by Sarah Stonich

Borealis Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-873-51775-1.
Reviewed by Diana Nolan
Posted on 05/18/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

When Will Rogers advised, "Buy land. They ain't making any more of the stuff," he probably hadn't dreamed of Dubai. Still, we can appreciate Rogers' comedic wisdom because, for most of the world, he was quite right. Sarah Stonich may have ruminated over Rogers' statement more than once. Her compelling memoir, Shelter, relates her journey in the pursuit of what is basic for many of us—a piece of land, and nothing short of wilderness would do.

Sarah's need is centered on land in the north woods of Minnesota within the BoundaryWaters Canoe Area Wilderness. It is a place known to her, a place where her grandparents once lived, a place where her father leased a plot so his children could experience nature up close, a place she could leave as a legacy for her son. Sarah recounts her thoughts upon her discovery of the perfect property.

"There was the land, exactly as I'd imagined—remote, piney, and on a lake too small for motorboats. It had no driveway, no well, no septic, no power, no anything—it was offered as is. Raw Land. The cost of making it habitable or even accessible would pile on top of a price that was already more than I'd budgeted for...I made myself look up the scraggly hill of pine once more and, in a voice not quite my own, muttered, 'Sold'."

Sarah quickly realized that having this parcel was only the beginning. She needed a driveway to her site. After the driveway she needed a shed, the shed morphed into a cabin, then there was the outhouse. Never mind, they had their own bog as well as a promontory.

It is a treat to read stories about the Stonich family—the grandparents, stoic folks who raised ten children including Sarah's dad, the quirky aunts, the sisters, and Sarah's son, Sam. Not to be left out are the folks in and around the nearby town of Ely, those who are permanent residents and those who come for fun and fish. In addition, after many online dates, Sarah shares her personal feelings when she meets her new husband, Jon.

The book closes on a hopeful note, even as development stretches the limits of the Boundary Waters, and the state proposes a new highway that threatens their land. Shelter is a keen-witted narrative, bound with choice metaphors, and sturdy verbs, such as "thrumming" and "anthropomorphized." In Shelter, I found a poetic memoir, a genealogical trip, and a picturesque travelogue that is absorbing to the last page.

Sarah Stonich is the author of These Granite Islands and The Ice Chorus. Visit her website.

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