Q&A with Biwabik Native, Author Megan Marsnik

Megan Marsnik’s new novel, “Under Ground,” which covers the Iron Range and the 1916 mining strike

My dad sat on our back porch, book in hand, one recent June afternoon. The warm sun filtered through the evergreens that bordered our small yard. Dogs laid on either side of his lawn chair, dozing.

Although the house had been built in 1912 the back porch was only a few years old. I realized that this juxtaposition was mirrored in the book he read as he told me about the history of the Iron Range he was learning in “Under Ground.”

“Where is Biwabik?” he asked. “Is it near Ely?” Soon we had the state map sitting on the table in front of us.

“I’m glad your dad is reading the book,” said a recent email from Biwabik native and author, Megan Marsnik.

Dad laughed when I showed him that email. We then went on a quick road trip through the East Range, with the excuse of A&W at the end.

“So this is Biwabik,” he said getting a feel for the setting of the book he had just finished.

“That is where the book launch is planned for on July 6,” I said pointing to Vi’s Pizza and TNT Bar.

It turned out that A&W was closed so we turned through the parking lot and retraced our way back through Aurora, Biwabik, Gilbert, Eveleth, discussing miners and unions the whole way home.

Area native, Megan Marsnik is the author of the recently published “Under Ground”. The granddaughter of Slovenian immigrants, and the daughter of political activists, Marsnik pulled from her childhood in Biwabik, family and regional history to paint a story of the Iron Range in the early 20th century.

“Under Ground” is published by Flexible Press, has a retail price of $16.99 for paperback and ISBN of 978-1733976305. “Under Ground” is available in print, ebook and through Kindle.

“Under Ground” was released serialization by the Star Tribune and was published in daily installments from May until September of 2015. This novel has been extended from its serialized form. “Under Ground” is now available for purchase online and will be available everywhere this July.

Marsnik currently teaches philosophy and creative writing at an inner-city high school in Minneapolis. Many of her students are immigrants or first and second generation Americans. Marsnik speaks extensively on history of U.S. labor and the role that immigrant women played.

Marsnik has two daughters, Maddy and Georgia, and a son, Quincy.

Marsnik recently answered questions from the Mesabi Daily News over email from her home in Minneapolis about her new book which is based on the Iron Range and focuses on the mining strike of 1916.

Tell us about your book “Under Ground". Could you give us a quick glimpse into the plot/theme without spoiling anything?

“Under Ground”, published by Flexible Press, is fiction, but based closely on true events that happened in or near Biwabik during the tumultuous mining strike of 1916. Almost all of the characters are based on real people, people whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren still live on the Range. It is told from the perspective of Katka Kovich, who emigrates from Slovenia to Biwabik and joins a community of poor immigrant workers who are brutally exploited by the mining company. Katka and her aunt and uncle run a boarding house for miners, much like my grandmother’s family did in Ely, MN. The character of Lily is, in part, inspired by my grandmother Mary, who told me countless stories of her life working in the boarding house. The boarding house becomes an epicenter for union organizing, and soon, Katka and her aunt begin printing a secret “underground” newspaper to document the womens’ feelings about the strike. Eventually, seeking a better future for their children, the women take over the strike.

This fast-paced tale of an immigrant uprising chronicles the attack on labor unions, the dehumanization of workers, and the use of fear to dismantle civil liberties. It is also a bit of a love story, as Katka develops a passion for a mysterious young anarchist who has a price on his head. Young Katka reminds us that there are things worth dying for, but more importantly, there are things to live for.

Why did you write “Under Ground"? Why did you feel the world needed this book? What lessons does the book pass on?

I love history, and I was lucky enough to have family and many teachers who taught me to be proud of where I come from. As a teenager working at the Iron Range Research Center [housed in the Minnesota Discovery Center], I delved into Iron Range history, particularly the stories told by women like my grandmother. Although I had been teaching multicultural literature for years, it dawned on me that I had never read a book written from the perspective of someone like me: an Slovenian Iron Ranger who was taught to embrace the traditions of the old country, while actively fighting to make America more closely resemble the promise that had lured my grandparents and great-grandparents here. Novelist Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” That’s what I did when I wrote “Under Ground”.

