Sarah Stonich’s Laurentian Divide uses the rhythms of life in Hatchet Inlet—a fictional northern Minnesota town situated near a large and contested nature reserve area on the border with Canada—to examine themes of generational difference, memory, and environmental responsibility.
Absence drives Laurentian Divide’s plot: Rauri Paar, an enigmatic man who arrived in Hatchet Inlet in the ’70s, is the town’s very own Punxatawny Phil. The only remaining private landowner on the reserve, Paar occupies a set of three islands on a lake, and each winter, once the lake ices over, he holes up alone on his inaccessible property until spring warmth breaks the ice up again and he can portage down to town to take his seat at the local diner once more. However, this spring Paar fails to show up as the ice recedes, and the town begins to worry. Diner patrons begin placing bets on his cause of death.
As well, during the winter before the novel begins, two young Hatchet Inlet women are killed in a fatal car accident which leaves the town reeling with grief. These two events create the backdrop upon which Laurentian Divide‘s primary characters are drawn. Those characters are Alpo Lahti, a widower, his 40-something son Pete, a vet and recovering alcoholic, and Sissy Pavola, a waitress at Pavola’s, Hatchet Inlet’s diner, owned by her family.
Laurentian Divide takes place during the week before Alpo Lahti and Sissy Pavola’s wedding and juxtaposes the modest dramas of wedding planning with Pete’s struggle to stay sober and Sissy’s lingering bereavement after her niece’s death in the previously mentioned accident.
The book often seems torn between concerning itself principally with these three characters and providing a more sweeping impression of northern Minnesota life through Hatchet Inlet and its people. Despite its narrow principal cast—most of Hatchet Inlet’s other citizens seem to exist to propel the core trio of Alpo, Pete, and Sissy on toward the next emotional beat—the book feel’s a little shaggy. Pete makes a climactic-seeming journey to Rauri Paar’s property during bad weather at about the 150-page mark and leaves with a rotator cuff injury, a sense of optimism about his recovery, and no clarity as to what’s become of Paar (two out of three ain’t bad?), and the book, at that point, feels like it could end, at least for Pete. Yet there’s 100 pages left to read. The mystery of Rauri Paar, once answered for us, feels a little like a cop-out.
Stonich’s depiction of the way the humblest upsets to a small town’s routines can ripple outward is inspired, however. While the structure and function of the book can feel at times under-conceptualized, Stonich displays a subtle, effective touch in the way rural communities keep or break and embellish their citizens’ secrets, of how those who don’t leave wind up staying, and those who leave often find their way back.–Austin Gerth