Sunday, January 28, 2018

Canoes in Winter

Canoes in Winter: Beneath the Surface
by Bob Guelker
Recommended Ages: 15+

Sam Ryan has some serious issues to work through, but by the end of this book, he has only started to address them. That's a start, though, and the fact this is Book 1 of a trilogy suggests the reader may have the satisfaction of seeing a troubled character clean up his act somewhat.

Sam is 53 years old, has two marriages behind him, and doesn't get along with his family very well. In spite of being a "people person," intelligent and hardworking, he has a problematic employment history. Lately, he's been living in a cabin in the woods of northern Minnesota, working on and off as a substitute school bus driver and a stonemason-for-hire, but mostly just looking after his chickens, canoeing up and down the nearby creek, hunting morel mushrooms in the spring, and making wild grape wine in the fall. He professes to hate God (while also claiming not to believe in him), but at the same time practices a unique form of spiritual healing, which comes in handy every now and then since, for some reason, he always seems to be there when a woman goes into labor in public. He professes to hate horses, but he still misses riding them with his second wife. He professes to be OK with having an affair with a married woman, but... well, let's not get too far ahead of things.

Now and then, Sam goes a little crazy - his most recent episode occurring during a trip to Idaho to witness the birth of his second grandchild. He more or less blacked out and came to himself a few miles from home, having taken 48 hours to drive a trip that usually takes 20, looking like hell and feeling likewise. Maybe he's still a little crazy when, during a morel-hunting hike a couple days later, he practically trips over a beautiful woman who has been sunning herself naked in a rock quarry. They develop a close friendship, even though he knows she doesn't plan to leave her no-good husband. They both seem determined to stay "only friends," though other people close to both of them see more going on between them. But the flame of love growing between them cannot catch fire as long as she keeps going back to abusive Bill, and as long as he is still fighting whatever demons have sent him back to a psychiatrist's couch.

Decidedly deserving of an Adult Content Advisory, and maybe an Occult Content ditto, this story raised some "family values" flags for me, particularly concerning its main character's morals and spirituality. At the same time, it gave an attractive account of nature's richness, a compelling glimpse of northwoods life and rodeo competition, and a touching glimpse into the hearts of lifelike and sympathetic characters.

Not to be confused with the late American soccer coach by the same name, author Bob Guelker is a Nevis, Minn.-based writer. His "Canoes in Winter" series continues with Let Go, Let the River and Stone Creek. I became interested in his work after I moved recently to the nearby city of Park Rapids, where I write for a newspaper that has Nevis in its coverage area, and where I saw the trilogy amid a display of books by local authors while browsing a furniture shop. I thought I would give it a try, and I was entertained enough that I plan to read the rest of the trilogy soon.

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