Skinny’s exhaustion came slowly, weariness seeped in. Each breath leached away part of him. After a long week, it was Saturday night.
Normally Skinny devoured his work as it, in turn, consumed him. Muller’s Store and Tavern was busy. The old white clapboard building in downtown Woman River, with an apartment on top was right on Main Street, across from St. Albert’s Church and school. His Uncle Joe (Skeeter) Muller was in the process of handing it down to him when he dropped dead of a heart attack. No one in the family wanted it, and after some wrangling over money with doses of recrimination tossed in by cousin Klara, Skinny got a loan from Norm Svoboda at First State Bank and made it work.
Skinny was lean, 50ish, a flattop haircut with an intense, quick body. Not much got past him, even if his wire-rimmed glasses drifted down frequently toward the end of his nose. He washed them often in the soapy water used to clean beer glasses. The white apron, his signature wardrobe piece, was always being lifted from the bottom to wipe them off.
Joey Campbell, an early arrival at the bar, shouted, “Where’s Louie?”
“Aw, she’s out sick,” Skinny replied.
Mary Lou was the soul of the bar. Not having her here tonight was like having light or fresh air vanish. Her place of honor was the well-seasoned grill behind the window in the wall that made Muller’s burgers famous in a three county area. You could have them one way – medium raw. If you wanted cheese on them or fried onions fine, but otherwise you were on your own with condiments from the sideboard. There was no French fry maker, just industrial sized piles of “Old Dutch” potato chips.
People tried to wheedle Mary Lou’s recipe out of her. With her Lucky Strike dangling out of her mouth, she would smile and say, “Cigarette ash. Enhances the bouquet and keeps riff-raff from asking stupid-ass questions!”
Actually, it was grass-fed locally butchered two-year-old beef cattle, with some lean pork thrown in. She told others who could be trusted, “If you want a good burger, don’t fry the hell out of it like you’re going to a house fire. Slow and easy does it.”
Mary Lou was not a student of subtlety. At forty-five she was as loud and direct as Skinny was intense. A little overweight, with long salt and pepper hair pulled back with a pink ribbon, she and Skinny complemented and complained about each other; often loudly. It made the place; people came back.
Tonight Liz, their eighteen-year-old daughter worked the grill in back while Skinny hustled around the bar cleaning tables. Running the place was a team effort.
Earlier in the day, he’d gone to St. Michael to pick up the fresh ground hamburger and pork, checked and made sure they had enough buns and condiments and refilled the ketchup and mustard bottles before slicing the homemade pickles. Then the pop cooler was restocked along with coolers for bottle beer. With Mary Lou ill, it was ragged. Normally Liz loved the banter with the customers, knowing just about everyone who came in. Tonight was different.
Muller’s was a community center when most towns didn’t have one. The store was open all the time, with more straight-laced folks refusing to go in after six PM. The store part was open to the tavern. It held dried and canned goods, with lower shelves providing over the counter medicines. Many citizens of Woman River were grateful for the short distance from the bar to the grocery side, especially when immoderate behavior required aspirin or Pepto-Bismol. Children sent by their mother for Cheerios or Corn Flakes were fascinated by the length of the long pole with the “grabber” on the end that could reach the cereal boxes ten feet up near the dark ceiling.
It was hot and air conditioning was not on Muller’s horizon. The churning ceiling and floor fans kept the air coursing over heated bodies. Of course the main attraction and reason for any comfort in the crowded bar was the cold beer, one tap, Hamm’s, and whatever would fit in the big chest coolers.
Skinny was rearranging some of the tables and chairs with his back to the door. A few of the early arrivals at the bar sipped on cold Hamm’s. The band was setting up. The front screen door creaked open and slammed. The place went quiet. Skinny glanced up at the bar. Everyone leaning over the big oak bar had turned their backs to the door. He turned. There was Father Ruzicka.
“Mr. Muller, I’d like to talk to you.”
