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Dave Wood's Book Report, Feb. 4, 2009

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Any who has ever dug into a fish dinner at Afton, Minnesota's Catfish Saloon, or licked an ice cream cone from the town's storied ice cream parlor will most certainly want to pick up a copy of "Death Row" ($17.99), by Hal Barnes, available in bookstores and through Lulu.com.

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And if you've never sampled the culinary delights of the beautiful little town pick one up anyway because it's a crackling good mystery, chockfull of international intrigue and contemporary concerns.

Barnes, a Twin Cities business writer, lives in Afton and his infectious enthusiasm for the neighborhood shows.

His hero is Jack Davey, a retiree who is an avid oarsman. One morning he's out on his scow in the St. Croix when he bumps into a dead 14-year-old girl.

The circumstances of her "drowning" is a bit fishy because her lungs are full of chlorinated water, according to Jack's pal in the state's bureau of criminal apprehension.

Even more weird, it turns out that the girl is the granddaughter of Jack's neighbor whose farm abuts in Wild Turkey. (The passage in which Barnes writes about the etiquette of wild turkey hunting is fascinating.)

A conversation between Jack and the neighbor reveals that the neighbor was the American member of the gang that pulled the famous British Great Train robbery.

Scotland Yard gets into the act and offers the old neighbor immunity if Jack will help them solve the crime and lead it to the other robbers.

Turns out the bank note was part of a "Cold War" plan between the U.S. and Great Britain.

This leads Jack to England's historical museums, World War II and even William the Conqueror and then back to the present and a British real estate firm that wants the Afton neighborhood redistricted.

Taxes will go up and force Jack out and his neighbors will be forced to sell and their bucolic neighborhood will become a thing of the past.

This is good stuff, gentle reader. For years I've applauded Mary Logue's Clair Watkins series, also set on the St. Croix. The same goes for author Barnes, who adds additional historical and political layers to Logue's already fascinating setting.

Over the years my membership on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, selections of its honorees always puzzled me. Did they always have to be from Out East?

So it was with great joy that I learned not long ago that the year's award went to our own Emilie Buchwald, a Holocaust émigré who made her way to Minneapolis and began one of the nation's most successful small publishing firms, Milkweed Editions, a quarter century ago.

Not too many years ago I wrote a piece about Milkweed for the Washington Post magazine, BookWorld. The editors in D.C. apparently figured I didn't know what I was talking about, so changed my spelling to MilkWOOD Editions.

The East Coast doesn't make mistakes like that anymore because Milkweed, unlike many of the small presses born in the 1970s, is here to stay.

Emilie, bless her, is retired and watches Milkweed move on, as attested by its 2009 catalog. Its offerings include new young authors and some I thought might have disappeared if left to the wiles of New York publishers.

Included among this year's Milkweed offerings are two older books by Wisconsin author David Rhodes, "The Easter House" ($15 paper) first published by Harper & Row and "Driftless" ($16 paper) published in hardcover last year.

In 2004, Minnesota native Paul Gruchow, a friend and writing colleague, took his own life, but not the wonderful books he wrote during his troubles here on Earth.

A quarter century ago, I reviewed his "Journal of a Prairie Year." Milkweed has just reissued it in paper at $14.

"Letters of a Madman," (cloth, $22) is a collection of Paul's essays on his mental problems.

And, finally, there is Emilie's own children's book, "Floramel and Esteban" ($16.95 cloth), illustrated by Charles Robinson.

Dave Wood, former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, writes "Book Report" for 30 upper Midwestern newspapers. He can be reached at (715) 426-9554.

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