About the book: Minnie’s Potatoes is a historical romance novel about the journey of a cultivated urban woman from Prussia who is thrown into the pioneer life of Michigan’s early lumbering era, widowed and left with ten children to support. The question of the novel is, can this woman survive by brewing and bootlegging moonshine during Prohibition’s early days? The narrative was inspired by the life of the author’s great grandmother and is told in her voice.
Excerpt from the book:
Otto was only a few weeks old when Minnie heard a team race by her cabin near the mouth of the Au Sable River. The horses skidded to a stop by the stable. She heard the barn door slide open and then close with a bump. She wrapped her winter shawl around her shoulders and lifted the shotgun from the mantle. Holding a kerosene lantern, she stepped outside to investigate. It was Wilhelm.
“Wolves! Ma, get inside.” Minnie’s oldest son came running towards her with a shoulder of venison slung over his back. He bolted the door behind them before lowering the meat onto the table. “The men at the lumber camp shot a bear and two bucks yesterday,” he said sinking into a chair. “We had enough meat in the camp, so they sent me here with the team and a wagon load of fresh venison and bear for the men at the sawmill.” Minnie poured coffee and handed it to him. Wilhelm wiped his hands on his pants and took the cup, but the coffee sloshed over the lip onto the tablecloth. “Sorry, Ma.”
Her son took deep breaths as Minnie slathered freshly churned butter on a slice of warm sourdough bread and handed it to his outstretched hand that was shaking.
“I didn’t get far down the logging road,” he continued as he chewed and swallowed, “before I saw this pack of wolves trailing behind the wagon. The horses must have smelled the animals. They bolted. Ma, the team was running so fast I thought at first we could outrun them, but the wolves jumped up on the wagon.
“They dragged off an entire venison carcass. I thought I was next.” Her son wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “They kept coming and coming, pulling off hunks of bloody meat. I’ve never seen that many wolves in one place before. I was so scared, Ma. And the horses … I couldn’t let anything happen to the horses.
“I figured it was the meat they were after, so I dropped the reins and started kicking it off, throwing it off, pushing it off. That kept the predators busy for a while. Could I have some more coffee?”
He took a gulp, swallowed, and continued. “I tried to slow the horses … I didn’t want to break them, but they were too frightened and just kept tearing down that logging pike, their sweat flying back on my face. They began to slow when they saw the wolves blocking the road in front of them. I remembered hearing stories at camp about how smart wolves can be and how they move like an army. They must have cut through the woods … unless it was another entire pack.” Wilhelm blew out his breath and took a couple long deep ones.
“Ma, I thought we were goners … me and the team. The horses balked. I couldn’t get them to move forward. The other wolves were behind us. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to do something, so I threw the rest of the meat out and off the side of the wagon.
“The animals ignored the horses and me. They dove at the bear flesh piled beside the wagon, ripping the raw meat apart and then retreating into the brush. The horses were still bucking like broncos. I whipped the team and the wagon jerked forward. Those horses ran pell-mell the rest of the way to our stable. They are inside now, cooling down. I’ll go take care of them as soon as I catch my breath. Could I have some more bread?”
Minnie slathered some bacon fat on another thick slice, fished out a plump dill pickle from the wooden barrel, and poured Wilhelm a tall glass of vodka she had made from the garden potatoes. Wrapped in her shawl, she stepped into the night, the lantern lighting her way. Her shotgun was under one arm.
The wolves were still sniffing the ground by the sliding stable door. Be calm, she told herself. The same tools she used dealing with drunks, like her husband, were tools she could use with these feral animals. She would not make quick, aggressive moves.
Minnie stayed her ground and swung the lantern from side to side, moving the light in wide arches to fool the animals into thinking she was larger than she was. The pack stirred, but did not move. They grew silent, their eyes glowing yellow as they looked into her light.
“One of you took my baby. I should kill every one of you for Amelia’s sake.” As much as Minnie wanted to avenge her daughter, she couldn’t squeeze that trigger. “Go on now.” Her tone was firm. She spoke with authority. She lowered the pitch of her voice and increased her volume. “You’ve caused enough trouble, here.” Then she shouted, “Shoo!” As Minnie stepped to the left of the pack, she swung the light left, leaving the pack plenty of room to escape to the right. She waved the lantern in her left hand while holding the rifle snug between her upper arm and her hip. Her finger warmed the trigger.
“Go!” she bellowed. Her Polish singing teacher, Frau Deminska, would have applauded the force of her voice. Minnie had learned to project from her diaphragm when singing at the salon for the grand ladies and gentlemen of Poznan. Her teacher would howl at her pupil’s attentive audience tonight. One wolf that looked to weigh at least two hundred pounds lowered its head and tail and looked Minnie in the eye, but only for a moment. Then it turned and trotted off. The rest of the pack followed and they all disappeared into the brush.
Minnie’s knees began to shake. She caught her breath, crossed to the stable, and slid the door open a crack. She congratulated herself for slimming down so quickly after Otto’s birth as she squeezed inside, and yanked the big door closed behind her.
She set the rifle down with the butt on the straw and the barrel against the stable wall. Wilhelm had taught her to shoot and how to handle a gun safely.
The team was still winded. Minnie walked the horses to the end of the barn and back before removing their harnesses. Their bellies were still heaving from the run, so she walked them again to cool down and toweled the white sweat from their coats. She pitched hay from the mow into their troughs, pumped enough water from the well to fill their buckets, and fed them grain before locking them inside the horse barn.
When she pulled the cabin door open, Wilhelm was asleep in his chair with his head on the table. Baby Otto was whimpering in his cradle, suffering from colic. Minnie walked the newborn to comfort him while his older brother slept off the generous glass of potato vodka he had consumed. There would be no sleep for Minnie tonight.
Minnie’s Potatoes has that Laura Ingalls Wilder appeal at a mature level. This historical romance is an adult “Little House on the Prairie,” set in Michigan’s lumbering era and it’s path through Prohibition.VALERIE VALENTINE, INDEPENDENT BOOK EDITOR