Surprising visitors to Great Lakes region

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by Tyler Tichelaar

Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America

David M. Krueger

My first thought when I saw Myths of the Rune Stone, published by University of Minnesota Press, was that it would argue that Vikings had settled in the Great Lakes area long before Columbus. Instead, it explores the cultural phenomenon that resulted from the discovery of an alleged Viking rune stone on a farmer’s field near Kensington, Minnesota in 1898. The author, David Krueger, never claims that the rune stone is authentic or not, but shows how it created controversy, was embraced by the state of Minnesota due to various groups’ political and religious agendas, and why so many people wanted to believe that the Vikings had reached Minnesota.

The stone in question was discovered by a Minnesota farmer named Ohman 118 years ago. It has runic writing and, when translated, states that 32 Swede and Norwegian men came to the area, and 10 of these men were killed. Right away, debate ensued as to the stone’s authenticity. Krueger traces the arguments, providing extensive commentary on how the stone, if not authentic, may have been forged to reflect fears and memories of American Indians due to massacres earlier in the century, or the desire of the Scandinavian peoples who settled Minnesota in the later 19th century to show they had a longtime claim to the land, or efforts by Scandinavians to claim their place and superiority in American society.

Krueger explores the immigrant issues of 19th century America and beliefs that Anglo-Saxons were the superior race. Making their case for superiority, Scandinavians back then argued that their Viking ancestors were the original Anglo-Saxons,  pointing out that even the Norman invasion of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror was carried out by men whose ancestors had been Vikings.

Religious arguments also ensued. The stone had a date of 1362 on it, a time long before the Protestant Reformation. It includes the line “AVM, save us from evil.” While debate ensued over what AVM meant, the local Catholics, including the St. Paul Archdiocese bishop, were quick to claim this was a prayer to the Virgin Mary and the first Catholic prayer in North America. Soon the story turned into one of Viking Catholic martyrs who died for their faith. By the 1970s, attempts were made to develop a cult for Our Lady of the Runestone, hoping it would lead to pilgrimages to the area, even though no visions of the Virgin Mary were seen in the area. The predominantly Lutheran Scandinavians did not like how the Catholics were trying to redefine their precious relic.

Local pride also played a key role in the stone’s popularity: pageants were held; a comic book was written depicting the story of the Vikings who created it; a giant Viking statue was erected in the town; and the stone was part of the Minnesota exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in 1965.

Later, during the Cold War, the stone was even interpreted as an early example of American Christian ancestors fighting against the godless, a parallel to the contemporary Soviet Union.

The book concludes by outlining some of the more recent debates about the authenticity of the rune stone. Krueger presents the history of arguments for its authenticity, or lack thereof. Readers can make up their own mind regarding it, but I think the evidence weighs in favor of it likely being a forgery by the farmer Ohman who found it. As Krueger points out, whether the rune stone is authentic or not, what ultimately matters is what it can teach us about how people create myths to shape their identities and stake claims to further their own agendas. It also might make some of us rethink the arguments that Vikings also visited the Upper Peninsula.

Further information on Myths of the Rune Stone can be found at http://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/myths-of-the-rune-stone

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Wolf’s Mouth

John Smolens

Personally, I find it less surprising that Vikings may have visited the Great Lakes region than that Nazis did, yet we know it’s a fact that several prisoner of war camps were set up in Upper Michigan during World War II. That fascinating bit of Upper Michigan history is the basis for John Smolens’ newest historical fiction novel, Wolf’s Mouth.

Smolens does so many things remarkably well in this novel, beginning with his choice of narrator. He doesn’t choose a U.P. resident to report the events, nor even one of the German Nazis in the prison camp. Rather, he chooses an Italian soldier who was captured by the Allies. Francesco Giuseppe Verdi, or “Frank,” as he’s known through most of the book, is in the AuTrain prison camp along with Germans, a Russian, another Italian and other men of Eastern European background. Frank has a bit of special status in the camp since he serves as an interpreter between the prisoners and their guards. Vogel, the highest-ranking Nazi officer in the camp, believes that anyone who assists the Allies in any way is a traitor to the fuhrer; Frank, serving as a translator, is suspect for this reason.

The novel has its comical moments. Frank gets to take a trip into Munising where he meets an old Italian woman. In time, he convinces his captors to let the woman make pasta for him and the other Italian prisoner. In the process, he becomes attracted to the Italian woman’s daughter, who is close to his age.

One day when Frank is in Munising, a house catches on fire and Frank runs in and rescues a child. Once he’s back at the prison camp, Vogel says he is a traitor for saving an American child who might grow up to fight against the Nazis. It becomes clear, after Frank’s Italian friend is wounded, that Frank is going to be killed by the Nazis, and so he must escape from the camp.

What follows is a rollercoaster ride that takes the reader to Marquette, the Sault, Detroit and Europe as it raises issues of changed identities, hiding, war crime tribunals, questions about what it means to live in a free country, family loyalty, the pointlessness of revenge, and how the passage of time can, at least to some extent, heal. And, of course, there’s a love story.

Years ago, I read Smolens’ first novel, Cold, about a prisoner who escapes from the Marquette prison. It was a very suspenseful read, and I think Wolf’s Mouth has some similarities in its tale of a prisoner who escapes, but this novel also shows a great deal of growth in Smolens’ writing. Not that Cold wasn’t a wonderful book but it devolved into something closer to a thriller than Wolf’s Mouth, which is heavier, more somber, more realistic and raises more global questions about the human condition, which makes it surpass any simple genre definition. Wolf’s Mouth is still a page-turner you won’t want to put down, but I also thought its end powerful and haunting. I encourage anyone who wants a different look at World War II and the U.P. to read this novel.

Editor’s Note: Tichelaar is the author of My Marquette and Willpower. All books reviewed in this column are available in local and online bookstores. For book review submission guidelines, visit www.marquettemonthly.org

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