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Dave Wood's Book Report, Oct. 7, 2009

I first encountered University of Wisconsin professor Jerry Apps' books on the non fiction shelf. He's written informatively about Wisconsin breweries, Wisconsin agriculture, Wisconsin barns -- 20 non-fiction books in all.

Apps has now turned his attention to fiction. Last year, I reviewed his novel, "In a Pickle," which he derived from his on experiences as the manager of an old-fashioned pickle factory, the kind that used to dot the Wisconsin landscape.

And now I've read his latest, "Blue Shadows Farm" (Terrace Books, $26.95). Like most of his work, it's set in central Wisconsin in the fictional town of Link Lake, near Plainfield, home of the notorious human skin upholsterer Ed Gein.

What is it about the neighborhood that spawns so many interesting writers, like Justin Isherwood of Stevens Point and Ben Logan of the Kickapoo Valley?

I guess there's no answering that question; all I can say is I picked up "Blue Shadows Farm" and had a difficult time putting it down. In it, Apps follows the fortunes of three generations of the Starkweather family and their experiences over a century and a half on the 160 acre farm.

Even in his fiction Apps the educator always shines through. You learn about threshing before combines dominated the activity. You learn about small town life from 1860-2000 -- the taverns, the churches, the mercantile, the dance pavilion, the gossips, the hired man, the intrusion of folks from the Big City who try to impose their wishes on the localities that time forgot -- the Big Citians too often win.

Apps's new story begins when Silas Starkweather is mustered out of the Union army, wounded, and is granted a 160 homestead in Wisconsin, farm from New York State, where he grew up.

Silas doesn't want to farm, but a mysterious note impels him to take the Wisconsin plot. He's different from his Norwegian, Polish and German neighbors, mainly because he fences off his entire farm into five-acre fields, making it difficult to farm and expensive to maintain. His neighbors think he's a bit tetched, possibly from the Confederate musket ball that grazed his skull. Silas marries a neighbor girl (after lots of illicit sex with her).

Their first-born dies of diptheria and later Abe is born. Abe marries a neighbor girl. He turns out to be something of a scoundrel and a drunk. Thank god for his Norwegian wife, who runs the farm. Abe does one thing right. He follows his late father's suggestion to keep up the fences, digging new postholes for the rest of his life. He also gets mixed up with the Chicago gangs during prohibition, making moonshine for them and hauling it with his pigs to market in Chicago.

His still blows up with him alongside and his wife takes over and, of course in due time dies, leaving it to daughter Emma, who tells the story to the present. She also uncovers the answer to all those postholes dug, but you'll have to buy the book if you want the answer.

Apps is a born storyteller and the digging holds a rather unwieldy story together. The book is not without its flaws, especially in Apps's use of dialect, which seems rather wooden. But all in all, it's a fine read and you learn something along the way about how our lives have changed in the past 150 years, how economics threatens to disrupt the Jeffersonian idealism of the family farm.

Newspapers are increasingly in the news these days. You can't go anywhere without someone complaining how thin formerly large newspapers like the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press have become.

And in the few pages that drop on our doorstep each morning, we're treated to long, windy articles about Michael Jackson and Brett Favre as if there was nothing else to write about. Like the economy. Like Afghanistan.

Undeniably conventional newspapers are on the run and this is a very bad sign according to Alex S. Jones in his new book "Losing News" (Oxford University Press, $24.95).

If the newspapers go down, he says, we're left with the internet where anyone can pitch in their two cents' worth.

For democracy to survive, Jones argues, we need to preserve our fact gathering agencies.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.