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Book Report: These tales are close to home

Today let us begin with two very productive upper Midwestern writers who continue to write about our neighborhoods with relish and sometimes very dramatic substance.

First, there's Jerry Apps, a retired University of Wisconsin professor who's written 30 books of fiction and non-fiction.

In the past, Apps has used his own life experiences as a farm boy and later county agent as the basis for such novels as "In a Pickle," a funny whodunit about a Wisconsin pickle factory that ends up being a repository for a local preacher.

Nowadays, when you drive through Wisconsin, you'll be confronted with lots of signs that are pro- and anti-fracking signs as towns do battle with economic realities and ecological conundrums.

Apps has picked up on this with a "Tamerack River Ghost" (University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95), which doesn't go after fracking, but tells a parallel story of a tightly knit neighborhood faced with the prospect of playing host to a huge feedlot that threatens to pollute the region.

If you liked movies like "Food, Inc.," you'll love "Tamerack River Ghost."

Minnesota award winner Mary Casanova makes good use of her residence in Northern Minnesota, near Rainy Lake, in her new book, "Frozen" (University of Minnesota Press, $16.95 paper), a haunting novel inspired by an actual happening long before Casanova's arrival on the Minnesota-Canadian border.

In a note, the author of 30 previous books explains:

"For two decades I have been haunted by an account in Hiram Drache's 'Koochiching' about life in northern Minnesota in the early 1900s. A prostitute was found frozen one morning in the snow; as a joke, someone stood her body up in the corner at the start of a council meeting. This, allegedly, caused quite a stir.

What it churned in me was a deep desire to understand and give a voice to this woman's life and death. Perhaps avenge it....It took years before I started writing this story, but when I did, the story's narrator stepped onto the page: The woman's daughter, Sadie Rose."

Sadie Rose is a quiet little orphan who has been taken in by a wealthy Victorian family, the Worthingtons, but at novel's opening she cannot talk -- until she finds a pile of lurid photos from the past, that turn out to be her mother's.

As time passes, Sadie Rose comes out of her shell, meets an environmentalist based on the life of a real-life environmentalist, Ernest Oberholtzer, who does battle with a lumber baron named Ennis, based on a real-life lumber baron, E.W. Backus.

And so what began as the author's attempt at a feminist tract becomes more than that, an historical novel about the wilds of Minnesota's north country.

Sadie Rose ends up as a student at Gustavus Adolphus College and her mother, frozen in the snow more than a century ago, is avenged.

As a longtime admirer of the writing skills of General and U.S. President Ulysses Grant, I was happy to receive a book which dispels a long-held myth of his failure as U.S. president and entrepreneur.

H.W. Brands, has set about to resurrect Grant's overall strengths in his new book,

"The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace" (Doubleday, $35.95).

Brands covers some old ground: His less-than impressive career at West Point, his failures as a civilian. Then came the Civil War which resurrected Grant, who distinguished himself.

What then?

After Lincoln was shot, Grant feared that the president's successors would undo the work the Great Emancipator had accomplished and though he never had much time for politics, he threw his hat into the race and, according to Brands, became the only president for a century who stood up for civil rights and managed to keep the North and the South from dissolving.