I have to say I was impressed with Woman River! I thought the writing and dialogue and plotting and characters were extremely well done. I have examined a lot of books by people I know or relatives of friends and they are usually terrible and you don’t know what to say about them except that they suck bad. Yours is just….damn solid. Better than many I have read from big publishing houses. If you got helpful critical input from your writing group on this, they did a good job and should be treated to a Guinness. I am jealous….I dearly hope to have my own novel someday, when it decides to some out of my brain! Are you shipping copies out to agents and publishing houses? Might be worth a stab at that, even though it’s a tough battle…but now you have something to show them. Small town people should like this….I saw a lot of people in it from Laurens, Forest City, Tracy and Storm Lake in character form. I have to say that the first version of the “collecting money” scene by Jethro in the bar drew an emotional response from me….and that’s a very good sign. Bottom line, excellent job.
Good luck with getting it into the world!
D.H. – Journalist/Publisher
Wonderful. Easy to say, but a joy to render. You gave your characters a chance to speak, as you stated is your job, and you did it well. As in the days of old when I read for insight, my copy of Woman River is well underlined and highlighted. Some excellent construction/descriptions such as: “In the void of winter, when light made a passing acquaintance, the rising sun was less of a reward, muffled more on days when clouds scuttled across the landscape.” You also infused in your narrative of each character’s introduction or story some pith, for lack of a better word. Each has a conversation within themselves to reveal what you, the writer, has to say about the “state of the union”, so to speak. To uncloak the inner truths is the trick and I believe as the magician of the day you have succeeded.
I thought it interesting that in the last chapter when Miriam is interacting with Father Ruzicka, she addressed him as “Jozef” for the first and probably the last time. A shame, perhaps.
I hope it was your intention in writing Woman River that it is to be an introduction. Each of your characters is crying out to be heard from again in their own space and time. Please continue.
As I had said, “It is better than I thought it would be.” It lingers …
K.Q. – Retired Accountant
I enjoyed your book very much. The tragic horror of PTSD in your characters reminded me of all that my father and uncles never told of but likely suffered from after their service WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Were those remembrances purely fictional? The unbelievable pain… Great character insight and depth…leaves one thirsting for more information…how long do we have to wait to learn more??? The scent of lilac… Indeed!
R.H. – Technical Service Manager – Paper and Forest Products Industry
It was a pleasure meeting you and your wife, Sara, on Friday evening. I have just finished reading your book, Woman River, and completely enjoyed learning more about each character in the small town you created.
I especially enjoyed how you weaved the perspectives of different characters into the same event. To discover how Louie, Skinny, Liz, Jethro, and Anna each experienced and remembered the events at Muller’s Bar was intriguing, entertaining, and colorful. Death is a terrifying proposition for many; and the perspective your characters offered was “very Minnesotan” – “play the hand you’re dealt.”
I am also very interested in reading more about Mac and Missy. Their story is very timely considering all of the discussion at the Vatican as the Catholic Church works hard to reconcile the sacrament of marriage with contemporary life and its many varied circumstances.
Open the door for the next timely subject – homosexuality. You introduced Anna’s story with such a matter-of-fact demeanor; and again, such a timely topic considering all of the legal issues regarding same-sex marriage/domestic partnerships.
The priest, Father Ruzicka, may be the central figure for the continuing storyline, with more and more character development coming to fruition not only for him; but for the sheriff, Joe McCarty, as the truth is revealed about Rudy’s untimely death.
I look forward to reading more!
STUDY GUIDE – Thanks to Sue Bruns
I. What details of place and background information help to establish the setting of the book as a typical small town farming community? What details help to establish the time period of the story?
Smoking, Hamm’s Beer, vehicles – Miriam’s brother picked her up in his convertible, following a truck with kids in the back of the pickup, music, police car with the cherry on top.
