Mary Casanova and the ghosts of Koochiching

Mary Casanova

For three decades, Mary Casanova has lived in Ranier, one of Northern Minnesota’s most northernmost communities, situated on the edge of Rainy Lake. As a writer and storyteller, she’s naturally collected a wealth of information about the region, the 100-year-old house she lives in, and the area’s notable residents. One of these stories caught her attention and wouldn’t let go.

Twenty years ago, Casanova was reading Hiram Drache’s “Koochiching: Pioneering Along the Rainy River Frontier.  In the book was a brief reference to a prostitute who had been found frozen to death in the snow. Her body was propped up in the corner of the room at a City Council meeting. The incident “caused quite a stir,” wrote Drache, but that was all he had to say about the woman. The rest of the story was up to Casanova to write.

“I kept putting off this project, because it didn’t fit into my career as a children’s writer,” said Casanova, who has written picture books, historical fiction and titles for the American Girl series. “I finally decided I just had to write it.”

In “Frozen,” Casanova recreates the lively frontier community that existed in the early 1900s, a mix of wealthy vacationers, loggers and the townspeople who served both clientele, including at a hotel and brothel. The story is told through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl who had been found nearly frozen in the snow as a small child near the body of her dead prostitute mother. Sadie Rose was taken in and raised by a wealthy politician and his wife, and her origins are shrouded in a mystery she is anxious to unravel.

“I wanted to somehow vindicate the death of that woman by exploring who she might have been, and giving her life meaning. That story spoke volumes about what life was like at the turn of the century, especially for women,” said Casanova, who also cites Anne Seagraves’ “Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West” as an invaluable reference. “There wasn’t heath insurance or a back-up plan for women who lost their husbands. If she had children, she would be in truly desperate circumstances. I think a lot of women were without a lot of other options in these times.”

frozen book cover

Despite the adult themes, “Frozen” — after some debate at the University of Minnesota Press —  is being marketed as a young adult title, although Casanova is hearing from many adult readers who appreciate its reach into Minnesota history.

Other figures from 1920s Rainy Lake make an appearance here, including timber baron E.W. Backus and environmentalist Ernest Oberholtzer, who engaged in a battle over the future of the area.

“I didn’t set out to write about Oberholtzer, but then I realized I had to, since he was part of the backdrop of the times this story is set in,” says Casanova, who feels Oberholtzer has been largely forgotten. “Minnesotans owe him a debt a gratitude for saving the Quetico, BWCA waterways, Rainy Lake watershed and the islands, all of which make this area what it is. Without him, it would be a giant bathtub, a reservoir like Lake Powell. If Backus had his way, there would be several dams for his mills and we would not have the islands, islets and bays that we have today. Sigurd Olson gets credit for spearheading those battles, but if Ober hadn’t started this process, it may have been too late. He protected these beautiful waterways for future generations, for all of us.”

Perhaps most of Casanova’s young readers won’t understand this — but they might. She says teen readers are very sophisticated, which enabled her to write about topics such as politics, loss of the wilderness and the world’s oldest profession in this book.

“Maybe looking at these things through the lens of history helps readers develop empathy for people who may have lived in the past, or for people dealing with these issues today. Maybe these stories can help encourage people — of any age — to figure out who they are, or stand on their own two feet. My job is to give these figures a voice, but I hope they have an impact.”

Events

  • Book launch tonight, Sept. 27, 7 p.m. Norway Hall, Duluth.

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