel, Carver Heinz loses his farm and family during the farm crisis in the 1980s. He ends up in Minneapolis and becomes obsessed with a young girl, Angie, who he rescued during a tornado. In the book’s synopsis, the girl’s friendship with a Dakota Indian boy “fuels Carver’s rage and unleashes a series of events that reveal the haunting power of each character’s past and of their shared histories, especially the 1862 Dakota Conflict and the public hanging of 38 Dakota.”
For “Blue Earth,” Achtenberg traveled to the spots that are featured in the book, including the Mankato area, where Carver had his farm and the site of the mass execution.
“I followed the famous march after the execution,” Achtenberg said. She said she went through New Ulm all the way to Fort Snelling and participated in some of the commemorative march the Dakota do every year. “I did some hefty walking.”
She did a lot of research at the Minnesota History Center as well as other history centers in a few counties. Achtenberg said she also talked to several people, going to farms and even studied tractors.
Achtenberg, who is originally from New York, said there’s something about how grounded people are in Minnesota, they have homes, cabins that have been in the family for many years.
“I got kind of fascinated,” she said. “Part of what I wanted to understand is the ‘amnesia’ of what we see everywhere, how these things came to be now.”
And as she was writing “Blue Earth,” Achtenberg said she began to notice something.
“It just felt like that I sort of started to see these characters unfold,” Achtenberg said.
Achtenberg said she also read about the difficulties that can happen with farming.
“It kept developing out of loss, loss of land, loss of family,” Achtenberg said.
Carver is not always a nice guy, Achtenberg said, and she wanted to understand about evil.
“My family has been directly affected by it,” she said.
Achtenberg said she got some interesting responses to “Blue Earth.” One was because there’s a strong male character in it, women asked her why she was writing such a character.
“I wanted to understand him,” she said. She said that Carver’s father treated him badly, and there was a moment where he doesn’t bow to it.
She had shared her novel with a writing/arts group and said that it struck a chord with the men.
“I hit something that was so strong for all these guys,” Achtenberg said.
She’s also asked “how do you know land like this?” as she captured the landscape, sounds and smells of rural Minnesota.
“One person (an editor) said ‘I don’t know, this Carver guy is too heinous,'” Achtenberg said. “It just struck me as silly. We are all grownups now. We are reading horrific stuff people are doing.”
Achtenberg said she’s happy to see the effect “Blue Earth” has on readers.
“I was just glad, in a sense, to be picked to write this kind of book, it continues discussion,” she said.
A fellow author, Martha Collins, describes “Blue Earth” as a “thoroughly absorbing narrative, rich in both lyrical grace and historical depth.”
Achtenberg is also the author of two books of poetry, “The Stone of Language,” and “I Know What the Small Girl Knew,” as well as an autobiographical novella “The Stories of Devil Girl.” She’s working on another novel, “History Artist,” for which she received a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant. She said the central character in “History Artist” was born at the moment the bombing of Cambodia by U.S. forces began.