Cold Comfort: Life at the Top of the Map
by Barton Sutter
University of Minnesota Press
Summary: Duluth, Minnesota, is well off the beaten path for most tourists. But in the nonfiction Cold Comfort, Barton Sutter captures the region’s idiosyncratic appeal. Unfortunately, he also subjects the reader to lengthy digressions on all of life’s tragedies.
Review: For some reason, I’ve always wanted to travel to the upper Great Lakes. The region isn’t a typical tourist destination and it enjoys cool summers at a time when the South – where I live – is roasting. Wanting to learn more about the region, I came across Barton Sutter’s Cold Comfort, which focuses on the “Arrowhead region” around Duluth, Minnesota.
A Writer’s Eye
Cold Comfort is based on a series of writings that Sutter presented on Minnesota Public Radio. Each chapter is a short episode about some aspect of life in northeast Minnesota. Though this format can make the book a bit choppy, readers will find that Cold Comfort is easy to put down and pick up later, as each chapter is a “self-contained story.”
Certainly, Sutter helps bring alive an overlooked region of the U.S. There simply isn’t much to read if one wants to learn more about life around Lake Superior. Much of Cold Comfort focuses on Sutter’s appreciation for nature and his prose is often vivid. Consider his description of a time when he heard timber wolves:
“One autumn day my wife and I took a break from fishing Big Secret and dragged our canoe up a granite slab. Coffee time. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, out of deep silence, came the howl of timber wolves: one voice at first – one long, lonely, wavering note – then several songs from other throats, twisting and twining around the first. My wife and I locked eyes, then gazed away at the green horizon. This music was more unearthly than Gregorian chant. Those animal voices rose and fell, quavered, and drifted away like smoke. The silence was deeper after they stopped. I looked at my watch. I’d waited thirty years to hear timber wolves howl, and their song had lasted less than three minutes. I felt like a mystic who had finally heard the voice of God” (p. 206).
Fortunately, Cold Comfort contains many strong passages. My favorite chapter concerns the death of an old hermit named Emil (pages 167-174). After Emil’s death, Sutter and his wife visit Emil’s former home, view his abandoned possessions, and speculate about what life must have been like for Emil.
Gloom, Doom, & Occasional Malice
For better and for worse, Cold Comfort is as much about Sutter as it is about Duluth. Sutter does a great job of explaining his love for the region, but he also forces the reader to endure lengthy passages about his failed marriage, alcoholism, and his past brushes with suicidal thoughts.
Indeed, there is a sadness that is never far from the surface in Cold Comfort. Sutter often contemplates death and tragedy. Consider Sutter’s bittersweet memories of his father’s and uncles’ blueberry picking –
“And I recalled a family photograph taken almost forty years ago. My father’s brothers had come visiting, and he’d guided them across the border to his special spots. They’d found the mother lode, and they stand there in the snapshot like hunters with their trophies, their smiles broad and brilliant, their white shirts blinding in the sun, each of them extending proudly in his arms a peach crate heaped with wild berries. I know those men.They’re gray and trembling now, nearing death, each one of them. Yet they stand there, young and strong, in my mental picture of that photograph, making this grand gesture of abundance” (p. 177).
Occasionally, Sutter’s melancholia descends into malice. In one scene, Sutter describes staying in a Michigan bed and breakfast that once belonged to a man who made a fortune in copper –
“The room had been carefully constructed to keep out moths and all manner of corruption, but the fancy suits and gowns were long gone now, the rich man himself gone into the ground, and it was richly satisfying to contemplate that rich man’s end and see how the home of that expert exploiter of others had been opened to the hoi polloi at last” (p. 164).
Heading Back Home
Eventually, I’ll make it Lake Superior – probably during the summer months. In the mean time, Cold Comfort offered me a short, easy read that – despite its flaws – was worth a look.