Iron Rangers are some of the strongest and most intelligent people I know. The men and women in this book were also heroes: despite being immigrants, they did amazingly brave things. The strike depicted in this book changed America. Before that, there was no such thing as a “weekend.” There was no such thing as an eight-hour work day. Iron Rangers made many sacrifices to bring dignity to workers all across this country. Some lost their lives doing it. Most people don’t know that, but they will when they finish this book. The striking families knew that the sacrifices they made would not necessarily benefit themselves; they hoped it would benefit their children. And it did. Iron Rangers are still like that. There is almost nothing an Iron Ranger won’t do to make life better for those who come after them.

The lessons subtly communicated in this book are simple ones: remember where you come from. Don’t underestimate the contributions of women. As my grandmother used to say, “Women hold up three corners of the house.” Don’t take for granted your rights as a worker. They were hard fought. And crucial. Unions are only as strong as their members, and sometimes, they fail. But when they work well, unions make it possible for poor people to rise out of the lower classes and into the middle class. They brought us healthcare. They brought us pensions. They brought us sick leave. More than a hundred years have passed since the 1916 strike, but we are still fighting for immigrants to be treated with dignity, for women to be treated fairly, and for workers to bargain collectively to increase wages.

Did you start imagining this story when you were younger or as an adult when you decided to write a book?

No. I had written countless stories. One day I decided to write about the Range. I poured through old publications until I ran across a short article about some brutal murders that had taken place in a boarding house for miners in Biwabik, not far from where my sister Mary lives now. I was shocked at the detail. And as I researched, I couldn't believe how involved the women were in the events the precipitated and came after that very momentous moment in U.S. history. I had found my story.

What do your children and family think of the book?

I began the book many years ago. At that time, one of my children advised me, "It sounds good, but I think you should put a wizard in it." Obviously, my daughter was young and Harry Potter was all the rave. I didn't put a wizard in it.

My kids are now grown and old enough to understand that “Under Ground” tells a key chapter in their personal, yet deeply embedded history. My kids were not born on the Range, and for that, they have missed out on some key things. In part, I wrote the book for them, so that they would know the stories that helped shape them into the young people they are today. I have five sisters and a brother. All of them are very proud and glad that the book exists. They read early drafts and were quick to point out where I screwed up. The joy of siblings!

My parents both read the book in manuscript form, but they died before it was serialized in the Strib. At the onset of my writing, I spent 18 months exclusively doing research. My dad had recently retired from teaching, and he was bored. I would call him on the phone and say, "Can you research everything you can on Eugene Debs?" He had an expansive library of non-fiction books, particularly hard to find, small press books related to social justice issues. So he would read, and read, and then call me back. We'd talk for hours about what to include and what not to include. My mother knew everyone in town, and she linked me to a lot of women who wrote about the strike and women on the Range. Both of my parents were an invaluable resource: they gave me access to information I never would have found online.

Where did your family immigrate from and when?

My paternal grandmother was born in Ely, but her parents emigrated from Ljubljana in Slovenia when she was a toddler. Her first husband also emigrated from Slovenia. When he died, she remarried my grandfather, Gregor, who was born not far from Ljubljana. He was was part Croatian. My maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland.

Is your grandmother alive? What do you imagine her saying about the book?

My grandmother passed long before I had envisioned “Under Ground”. But I listened to her oral history at least a dozen times while writing the book. It was nice to hear her voice; it calmed me. In the eighties, my grandmother (Mary Marsnik) was named first runner up for "Minnesota Mother of the Year," so she was an extraordinary human being in every right. She was a fabulous storyteller. When I was little, I had a godmother who was a nun and lived far away. She came home for two weeks every summer, and because I was her godchild, I had the unbelievable privilege of spending those two weeks in Ely with my godmother, my grandmother, and my Uncle Ray who still lived with her then in Ely. We would spend those weeks rolling out potica, making Geneva Fluff, eating Sarma and Polish sausage. And my grandmother would talk, and talk. She was born in Ely, and her immigrant parents ran the boarding house for miners, but she started cooking for the miners before she was seven. When she received a marriage proposal at the age of fourteen from a Slovenian immigrant miner, she took it. I asked her why, and she said, "Oh, Mega. You have no idea of the work women did! " She loved her husband, but she said "yes" because she figured that taking care of one man seemed a whole lot easier than taking care of a houseful. Little did she know, she would go on to have 13 children; I don't think her workload lessened! But as she aged, her children did not hesitate to take care of her. That's not something you see so much anymore. They were 100% devoted to her. When she died, I think she knew that her children had in fact achieved the American dream. Many of them became teachers. Almost all of them were active in politics, and not always the same kind of politics. I had an uncle who used to golf with Dan Quail. Another who was a card-carrying member of the communist party. My grandmother loved them all, and loved that in America, people had the right to do and think as they pleased, without the threat of jail.

