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Dave Wood's Book Report, June 4, 2008

Authors who take apart a region or a community have always been dear to my heart.

It all began when I was in high school and my English teacher said I should not read novels by Sinclair Lewis, who was an agnostic and a drunk.

So I went right out and checked out his novel "Main Street." The town he wrote about was his own, Sauk Centre, Minn., but he called it Gopher Prairie. He nailed that town dead to rights. It was just like my hometown, full of well-meaning people with a rather narrow view of the world.

Later on, I read "Winesburg, Ohio," by Sherwood Anderson. At the time I was living about 50 miles from Clyde, Ohio. He nailed that town dead to rights.

Then I was on to Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, whose fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., was based on Oxford, Miss., Faulkner's hometown.

I'm glad to announce on our regional front there's a fiction writer who has a real handle on his hometown, Superior, Wis.

"North of the Port," by Anthony Bukoski (Southern Methodist University Press, $22.50) and its author are receiving rave reviews for his incisive accounts of life in the Polish neighborhood of Wisconsin's depressed port city.

Minnesota author Diane Glancy has this to say about Bukoski's fifth book: "These 12 stories are a Polish delight. Bukoski's language hisses with authenticity and his characters jut into the waters of humanity like giant ore docks into Lake Superior. A great book."

Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler says this: "Anthony Bukoski understands who people being in one place and end up in another and in the process try to preserve or renew or reinvent their very sense of self. Especially in this era, when the issue of if or how or why one becomes an American is increasingly important, Bukoski's book is downright essential."

Bukoski knows a good deal about the East Side of Superior where his Polish emigre ancestors settled in the early 20th century. About the church, about the town's industry.

He's a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Superior where he now teaches and where he has distinguished himself as a writer featured on National Public Radio and other prestigious venues.

He's equally adept when he takes a detour to Southern Louisiana, where he depicts the Polish emigres who worked in the sugar cane fields.

As a former creative writing student who remembers teachers whose whole world was New York City, Greenwich Village and The Breadloaf School, I envy the opportunity afforded Bukoski's students who trudge through the snow up North to lap up wisdom from their creative writing teacher.

I grew up 60 years in a small Western Wisconsin town. Most of the Yankees had left for more fertile wheatlands in the west.

The folks who stayed were mostly Scandinavian Lutherans in my hometown and Polish Catholics in the town 5 miles to the west.

The joke went in Whitehall if a Norse man married a Swede woman, that was "A Mixed Marriage." (For shame!) If a Protestant made his way to the next town, Polish, that meant murder.

My father, an agnostic, fell in love with a Polish girl, Mary Morchinek. He told me that he would make a date with her and then meet her in a cornfield after he had parked his car on Hwy. 121.

"I asked him why he didn't' go to the porch and pick her up like a gentleman?" He said because Mary's father would probably have killed me."

He also said my grandfather, who wasn't even a Christian, would probably have done the same thing to Mary if she had ever wandered onto the Wood farmstead 5 miles away.

Thank god that's all over. It's typical now in my hometown to go to weddings where the Lutheran pastor and the Catholic Priest perform ceremonies together when a young couple decide they're in love.

My father, before he died, always shook his head in thankful wonderment.

So that's why if he were still alive, he'd love a new book called

"The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America," by James O'Toole (Harvard, $27.95). It's a story not about the big shots in the Protestant or Roman Catholic Church, but about the rank and file people who came to this country as Roman Catholics, put up with all manner of prejudice from the Protestants and also -- dare I say it -- from the Roman Catholic clergy and managed to survive, put a president in the White House and garner the respect of all Americans. A landmark book, I'd say.

Dave Wood is a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and former vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. E-mail him at