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Lin Enger’s frozen hamlet hits home

Two years ago, readers polled for a World Book Day survey said they overwhelmingly preferred a tale with a happy ending. No big surprise there. But that survey comes out of the U.K., and I can’t help but wonder how Minnesota readers would have answered. Minnesota writers often enough eschew the superficial sunshine that passes for entertainment — gloomy Garrison Keillor, raw and mystical Louise Erdrich, unsatisfied F. Scott Fitzgerald — even the classic children’s tale, “Millions of Cats,” by New Ulm’s Wanda Gag, ends with a colossal catfight in which all but one out of a million kitties die. We make ’em dark here, whether or not we like ’em that way.

So I won’t categorize the emotionally complicated conclusion of Mankato writer Lin Enger‘s debut novel, “Undiscovered Country,” but I will say that the tale, set in a beautifully frozen Northern Minnesota landscape, is relentlessly brooding. In fact, as Enger took his manuscript into the sales process, some people conjectured that it was rather too dark to sell.

“Some agents probably turned it down because some of the themes, circumstances and situations were probably a little too dark to make this a book that could sell a million copies,” Enger says. “You spend so much time on a piece of art that is your expression of your vision of the world and authentic to who you are, so it’s hard to take into account what the public desires. It would be paralyzing. But I did worry about it quite a lot.” He needn’t have worried: Once he found an agent, the book sold in two weeks.

Enger, an English professor at Mankato State University, turned to Shakespeare for inspiration with this book, which is a modern retelling of “Hamlet,” complete with brooding young prince, benevolent dead dad, creepy and ambitious uncle and faithless mother. Add in a little deer hunting, ice fishing and a freezer full of sympathy hot dish and it becomes a local legend. 

Sibling rivalry

The two opposite adult brothers in the book are mirrored by two young brothers — and behind the book, there’s another set of brothers, Enger and his own brother, novelist Leif Enger. Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River” was a New York Times bestseller, and his new book, “So Young, Brave and Handsome,” came out this spring.

“Some of the most important relationships in my life have been with my brothers [he has an older brother as well as a younger, Leif], and growing up, I was very, very close to them,” he says. The family highly prized creativity and reading, and so writing, too, came as a natural gift and pastime. In fact, the two brothers even collaborated for a time on a series of mystery novels, which both Engers describe as a very positive experience, although not a commercial success. When that ended, they turned their attention to serious fiction, separately.

“I am five years older than Leif, and I started writing before him, which may have something to do with why he started to write,” says Lin. “We both probably write with the other in mind as a reader, and want to do something that he’ll get a kick out of, so there’s a positive competition that encourages us. When he published his book, his success was encouraging. I thought, ‘Wow. If he can do it, I can do it.'”

That’s not to say there wasn’t a degree of jealousy involved. The first chapter of “Undiscovered Country” came to Enger more than a dozen years ago; seven years ago he wrote it out, and then it took another slow seven years to write the rest of the book. “My kids were younger then, and I’m a full-time professor, so I didn’t have a lot of time to write,” he explains. Plus, he writes in longhand. “I feel like I can access a deeper part of my subconscious that way. I don’t think too many people even my age write that way anymore.”

So while he took the slow road, he watched his younger brother start later and sail to success. “Jealously, yeah, I suppose there was some jealousy. But there’s a difference between jealousy and resentment, and I didn’t resent him at all. I think Leif is one of the best writers working in the country. I think he’s got talent oozing out of his pores. I think he deserves everything.”

The two Engers just finished a duo book reading on the West Coast, and once Lin Enger got “Undiscovered Country” out of his system, his second book flowed forth much more quickly; a draft is already complete, and the brother who started first is now quickly catching up; a happy ending for all.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Larry Schwartz on 07/14/2008 - 11:26 am.

    I’m familiar with the reluctance of many Minnesotans who live within the I-494 beltway to ignore or discount those who live more than an hour or two outside that ring road, but that should not excuse shoddy reporting or copy editing.

    Lin Enger is my colleague at Minnesota State University Moorhead. MSUM can be distinguished from among the other state universities because more professors from MSUM have won Carnegie Professor of the Year awards than any other state institution, including the U of Mn.

    Copy editors, if they exist at all at, should be aware that Mankato State University changed its name some time ago to Minnesota State University, Mankato (see

  2. Submitted by Patrick Coleman on 07/14/2008 - 11:17 am.

    Amy, This reminds me of what the great critic of Minnesota literature, James Grey, wrote in 1937.

    “No doubt the conviction is strong in the true believer’s heart that when “the Heavenly Muse” finds herself in Minnesota, she wearily gets out her make-up kit and prepares for a lugubrious session celebrating the sorrows of the soil and of the soul. The costume assigned to the Minnesota Muse, in the regionalist handbook, is a decent, though shabby, Mother Hubbard. She sings exclusively of ruined wheat harvests and she sings of them with a strong Swedish accent”.

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