Review of Karen Babine's Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

Some writers make you feel like you’re coming home after a long, hard day. You kick off your shoes, stretch out on your favorite couch or recliner, and say to yourself, “maybe today isn’t so bad.”

Karen Babine’s introduction to Water and What We Know might have led me into this feeling: she contemplatively sits on the couch at her grandparents’ beloved cabin with a warm mug of tea at her elbow, looking out the window at a lake beyond. But it was more than that: it was her loving appreciations and contemplation of her Scandinavian and Minnesotan roots, and her fixation on water—both its beauty and its danger. It was her love of simple things like the variety of greens in Minnesota. As Babine says, it’s “more than a color and more than textures. Green becomes the color of light; it becomes the taste in your mouth when you wake up in the morning and step outside your camper; it becomes a sound.”

My personal connection to Babine’s lovely book of essays does not mean that it is only relegated to those of us who have an appreciation and longing for the north woods, however. At its heart, this book is about an “ethic of place.” For Babine, this is more than mere location: “Place is context, everything you bring to a location.” It means connecting to and understanding where we are: its geography, its environment, its history, the good and bad that we should remember and often forget.

This is an ethic any reader can connect with, and Babine makes our connection effortless. In a deeper meditation on the mythology and desire we give to the idea of “the North,” she brings in such oddities as Roald Amundsen’s teeth, two of which were donated to Concordia College after a bit of dental difficulty the famed arctic explorer encountered during a lecture tour. Silliness and delight that nevertheless relates to a point is always enjoyable in a writer. I was similarly slain by the voice of Babine’s grandmother in the essay “The Inheritance of Apples.” Besides passing on philosophy about life and apples, Babine’s grandmother also pronounces some apple cider they drink to be “too zippy.”

Details like this all evoke a feeling of place in the reader, so we’re each drawn into a connection with the places she describes. When she describes the great floods that regularly take place on the Red River, particularly that of 1997, we’re right there with those who fought to save their homes, only to see the floodwaters rush in despite days of backbreaking labor. When the firsthand account of a Grand Forks resident says, “If we could have had one more row of sandbags, we might have been fine,” we can feel our own shoulders slump. We had a dike that could hold back a river that rose to 53 ½ feet, but it rose to 54. This is not math, this is life. “Ground yourself,” Babine urges, and she makes it hard not to do so with these places and stories that she brings to life.

These days, it is perhaps too easy to remain comfortable—to sit in our favorite chair and let the world spin by. While something of Babine’s essays felt like home to me, they also pushed me to get to know more about home, this place where I (and all of her readers) live. Whether you’re a kindred spirit to the north woods or the most confirmed city dweller, she reminds us that the only way we can be grounded in this world is to know our place in it. 


Neal is an Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program. He loves all types of writing, but particularly fiction writing that has a strong voice. If it includes some speculative elements (such as magical realism), that's even better. He serves as the Contributing Fiction and Non-fiction Reader for Split Rock Review.