Friday, December 14, 2007


When I was a kid, my dad had an ice cream pail full of taconite sitting in the garage, perpetually full and continually tempting, daring, all us brothers to use it. So we often did, and often in conjunction with my dad's slingshot. We usually shot it at street lights and trees, but occasionally we just went to the nearby schoolyard and hurled those tiny little pellets with as much potency as far as our tiny little arms could wrest from that slingshot, often aided by the rules of physics and some coaxing, just because, well, why not? And as such is the logic of little boys, so often is the logic of their grown counterparts.

I still do not know precisely what taconite is used for, but I do know that tonight my wife and I watched a movie based, more or less, entirely on those pellets of slingshot fodder. Well, perhaps that is somewhat of a stretch, but the movie, North Country, did take place in a mining town way up nort in Minnesota.

Now, the plot of the movie aside, there are some archetypes which are uniquely Minnesotan, which can often only be captured by a skilled observer (ethnographer?), and such was the makeup of North Country. A chilly small town framed always by a monolithic water tower and accented by aging Chevy trucks, the sides of which are eternally tinged with salt and grime. A Lutheran church potluck. Bearded men in Carhart jackets and plaid flannels. Low-slung motels with aging siding dim lighting. The cold grey light of day, as if the sun itself was visiting only as a courtesy--a friend from long ago paying a token visit and then fleeing to more comfortable surroundings. Crusty laborers who know the value of a good day's work.

It's a romantic exaggeration, to be sure, but one not without grounds in reality. There's a pride in the Clearbrooks and Elys and Virginias, one that so many Twin Cities residents remember and even long for, and I appreciate a movie that can capture the essence of these towns without falling into the all-too-easy trap of Northern Mockery.

I may not know what to do with taconite, but I know where it comes from, even if I cannot lay claim to it myself. I grew up in Nebraska, far from the North Woods, and have spent the last few years dwelling in the relative insulation of the Twin Cities. But I do know where it comes from, and I do know enough to tip my hat.

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