A few years ago, writer Cheri Johnson came across two news pieces that hit her in her core. The pieces were about sex trafficking rings working out of the ports in Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin. Originally from Lake of the Woods County, near the border of Canada, Johnson now lives in St. Paul. She felt haunted by what she was reading in the area where she grew up.
“I was astounded by it,” Johnson says. “Especially by the cruelty of some of the things that they were doing to these girls and women.”
Johnson began writing what would become “The Girl in Duluth,” a novel that looks at the story of sex trafficking in Northern Minnesota from the eyes of a high school student. Johnson uses the pen name Sigrid Brown for the story because originally she thought of the novel as being in the Young Adult genre, and she wanted to distinguish it from her writing for adults. “It’s getting a little confusing now, because I have another book coming out under my regular name,” she says.
At the heart of the story is a girl named June who lives with her mother, Tonya, who couldn’t be more different than her. June is practical, solid, and worries about things like paying rent and taking care of necessities— things her mother doesn’t often concern herself with. Tonya is often gone for days or weeks at a time, and in some ways, June acts like the adult in the family. She’s also quite a bit more conscientious than her mother, who embarrasses June with her appropriation of Native culture and being a “pretendian,” someone who thinks or lets others believe they are Native, even though they really aren’t.
When Tonya’s friend Frank brings June along to search for the now missing Tonya, it opens the door to a mystery about June’s mother’s life, her mistakes, and a deeper web of harm. It’s a story about complicated grief, mixed with trauma and edged with guilt.
When she first started writing the novel, Johnson didn’t mention race, but she soon realized that was the wrong tactic.
“This story, especially the sex trafficking here in Minnesota, is so much about Native women and girls,” says Johnson, who is white. “I was interested in this idea of race and what role white people can play in anti-racism, and how it’s awkward and strange and difficult.”
In a way, the novel approaches a kind of reckoning with white supremacy. The book navigates what it’s like to grapple with the wrongs committed by one’s own race, community and even family.
“I was worried about appropriation,” Johnson recalls of her writing process. “This is a story that primarily affects Native communities. And it is their story. I told it the way I knew how— to tell us from the point of view of a white character who’s trying to reckon with her current part in it.”
Even as she worked through ethical issues about taking on this charged topic as a white writer, including conversations with friends and an editor who helped her sort through those layers, Johnson feels it’s important for white writers to not avoid topics of race.
“I do think it’s important for white writers to write about white characters and how they talk about race and think about race,” she says.
It was an exercise in being as honest as she could be. There is a Native character in the book who is a victim of sex trafficking, but there are also Native characters who are not involved in that world at all. There’s a Native teacher, for example, and a classmate of the main character who is Native. Johnson wanted to tell the story that both looked at white privilege and the work white folks need to do to approach allyship, but also avoid narratives that narrowly define Native communities with trauma and victimization.
The book has been named a finalist in the Midwest Book Awards, run by the Midwest Independent Publishers Association in the thriller/mystery category, along with Michael Allan Mallory’s “The Lost Dragon Murder,” and “Driftless Deceit” by Sue Berg. The award ceremony takes place Saturday, June 17 at Open Book (unfortunately ticket sales have closed.)
Meanwhile, Johnson’s next book is Annika Rose, which won the 2022 Women’s Prize from Red Hen Press, and will be published in 2024. For information about all of Johnson’s writing, see her website.