Sawbill: A Search For Place

by Jennifer Case

University of New Mexico Press, 2018. $19.95


ReviewED by Whitney Jacobson

Where are we from? What is the memory of a place? How have our actions shaped the places we’ve occupied? These are some of the questions Jennifer Case meditates upon in her memoir Sawbill: A Search for Place.

Readers are plunged into her quest to understand the history of Sawbill, a northern Minnesota resort her grandparents owned for four years when her father was growing up, as she moves from Minnesota to Nebraska and New York while pursuing graduate degrees. In uprooting herself and recognizing the holes such movements create, she looks to Sawbill, via documents, photos, interviews, and immersion, for traces of her family’s legacy and as a signpost toward home. 

Given today’s uprooted culture, her relocation concerns are particularly appropriate, as I have also considered how to move my life forward while avoiding leaving valuables behind or taking places for granted. In the past ten years, I’ve moved to thirteen different addresses while my parents moved three times to three different states. I’m thankful to have been at the same address for the past three years.  

As a child, Case enjoyed family hiking trips along the North Shore of Minnesota, but her immediate family never spent significant time at the resort. When she moves out on her own and observes her family’s parallel chosen displacement, Case grapples with how to create a home and make a significant positive mark on her immediate environment: “What I want, I realize, is a visible family history. I want a lifetime of gulps before tunnels. I want to tighten my child’s backpacking straps. More than anything, I want my grandparents and parents and children to all share a loved place, so that I can sense their footprints in the dirt and pine needles, their breath in the air” (174-175). 

Case regularly challenges her own perceptions, attitudes, and convictions and acknowledges the slippery nature of nostalgic history: “I like thinking I know more about the Argobust family than Thorp did and that my image of them is somehow more complex and thus true. But of course it isn’t” (71). Yet, her intricate blending of family chronicles, personal experience, Minnesota’s geography, and philosophies of place effectively navigates the spectrum between reality and imagination, memory and truth, wishes and acquiescence to create a stimulating read for anyone who has asked how the past influences the present. 

As she vividly rendered her North Shore experiences, I was inclined to superimpose my experiences at cabins and voyages on hiking trails. I’ve visited my grandparents’ 1970s cabin every year (minus one) of my life—each time I open the car door upon arriving, and each time I open the cabin door each summer, I inhale deeply, infusing the damp, earthy, and musty scent of memory into my cells. Her family’s loss of Sawbill makes me all the more protective of that tradition. 

If there is a disappointment about the book to be identified, it is one Case acknowledges herself: that Sawbill can no longer be fully experienced—that there will always be holes and unresolvable longing for what was.