"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teaching Iron Lake, Part 1

It was actually accidental that last week our craft lesson was on the rhetoric of beginnings, and we were starting two new books in my English 252 (Intro to Fiction). The first is William Kent Krueger's suspense novel Iron Lake; the second is Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map.

We started with Iron Lake and as we're concentrating this semester on reading like writers, we looked at this novel with the same eye that we've given any other written work in front of us. How was this created? What techniques can we discern--and emulate, possibly? We looked at how Krueger moves in and out of the main narrative, moving to flashback, to exposition. We considered how the dialogue was constructed and how it created characters and voice. As we were talking about beginnings at the start of class, we discussed how Krueger begins this novel (we read the first nine chapters).

In the first nine chapters, we are introduced to the main character, Cork O'Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota. When we meet him, Cork's life is pretty messy. It's been a year since the recall election that forced him from his job, his wife wants a divorce, and it's Christmas and he misses his kids. Add in the main plot thread of a judge's death and a missing kid, cultural turmoil between the Anishinaabe on the reservation and the whites in the town of Aurora.

Here are some of the questions we asked:
  • What role does place play here? How it as much a character as Cork or Molly or Jo or anybody?
  • What role does weather and landscape play in advancing the story?
  • How does the book begin? What do we learn about Cork and Sam Winter Moon in the first few pages?
  • Consider the voice of each character: how is it constructed?
  • What does each character want--by the end of this section? What does Cork want by the end of these first nine chapters?
  • The prologue and the first chapter are both in the voice of fourteen year old boys (Cork in the prologue, Paul Le Beau in the first chapter). What does that do to the movement of the narrative?
  • What function does the Windigo serve? Obviously it serve a plot function--and we can talk about it from a literary criticism position and discuss metaphor, etc, but we won't. How is the character of the Windigo created and how does it work in narrative?
  • Where do you get the best insight into characters? (We discussed that it was in dialogue that we got the best insight into Cork, because he's a different person in his dialogue with Molly than he is with Jo.) We got our best characterization of Henry Meloux through dialogue as well, just that brief car ride where Cork picks him up on the side of the road.
  • In Chapter 4, the prologue plays an important role, because we see the return of Sam Winter Moon. By now, as all the characters are being introduced, we start to see how they all fit together.
  • Just from that first page of Chapter 4, what can we tell about Sam's character? Given the prologue, we get that he is showing compassion for Cork, who just lost his father. But in Chapter 4, we find that Sam has left "Sam's Place" to Cork, so it's obvious that they have created a special relationship, that they were close even after that bear hunting outing.
In their reading responses, my students commented on how Krueger created his characters, how closely they are written in the landscape; they commented on the dialogue; they commented on the descriptions; they commented on how the conflicts are set up. All in all, I was really proud of the way they looked at this book as something equal to what they were doing: a draft that had been sweated over, that took the same techniques and struggles that they are currently working through, that what Krueger is doing here in this book is what they're trying to do in their own stories. And they're getting more comfortable analyzing the craft of the writers we're reading. I love it.

And then we took a short break and I tried to set up the Skype, so we could talk with Mike Czyzniejewski, author of Elephants in the Bedroom and co-editor of Mid-American Review. The Skype didn't work, so we conducted the interview via speakerphone. Mike was great and my students asked some great questions--and even though I know how important it is (to me, as a teacher) to get my students to talk to established fiction writers, they were just so excited about what Mike had told them afterwards that it made all the technological difficulties worth the trouble. Tonight, Chapters 10-18 of Iron Lake!

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