What sort of family stories/legends were you told growing up that sparked your interest of this history?

My parents were active in politics, liberal politics. My dad used to say, "those who have the least, give the most." He might have been right. My mother volunteered at food shelves, and worked in mental health. She was a sure advocate for women. My parents also took in extra children. Anyone who needed a safe place to be, had a plate set for them at our very busy dinner table. I eventually took in extra children too. Perhaps I got that from her. Both of my parents had a strong moral compass; one that stressed compassion for all.

I am interested in hearing more about the connection between your writing and your work with children of immigrants. Were you able to draw from stories of your students?

Sometimes we hear that "We are a nation of immigrants." Of course, that is only partly true. The indigenous people were here first, and the atrocities they faced are horrendous, often at the hands of the new "settlers" or colonizers. Other people came on ships unwillingly, as slaves, which is another horrifying truth of this nation. So we are not completely a nation of immigrants. But it is significant for those of us who came from immigrant stock to realize that we are not much different from the Somali immigrants, the Mexican immigrants, the refugees from Syria. My grandparents and great grandparents endured much of the same racism and indignities that the parents of some of my students endure now. It's important to remember that. To be reminded of our common humanity. That a dream is a dream is a dream, no matter what the dreamer looks like or sounds like. We must practice the compassion for new Americans that our ancestors did not receive. We must not repeat the inhumane acts of history. We must become better, kinder. I think about that when I work with students whose parents are immigrants. We do have much in common, but not everything. On the Range, some parents tried desperately to erase their children' accents. They knew that if they could "talk American" they would face less discrimination. It was true, if their complexion was European. Many of my students have already erased their accents, and they gain certain privileges for that. But because their skin is brown or black, they continue to be discriminated against in a way European immigrants are not.

Who should read “Under Ground”? Is it appropriate for children/teens or was your main audience adults?

I think everyone should read it, especially people who have roots on the Range. It will make you proud and surprised. Biwabik, in 1916, was a pretty lawless place. At times, it was violent. Some scenes in the book take place in brothels. Some depict murder in cold blood. So it is not appropriate for children, but mature high school age kids could read it. It is definitely less graphic than Game of Thrones!

How has been the reception of “Under Ground”?

When the abridged version of the novel was serialized in the Star Tribune, it was estimated that over 20,000 people read it. Because it was only available in the newspaper and in E-book, many others did not. The paperback has only been available for about a week, and sales are good. I am hopeful.

Tell us about the cover. What is the idea behind it?

My publisher, William Burleson of Flexible Press, and I went through several rounds of discussing cover options. He came up with several great ones, most with images of pickaxes or work hats. I liked them, but because this book is told from the perspective of a female, I wanted the cover to resemble, in spirit, what I imagine Iron Range Women to be: sturdy like the rocks on the cover, but also delicate, tender, and feminine, like the beautiful flower. One of my best friends, Liz Otremba, is a designer. She had read the e-book version, and when I told her of my cover dilemma, she said, “Let me see what I can do.” She got me. She understood what it is like to be both brave and gentle. I love the cover, and her for designing it. If you look very closely, you might see the silhouette of a woman.

On what are you currently working?

I’ve been working on a new historical fiction novel about an infamous woman from St. Paul: Nina Clifford.

Upcoming Readings and Book signings:

July 6 Book Launch at Vi's Pizza and TNT Bar in Biwabik starting at 4 p.m. Special guests: Shelby Setnicker and Susan Setnicker Jorstad on accordions.

July 26 Beer and Books at Sulu's in Tower 4-7p.m. Special guest: Underground mine tour guide Karel Winkelaar.

July 27 Water Carnival Craft Show in Hoyt Lakes, selling books from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

July 27th Reading at Piragis in Ely during the Blueberry Festival 4-6 p.m.

July 28th Sand Lake at a private book club Fundraiser for Scholarships for Iron Range Kids

August 5th a book reading and signing at the Madeline Island Library in La Pointe, Wisconsin starting at 7 p.m.

Links to buy the book can be found at the Flexible Press website.https://www.flexiblepub.com. Megan Marsnik also has an author’s page on Facebook.

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