Minnesota Boy: Growing Up in Mid-America, Mid-20th Century by Lee Foster is the memoir of a young man growing up in small town Minnesota during the ’50s and ’60s.
The novel is vague as to the exact setting, but eventually reveals it to be Mankato. The protagonist is never named either, instead referred to as “The Boy.” It is evident, however, through accompanying photographs that the boy is Foster himself.
The Boy lives a relatively sheltered life. His father works as a factory owner/manager, and his paternal grandparents live nearby. His mother does not prominently feature in any of the remembrances, but is a constant, comforting background figure.
The Boy tells of his Grandmother Foster who rises two hours before everyone else in the morning to have uninterrupted time to herself. Grandma Foster describes herself as “...an Iowan by birth, Minnesotan by adoption...a Democrat by conviction, a Republican by marriage...and a student of human nature, by nature.” She published over 100 poems, feature articles, biographical sketches, and stories.
Grandmother Foster dies in her sleep while The Boy is still young, and as he grows older, he begins to miss her and views her as a kindred spirit.
Early on, The Boy’s life is marked by simplicity. From snow days, during which he still has to complete his paper route, to fishing at the watering hole. Grandmother Foster complains about snow and insists that by next winter she will be in California.
Even with the ever-looming threat of war with Russia and Communist infiltration, The Boy’s early life is one of comfort and warmth.
Childhood turns to adolescence and with it both the excitement and fear of sexual awakening. A conversation between two unnamed parties reveals that a third person, Joanie, has informed one of them that 13 percent of the girls in their class are pregnant.
Discussion turns to the Pill and which girls would or would not use it. The conversation reads as typical teenage gossip, but the underlying theme of childhood lost is prevalent.
The Boy grows older, and more somber adult topics are explored. There is discussion among the friends as to whether or not a member of their inner circle meant to shoot himself.
The Boy delves into his friends’ paths after graduation. Ross DeVos marries and begins having children. Tom Maertens finances college with his saxophone band performances, eventually joining the Navy. Mike Sheran falls in love with a girl from Brazil. Tom Rose joins the Peace Corps and serves in Nigeria. John Dorn moves to Hawaii to teach English, and George O’Toole enrolls at West Point.
George joins the Green Berets and is killed during a Viet Cong ambush in 1968. This is a significant turning point in The Boy’s life, and any remaining vestiges of childhood innocence are now gone.
From this point on, the book returns to stories of The Boy’s youth, the implication being that he longs to recapture that time of simplicity.
Minnesota Boy is unusual in narrative style. The non-linear timeline keeps it from being a straightforward memoir. Neither is it a fictional account, though the conversations are clearly retellings.
The eclectic blend of personal essay, fiction, and poetry is interspersed with the author’s photos taken during the 1960s. Although an abstract addition, the black-and-white artistic photos illustrate the story.
Under normal circumstances, the various elements of the book—dialogue, photos, third-person narrative, and poetry—would be hard-pressed to form anything but a jumbled mess. Foster makes it work and pulls the reader into The Boy’s history with a relaxed, conversational tone that allows the reader to imagine they are sitting on the porch during a lazy summer afternoon, listening to an elderly relative or neighbor talk about “the good old days.”
Even though the book is set in Mankato and references persons and places that people from the time period and town would recognize, it is easy to imagine that the stories and events could have happened in any small American town during that era.
In many respects, Minnesota Boy is similar to Tim Jollymore’s Observation Hill. Although fiction rather than memoir, Observation Hill contains autobiographical elements. The time periods overlap so there are corresponding world events, such as the McCarthy Era and the Vietnam War.
Foster is more eloquent than Jollymore, whose sentence structure is less refined, while Foster treats the reader as intelligent and draws us in with his languid, casual style.
Some readers may be put-off by the non-linear progression. Foster starts with a story from his early childhood, jumps immediately into mid-adolescence, traipses back to early family history, and then flits back and forth between adulthood and childhood. There is no explanation for this and it’s confusing. Certain parts could have been left out, such as his ancestors’ immigration, while I wanted to know more about his grandmother and his mother, who is mentioned only in passing. I would have been interested to know more about her personality, interests, and her influence on The Boy.
Readers may be tempted to give up early due to the unusual storyline, but stay with it. Foster has a story to tell, and it is one many people will find worth telling.
★ ★ ★ ½
Kris Milstead is a nerd insomniac. When she is not surfing the Internet or watching Doctor Who, she can probably be found reading and working on her next book review. You can follow her on Twitter at medelle71 or email her at email@example.com.