— Twin Cities author Anya Achtenberg has never felt completely at home.
Not in New York. Not in New Mexico. Not in Minnesota or any place she’s inhabited in between.
“I’ve never quite felt American enough,” she said.
The author of “Blue Earth” -- Modern History Press’ soon-to-be-released fictional narrative of a rural southern Minnesota man whose life is directly and indirectly molded by the shared history that is rooted in the fertile soil he plows -- said the feeling of being a stranger in her own country was cemented during a road trip with her parents.
“Though we looked sorta Jewish,” Achtenberg said she and her family were hardly distinguishable from other motorists as they drove from New York to Florida when she was a young girl. But, when stopped for speeding in North Carolina, an officer roughly removed them from the car and escorted them to the police station.
“It was very frightening,” Achtenberg said.
Another time, Achtenberg remembers swimming in a public pool. Though raised in a Jewish home, Achtenberg said she has a varied ethnic background that includes Ukrainian, Spanish, Moroccan and Mongolian descent.
She hardly paid attention, then, when she heard a man yell to “Get that (n-word) out of the pool.” After hearing the man repeat his command a moment later, Achtenberg realized he was referring to her.
Such moments, Achtenberg said, formed the seed that later grew into “Blue Earth,” an exploration of home, history and one man’s place in between them.
“I’m always fascinated that people can talk about generations here,” Achtenberg said, referring to south-central Minnesota. “That’s very alien to me.”
“Blue Earth” is the story of Carver Heinz, a distressed divorcee and farmer whose wife and child have left him just as he stands on the precipice of losing the farm that has been in his family for generations.
Caught up in the farm crisis of the 1980s that prompted farm foreclosures across the Midwest (and drove many desperate, and otherwise peaceable, farmers to murderous violence), Heinz is displaced to Minneapolis and forced to find menial work.
There he rescues a beautiful child named Angie from a tornado in an encounter he insists they keep secret. In the ensuing years, Heinze develops an obsession with Angie that culminates in a series of emotional confrontations with Angie’s boyfriend, a Dakota Indian named William.
“The subject matter is horribly familiar,” Achtenberg said, “from my own history of displacement and landlessness.”
The idea of “place” echoes throughout the novel.
Without his place (the farm), Carver becomes vengeful and hateful, exerting his control over people in lieu of the land he used to cultivate. William, too, struggles with place as the native land of his ancestors has long since been stolen away to feed the greed of European settlers.
As the novel thematically posits, such themes of ownership and control contributed to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 -- a historical incident that attracted Achtenberg’s attention because “it’s one of the central, and largely unknown, stories of this country” -- and the 1980s farm crisis, as well as countless other conflicts.
They are also behind Carver’s own sins, including his demand that Angie keep his tornado rescue a secret -- an event the author deliberately shrouds in mystery in order to buoy the suspicion that Carver sexually abused the young girl.
“That doubt is (Angie’s) as well,” Achtenberg said. “There is something wrong with that relationship; what’s wrong is (Carver’s) wielding of power.”
Achtenberg tells her story in densely packed, poetic prose. And within the prose are years of research, both direct and indirect, into the cultural underpinnings of south-central Minnesota.
She read endlessly about the farm crisis, including the story of Dale Burr, an Iowa farmer who killed his wife, a neighbor and a banker over mounting farm debts. She researched the mass hanging in Dec. 1862, when 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato.
She walked part of the annual Dakota Commemorative March; and she traveled from the Lower Sioux Agency to New Ulm and Mankato to see for herself the significant sites.
Ultimately, Achtenberg said her novel is about “historical amnesia” and how pain from the past can manifest -- equally painfully -- in the present.
Achtenberg also said she hopes the book can contribute to the ongoing dialogue that surrounds the U.S.-Dakota War.
“I’m extremely honored that anyone who’s from (Mankato) would take the book seriously,” she said. “It’s meant in the most respectful and serious way.”