Thursday, June 2, 2016

In 1920s Minnesota, Prohibition created moral dilemmas, violence—and opportunity.

To be alive is to take risks every single second of every single day.
—from Mary Casanova's Ice-Out


The University of Minnesota Press is giving away advance copies of Ice-OutSign up for a chance to win here! Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.



As with my earlier novel Frozen, the inspiration for Ice-Out's setting comes from where I live on Rainy Lake, Minnesota. Perched in our 100-year-old home, I gaze across the bay at the lift bridge that joins Minnesota and Canada. It's easy to imagine an earlier time during Prohibition when trains with concealed casks of Canadian whiskey rolled through this sleepy village of Ranier. When federal agents discovered a railcar with Canadian whiskey, they rolled the confiscated casks onto the frozen shore and shattered them with axes. Recognizing a different kind of opportunity, locals rushed in with cups and buckets.

In the early 1920s, Ranier and nearby International Falls formed the backdrop for a compelling cast of historical characters and events. A wealthy industrialist was determined to turn the watershed into a series of hydropower dams. A budding environmentalist fought to stop him. A corrupt sheriff known for taking bribes was dismissed by the state governor. The newly appointed sheriff and his deputy, overly zealous to stop bootlegging, bent the laws to their own ends. To the outrage of locals, for example, a bootlegger was shot in the back as he crossed the river, returning to Canada; the sheriff claimed the bullet ricocheted off the water. When two bootleggers were arrested on Rainy Lake, one man begged not to be handcuffed and lost his life when the law enforcement vehicle went through the ice; the remaining bootlegger was blackmailed into secrecy. A kingpin Ranier bootlegger with ties to Chicago won the devotion of his many employees, who chose to serve prison time over testifying against their employer. As a rivalry between this bootlegger and the sheriff escalated, the unthinkable happened: on a routine arrest at a shack for check forgery, the sheriff and deputy were shot and killed.

Owen's character—a young man trying to support his family and establish a business amid the ambiguous moral standards of his hometown—is shaped largely from stories about my own father. Born in Chisholm, Minnesota, during the Depression, my father's early years were hardscrabble. As a boy, and at his mother's instruction, he trailed his father from bar to bar to gather his father's loose change. To earn money for groceries, he raised, trained, and sold white rats. Owen's journey became a way for me to explore my own father's drive for success and his determination to create a different life for himself. I wanted to explore the nature of ambition and what propels us. Owen's father tells him: Everything comes at a price. When does ambition blind us to costs along the way? In the end, Owen must confront hard choices—and the truth—in order to understand the restorative power of love and the true measure of a man.

On this northern frontier, Prohibition created opportunity. Bootleggers smuggled high-quality whiskey via trains, Model T's rigged for rough terrain, small airplanes, and boats. Poised to transport booze from Canada to a thirsty nation, a cottage industry exploded, and with it, accompanying violence, moral dilemmas, and countless untold stories.


Mary Casanova is author of more than thirty books for young readers, ranging from picture books like Wake Up, Island to novels like Frozen and Moose Tracks. Her books are on many state reading lists and have earned the American Library Association Notable Award, Booklist Editors' Choice, and two Minnesota Book Awards. She speaks frequently around the country at readings and library conferences. She lives with her husband and dogs in a turn-of-the-century house in Ranier, Minnesota, perched on the Canadian border.

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