The community of Woman River is rich with small town characters, all of whom know one another’s business. There are old grudges borne (by Roman toward Drulkak for a “fixed” car not made right), solid relationships (Roman and Martha; Skinny and Louie), secrets (Mac and Missy, Father Jim Morgan and his affair; Anna’s homosexuality); hardships and loss (Louie’s cancer, the death of Anna’s partner, Rudy’s “suicide”), and unique characters (Drulkak, “Wild Child,” Rudy). All come together at the church, in the tavern, in the town, or at the softball field. There is kindness (the collection taken for Louie), decisions and mistakes (Mac and Missy, Father Jim, the relationship that could have changed (Father Ruzicka and Miriam) and teasing (Drulkak about Mac and Missy, the café crew toward Rudy). The reader relates with all of these things, since they are common aspects of any community or extended family.
Details of setting/time: The setting of Woman River is Minnesota. We know the community is near St. Michael, off Hwy 10. On p. 123: “Woman River was not a big town, about four thousand, twenty-five miles from St. Michael. “
There are focal points in Woman River like the church, Muller’s Tavern, the softball field as gathering places. Common details from gravel roads and wilted crops to the vivid descriptions of Roman’s barn (p. 9) w/ its rich sensory smells, sounds, and touch and the sights and sounds of Muller’s Tavern all work to create the setting of Woman River.
Other details unfold the time period of the story:
Telephone – party lines, Mass in Latin (books have English translation), conversations like Mary Lou’s as she talks about her childhood (post Depression/pre-WWII (p. 25), references to music, like “Sentimental Journey” from Mary Lou and Skinny’s early days together and songs played in the tavern:
“Blue Suede Shoes” p. 46 “Johnny B. Goode” p. 40. Characters don’t watch TV; rather they listen to WCCO on the radio. Some characters struggle with PTSD from WWII: Drulkak and Joe McCarty (in his 50’s)
Do you find, with the details of the time period, that the readers who relate to the book most are people in their 60’s?
II. In what ways does the Church (as the building itself, the congregation, and the beliefs of the Catholic church) provide an undertone, a unifying theme, and/or the basis of morality and social structure in the book? Which characters seem to be the most strictly controlled by the rules of the church?
The priest, Father Ruzicka, is a key figure, a source of advice and comfort for most, although he is sometimes in conflict with some members of the community (Joe McCarty and Skinny). Still they recognize him as an important aspect of the community. As the reader sees his interactions with Father Morgan and with Miriam, his housewife, we recognize his devotion to the church and adherence to its rules but we also have glimpses of the human side of the man.
The church building brings together the many members of the community and provides a common ground for them. When the mass is not being celebrated, the building itself draws people together: (Mac and Missy go there to sit before the movie.)
As an organization, the church represents rules – social, religious/moral. Individuals embrace or do not embrace the church in its entirety:
Mac – struggles with the rules of the church, feeling it must be all or nothing for him. He can’t accept everything the church stands for, so he doesn’t think he can embrace any of it if he cannot embrace it all. (Refer to Mac’s analogy to Roman – “Like picking rocks…” on p. 21.)
Missy, pregnant with Mac’s illegitimate child, can draw from the parts of the church she needs (p. 13), but she also wants to marry Mac at the courthouse and for him to get an annulment to get right with the church.
Roman was raised to accept Catholicism in its entirety. It is his beacon and he cannot imagine life without it. As he says in a conversation with his son: “If someone didn’t tell us how to live, we’d get lost.”
Martha is devout, unquestioning in her faith by all appearances.
Father Ruzicka councils Father Morgan when he has gone astray from the laws of the church. He provides an ear and extends his friendship, but his commitment to the church is unquestioned. Still, we see glimpses of his attention toward Miriam and wonder if he could be tempted to deviate from his vows. He sometimes tries to extend or expand the rules of the church to other organizations, as when he asks Skinny to close the tavern early on Saturdays (p. 37).
Skinny – p. 41) sees himself as “born guilty,” but it is not the church from whom he needs to be forgiven; rather, his wife Mary Lou (Louie) is the one who forgave him for his flaws, not the church, and the thought of losing her threatens his own ability to forgive himself for his sins.
