Review: A Minnesota Kid: In Search of Heroes and Ghosts by David Butwin
I have just had the pleasure of reading A Minnesota Kid: In Search of Heroes and Ghosts, and I want to recommend it to anyone who shares my own interest in every element of the title and subtitle. That is, if you know Minnesota, particularly if you’ve known the state (and its capitol city) for more than just a few decades you’ll find a rich archive of local lore and sport: football at Central high school (which means the great Bob Blakley) in the mid ‘50s, the old St. Paul Saints of the American Association when they were a small step away from the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Lakers before they followed the Dodgers to LA, and the Gophers in the glory days of national championships and a pair of trips to Pasadena in the early ‘60s. Add to that the complexity of race relations in and out of sport, unsolved murders and, of course, the weather.
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That’s the Minnesota part, but what caught and kept my attention as a reader was the “Search.” Butwin is professional journalist with all the tricks of a good detective and the nerve to pick up the phone and call on all of his old “Heroes and Ghosts.” How does this work? Consider this: in 1977 Butwin wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated on the baseball rivalry between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Back then he interviewed several old Saints—left-fielder Eric Tipton and Earl Naylor who, by the mid-70s was a fireman—no, not a relief pitcher—in St. Paul. In 1977 Mel Himes, a pitcher who lived down the block in 1949 when the author was 10 years old, figures in the story. In 2008 Butwin finds Himes in Deltona, Florida. Suddenly, 60 years after the fact, they’re on the phone schmoozing about St. Paul baseball and the pleasure Himes took in 1977 reading the piece in SI. That’s the fabric of the book. The past becomes the present; one man’s memory expands into a dozen points of view. Nothing is embalmed; it’s living history, rich in the personality of its author and the testimony of his “Heroes and Ghosts.”
Where the passage of time and the addition of fresh perspective become especially refreshing and instructive is in the author’s awareness of racial and national distinctions that have been clarified—if not always improved—over time. He revives his contact with the one African-American kid whom he met at a summer camp from 1949; we re-meet Japanese athletes who went from internment camps in the west to track and field meets in St. Paul in the ‘50s; we listen to the black athletes—Bob Blakley and Judge Dickson—whose careers on the gridiron coincide precisely with the early years of the Civil Rights Movement.
A Minnesota Kid is a sterling deployment of memory and research told with vigor and wit by my own brother whose knowledge of the world has always—and once again—enriched my own. If you want to share my pleasure, go to the book website davidbutwin.com, learn more about David, about the book and how to get it.
[signed] Joseph Butwin, Professor of English, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. formerly of St. Paul, Minnesota.