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Milford mining disaster in Crosby spotlighted in new novella

A picture of Jenny Robertson next to the cover of her book "Hoist House: A Novella and Stories." The book cover shows a sunset over water.
Jenny Robertson/contributed
"Hoist House: A Novella and Stories," is a book by Lake Shore native Jenny Robertson.

Jenny Robertson grew up in the woods of Lake Shore, Minn. Her new book Hoist House: A Novella and Stories is described as weaving tales of immigrant life, worker exploitation and the tensions and dangers of growing up with the American dream.

CROSBY — The 1924 Milford mining disaster in Crosby was the worst such occurrence in Minnesota history.

Now the site of Milford Mine Memorial Park, the mine shaft collapsed and underground tunnels filled with water, claiming the lives of 41 miners.

“I grew up so close to that area and I had never heard of it,” said Robertson in an April 25 conversation on the KAXE Morning Show.

Robertson, whose childhood was spent in the woods near Lake Shore, Minn., recently published a new book Hoist House: A Novella and Stories. The book is described as weaving tales of immigrant life, worker exploitation and the tensions and dangers of growing up with the American dream. The Crosby mining disaster is the subject of the book’s novella.

Historic photo of seven mine workers lined up next to one another at a mine site.
Crow Wing County via Cuyuna Country Heritage Preservation Society
Some of the Milford Mine crew before the disaster. Superintendent Harry Middlebrook, left, Steve “Bubash” Perpich, Martin Valencich, Frank Hrvatin Jr., Gust Snyder, Jacob Ravnick and Clyde Revord. Valencich and Revord died in the Milford accident. Nearly 15-year-old Frank Hrvatin Jr., escaped, but his father did not. Jacob Ravnik also climbed the ladder to safety.

Many of those who worked in the Northern Minnesota mines at that time were immigrants from a number of places, including Finland. With a grandfather who is half-Finnish, Robertson assumed she’d get a firsthand perspective. But like the experience of many children of immigrants, becoming “American” was the focus and even the Finnish language was rarely used.

“It puzzled me. But then it was even more interesting — like, what happened to these wild Finns? They were kind of blowing up politics (in the region),” Robertson said, noting Crosby earned the distinction of electing the first Communist mayor in the country in 1932.

Minnesota connections fuel Robertson’s writing

Along with the novella in Hoist House, there is flash fiction and short stories. John Latimer, who co-hosted the Morning Show conversation, was especially intrigued by the nature connections and language she used.

He referenced the chapter Socialista from the book, where she writes, “Her favorite paint was beet blood, deep pink like rabbit muscle freshly freed from its fur.”

Latimer said, “That was such a powerful sentence for me because of the color. I could see, I knew, that color.”

Robertson’s stories are influenced by her early days as a poet and dabbling with painting.

“I’m probably trying to stop time or something,” she said. “I want to capture images before they escape from my view.”

She said she thinks she’s like a lot of writers.

“I kind of write out of a sense of exile and longing for a place that was magical to me as a child,” she said.

In response to the subjects of the short stories in Hoist House, Robertson said, “I’m a little concerned that, you know, some of my relatives might be like, ‘Oh no, we didn’t know all this was in her head.’”

Her short story subjects include a Michigan tornado spotter grieving the end of his marriage and the story of a woman returning to her Minnesota hometown, jilted by her fiancé — a professional clown and predatory man who wanders the woods looking for children.

"I didn't set out to write that story. It just was probably my deepest fear," Robertson said, adding she was a parent to a young child while writing it.

More information on Jenny Robertson’s Hoist House: A Novella and Stories can be found here.

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Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.