Miriam – “Faith was not something Miriam thought a lot about. It was given her by the example and life of her parents. Her four brothers and two sisters lived the faith to varying degrees: Roman, the most outspoken and rigid; Ursula the wild card in the family…” p. 65 “Miriam’s beliefs were not without examination.” She was widely read – had even explored some Lutheran theology. She enjoys the theological discussions she has with Father Ruzicka.
Joe McCarty – was raised catholic, and the reader learns that his belief (the church) has “pulled him through rough times” (p. 123) — those times that he re-lives in flashbacks from the war and the killing of a child. Joe and Rose “took religion seriously, but it didn’t rule their lives.” (p. 127)
Salvation – p. 134. No one, including Father Ruzicka, seems happy with the constant pleas for money. Mac especially resents it.
Father Jim – has broken his vows, will ask to be laicized (p. 55). He recognizes that life is not as simple as following church rules.
Leona – You mentioned that a church in a small community is a unifying element; two churches of different denominations can also have a divisive quality in the community.
III. What parallels do you see between Father Jim’s “situation” and the “choice” he made reflected in Father Ruzicka’s interactions with Miriam, his house keeper? What are the chances that Father Ruzicka might stray from his commitments as Father Jim did?
What about the domesticity of Father Rusicka and Miriam’s partnership contributes to the questioning of that very relationship and potential for its change or evolution?
They work together like a team after the storm, p. 59, 73. There is a “lingering hesitance” with some awkwardness after they have interacted. (p. 73) On one occasion there is an accidental collision and often there is incidental closeness that leaves Father Ruzicka with the scent of lilac (repeated several times) p. 53, p. 66. They have breakfast together except Sundays and enjoy their conversations. p. 63 (Miriam had read a variety of things – even some Lutheran theology, which she and Father Ruzicka discussed. “It made them closer.” p. 65) Father Ruzicka’s commitment to the church is emphasized, but there is no denying the disturbance that is hinted at by the interactions with Miriam. She understands it, too, and leaves rather than to allow it to grow.
IV. Examine the attributes of the female characters as compared to the males. What similarities and differences do you see?
V. Lewandowski describes the book as a series of interrelated stories on a common theme. How does this structure work to pull together the details of the community? What does the reader learn as different incidents (Father Ruzicka and Miriam’s interaction; the scene in Muller’s Tavern) are revisited with emphases on different characters?
The reader gets glimpses of characters over a relatively short period of time but differing angles are significant. New characters are introduced throughout the series of stories.
VI. What theme or themes run through the stories?
Perhaps the final story with Rudy’s funeral clarifies it best. Father Ruzicka chooses a reading from Paul to the Galatians: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” The reader recalls how various characters have, throughout the stories, carried one another’s burdens and how that sharing of burdens makes them more bearable. Missy’s father offers to help Mac to get a job – sharing the challenge of Missy’s pregnancy and her and Mac’s relationship. The people in Muller’s Tavern take up a collection for Louie as she faces terminal cancer. Father Ruzicka shares the burden of sin of Father Morgan. The community shares the grief of Rudy’s unusual death. Although Joe and Skinny have their differences with Father Ruzicka, they recognize that he is an important part of the community of Woman River.
VII. How did you feel about Rudy’s death? What unanswered questions are left after the final story of the book? What is the significance of the envelope of money and the note, signed “Walter”? (Walter was a minor character in another story. How is he connected to other characters from earlier stories?) How did you feel about the unanswered questions you had after the last story?
VIII. How long was the entire process of writing and publishing the book?
About 10 years, but things picked up a bit. It’s a self-published book. Will Weaver did an early reader of it. Sue Bruns did another reading. And then our writing group was very helpful.
IX. What about the ending of the book? You could easily take the characters and continue, developing other ones who are more minor in this book, like Liz and Jethro. Will you go back?
Yes, I will at some point. It will be more of a novel than a series of stories.
X. What is the reader to assume at the end about Rudy’s death? Does the note signed by Walter indicate that Walter is involved in Rudy’s death?
Words are like a two headed ax, p. 20
Rock picking, like the church, p. 21