Categorized | IN OUR COMMUNITY

So people won’t forget…

Posted on 11 February 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Novel focuses on mining strike of 1916

Longfellow author Megan Marsnik said she agreed with the statement made by author Toni Morrison: “If there is a book you want to read and you can’t find it, you must write it.” (Photo by Jan Willms)

Megan Marsnik wrote her novel “Under Ground,” based on the mining strike of 1916 in northern Minnesota so that people would not forget.
Marsnik teaches creative writing and philosophy in Minnesota and has written poetry, short stories and two unpublished novels. But when she returned to her home town of Bilabik on the Iron Range about 10 years ago for a class reunion, she sensed a story waiting to be told.
“I ran into a bunch of old friends, and I noted a lot of anti-union sentiment,” Marsnik recalled. “Up until then, the area had always been strongly pro-union and voted Democratic. We’re the reason we got Wellstone elected.” She said the Iron Range voters were strong supporters of candidates who stood for labor and human rights in general.
“Things were starting to shift,” Marsnik said. “Union membership was declining, dropping to between 6 and 11 percent. And a strange anti-immigrant sentiment was starting to crop up. I could see it sprouting and could not understand it.”
Marsnik said she, like most of her friends, is two generations removed from the immigrants who first settled in the Iron Range. She described herself as being very curious about why this anti-immigrant feeling was emerging.
“My theory is that people forget,” she claimed. “Once you are no longer hungry and have a job or insurance or a little money set aside in case your car breaks down, you start to forget the feelings of poverty.”

Suspenseful and traumatic
She started doing research into the mining strike of 1916, which had been a huge turning point on the Iron Range. Marsnik took a sabbatical from her teaching and researched for two years. “There was a strike in 1907 that failed, but in 1916 it was more a point of no return,” she said. “Almost everyone living on the Range was hugely impacted.”
As she started researching her book, Marsnik said she went on the ideological premise that stories can turn people’s minds. “This was a story that had not been told, and I know why,” she reflected. “It is rooted in trauma. It may seem suspenseful with twists and turns, but to the people who lived it, it was traumatizing. They did not want to talk about it.”
She said that even though she grew up on the Range, she and a lot of others did not know the stories. “I knew them better than most, because I worked at the Range Research Center. But many people had never told their own families these stories of violence and intimidation,” Marsnik said. “They were things people wanted to forget, but they should not be forgotten.”

Love poem to the Iron Range
Marsnik tells the story of “Under Ground” from the perspective of Katka, a young immigrant from Slovenia who journeys to Bilabik to live with her uncle and his family after her parents have died from typhoid. Although Marsnik is the granddaughter of immigrants, she said she had never envisioned herself as Katka. “I needed someone coming into the Range for the first time. If I had written from the perspective of someone like me, who had already been there, it would have been from a very different viewpoint,” she noted.
“Katka is one of the very few characters who is not based on someone real. She embodies things I admire, but I have been surprised by how much people like her. I did not work on her character very much; she was the storyteller.”
As the story progresses, however, Katka does become an Iron Ranger. “There is something that happens at the end of the book, and it had to happen that way,” Marsnik said. “It really is a love poem to the Iron Range.”
“Under Ground” first appeared in serialized form in the Star Tribune in 2015. “I finished the novel in 2014, and went back to work teaching and put it aside. But I saw an ad that the paper was looking for manuscripts that had an Iron Range connection,” Marsnik said. “I did not even think; I just sent it off and got a response in 24 hours, asking me to send the rest of the book. I was incredibly surprised, but it was a good choice. Thousands of people were able to read this story.”
The Star Tribune had the rights to the book for four years, but Marsnik was able to negotiate to get them back in three years. “Bill Burleson said he would publish, so I never even shopped it around,” she said. “I love his work, and we are friends. I just respect him. I know how hard it is to make it in the publishing world.”
The book came out this past July, and Marsnik immediately started touring with 11 readings. She said she very deliberately wrote the book for the people of northern Minnesota. “I launched it in my home town and then went to Ely and Madeline Island, among other locations,” she observed.

Book belongs to readers
Marsnik said she was telling her students a week or two ago about how to show and not tell. “I was telling them how to express emotion without saying it. You can be the best writer in the world and still not convey the emotion you want,” she said
“Once you have written a book, it is no longer yours,” Marsnik explained. “It becomes the emotion of your reader. That book is theirs. The story is very different depending on who is reading it.”
According to Marsnik, the people of northern Minnesota were so happy to have a book with characters with names that sounded like theirs.
Most of the local characters in “Under Ground” are fictional, but the union organizers who appear in the book are real. ‘It was a decision I had to make,” Marsnik said. “I wanted to make it clear that during the strike of 1916, everyone was watching. I think it’s important that Eugene Debs gets more attention than in history books.” She also wrote about union organizer Elizabeth Gurly Flynn. “I did a lot of research, and determined where she was at this month and time.”
Marsnik said the important thing for her is to just write, whether a book is published or not.
“A lot of people say they are writers, but they never write. A writer is one who writes. It has nothing to do with publishing. It is about the discipline,” she noted.
Even her students would laugh at her if they saw her process of research, Marsnik said. “I use different colors for characters, and I like to have my yellow notebook and put post-it notes on the wall. I like to be able to organize it myself,” she commented.
Marsnik said there is never a time she is not writing, and her next book of historical fiction is about Nina Clifford. ‘She was a really important woman in St. Paul who owned a brothel,” Marsnik said. “She was a mover and a shaker who started the first African American orphanage in the Twin Cities.”

History rhymes
Reflecting back on “Under Ground,” Marsnik said that if you look at reports from the time, stories were whitewashed to make the conditions sound less brutal than they were.
“I felt if people remembered these stories that have been forgotten, we may not repeat the mistakes. Someone said that history does not repeat itself, it just rhymes,” she remarked.
“I was thinking how is it possible people my age have anti-immigrant feelings, when their own parents and grandparents were immigrants.”
She wrote her book so people would not forget.


“Flexible Press is housed in the Longfellow neighborhood – literally housed, since it’s a home-based business. Or even more precisely, a neighborhood restaurant-based business, since that’s where we meet and I do most of my work.” said William Burleson. “In 2020, technology means we can farm out all the printing and distribution, so all that we need to do is focus on the writing.”
“I and a group of fellow writers started Flexible Press to give voice to authors and at the same time support the community and support mission-driven causes. We now have four books out, two of which we have devoted all the profit to local non-profits.”
“Under Ground” is the publishing company’s first novel. Burleson said he is excited to be able to help Megan put this important historical fiction out there at a time he thinks we really need to learn from history – namely histories of the labor movement, of immigration, and of women.
Next will be a poetry anthology called “Rewilding” from Split Rock Review and edited by Crystal Gibbons, who is a rising star in the world of poets. All the profits from that will go to Friends of the Boundary Waters.
“We hope that this is just a start. We want to grow while not drifting off our mission. There are just so many great authors who need to be heard, and so much opportunity to help along the way,” Burleson said.
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