LitStack Review: Vacationland by Sarah Stonich

by Sharon Browning

Sarah Stonich
University of Minnesota Press
Release Date:  March 25, 2013
ISBN 978-0-8166-8766-4

Vacationland is a book that grabs you, not because of some harrowing drama or gripping plot twist, not due to a flamboyant cast of characters or unexpected turn of events or even because ordinary people have been thrust into extraordinary circumstances.  Instead, this book by Minnesota native Sarah Stonich reflects on pivotal moments in everyday lives, fleeting and precious and worth remembering – moments that resonate because we recognize ourselves in them, we recognize our own stories in the voices speaking in these pages, even if our circumstances are vastly different.

The book is anchored at the northern Minnesota fishing resort, Naledi Lodge.  Lying just short of the Canadian border near the small town of Hatchet Inlet, on the shores of the glacial lake known as Little Hatchet, Naledi was once part of a thriving outdoor industry.  But over the years the resort had become worn down and diminished, slowly receding, a memory of what it had once been.  Meg Machutova had grown up at Naledi under the watchful eye of her taciturn grandfather, Vac, who had himself immigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1940, arriving in the north woods with just enough savings to buy the languishing property.

But Meg had not stayed at Naledi; she moved away to attend college, then studied and lived overseas, married a foreigner, became a painter.  Now, with her grandfather gone and the lodge shuttered, she has returned to what has become a homestead rather than a resort.  It has the space and quiet she needs to paint, to reflect, where her husband can work on his papers and manuscripts.  Yet her canvasses speak of the effect that Naledi, and the waters that surround it, have left on her.  In this excerpt, a young woman named Cassi, who has been lost in the cold and taken in by Meg, explores some of the painter’s works in the porch/studio where she finds herself:

Walking is possible as long as she holds on to something.  She edges along a sideboard, where another painting leans.  It features a metal shovel sunk to the shallows and a submerged snorkel mask aiming beachward through the water, framing blurred shapes of children in bright swimsuits.  A small companion painting hangs next to it – one flip-flop caught under water in the crevice of a rock, the shadow of its floating mate cast from above.  She slows, looks around at a few more.  These paintings seem like captured moments to Cassi, trapped almost in the way she traps her thoughts on paper with words.  She wonders if the paintings are painted to keep the moments, or to free them.

Although Naledi lies at the center of Vacationland, this book does not trudge through a chronological passage of time there, nor does it follow the journey of Meg in her venturing out and back again.  In fact, it is not a linear narrative of any one story; instead, it is a densely woven collection of stories, floating through time and temperament:  reflections of a former guest here, a recent handyman there, a Machutova relative, a memory, a transaction, a return, a jumping off point – for better or worse.  A person or event or memory mentioned in one story may echo faintly in the next one, or may become the pivot point of another, further in.  Many of the stories take place at the resort, while in others it merely is a point of reference.  Yet all the stories have a kind of coalescence in a place set apart:  a retreat, an escape – a vacation land.

Each chapter, each story, is vibrant on its own, with a distinct tone, a disparate feel; each character speaks in their own inner voice, with their own concerns and outlooks.  Yet the separate stories aren’t really meant to stand alone so much as nestle together, stitching together an overlapping tale that is indeed more than the sum of all its parts.

When asked in a recent interview what inspired her to write Vactionland, Stonich answered, “The idea of a resort from varying perspectives of visitors, proprietors and locals seemed like a concept I felt worth weaving characters around. In Minnesota, a lot gets written about the wilderness experience, but less about resort life, and very little about the people and the communities that line the roads leading to such places – like the beer truck drivers and bait shop owners. I wanted to tell their stories.”

And that is what is so compelling – not the story of a place, but of the people who find themselves at that place at some point in their lives.  Who they are, where they came from, and even at times where they are going (or that they are going nowhere, even), give the book its impetus.

Polly understood early on that she could not flourish in Cape Breton, where blind faith bowed the McPhee family low before a harsh God.  They belonged to a closed brethren, convinced that if they could just endure the suffering of this life – a given in their gray harbor town, swept clear of prospects by Polly’s teens – they would be rewarded at the moment of the Rapture.  The Rapture, Polly was warned, could occur at any moment.  In some radiant flash the sky would wedge open and McPhees, tall and small, would be yanked heavenward, uprooted from their plodding realities, away from the suffering that seemed, at least to Polly, to be self-inflicted – the worst sort of poverty, in which they had enough to eat, but minds went unnourished.  Radio, newspapers or magazines were not allowed in the McPhee house.  The list of acceptable secular books besides school texts totaled twenty.  There was no music other than hymns, and contact with anyone outside the brethren – anyone interesting or curious – was discouraged.  Schooling leaned heavily to scripture, and the only science class was rudimentary botany.  At night, young Polly tied her ankle to the bedpost with a  jump rope to avoid being sucked from her bed and through the roof lest the Rapture come for her.  Lying sleepless in the sag, girded by hard-breathing sisters, Polly was wholly unable to imagine rising up among them, consistently failing to envision an afterlife.  Each time she tried, the vision was no more than a void with little sparks, the same thing she always saw with her eyes scrunched tight.

The Rapture never comes for Polly, but she does come to Naledi.  And therein hangs a tale.  Or one of them, at least.

Vacationland is one of those books that I heard about, then read a review of and followed up by requesting it from my local library.  But it is rare, in that once I had read it, I felt so drawn to its stories that I am buying a copy of my own to have close by should – or when – I feel compelled to read it again.  I read Vacationland this time in the dead of winter; I wonder what it would be like to read it in the heat and humidity of high summer?  I look forward to finding out.

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1 comment

Marjorie Roy 15 January, 2014 - 4:28 pm

Thanks for the review, I like the storyline and will search this novel out.

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