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Author Visits, Book Review, Faculty Research, Graduate English, Undergraduate English

“THE NIX” Book Review

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Nathan Hill, Associate Professor of English and author of The Nix.

The highly anticipated debut novel from St. Thomas Associate Professor of English Nathan Hill, The Nix, is officially released today, August 30th. Selected as one of six hot titles for autumn at BookExpo America, The Nix has received starred book reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and has been listed as a “must read” title by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, Huffington Post, Bookish, The Master’s Reviewand Gear Patrol, as well as by the Strand Bookstore in New York City. International publication will follow in more than a dozen languages. Nathan will give a talk about The Nix, at St. Thomas on October 11th. See our events page for more information!

Rachel Busse, alumna of the St. Thomas English Department and current graduate student, received an advance reader copy and was kind enough to write a review of the book, along with some of her memories of Nathan as a professor. Be sure to pick up your copy today, and let us know what you think in the comments!


nathan review pic option 2Like many students in the UST English Department, I had mixed feelings when I heard that Nathan Hill wouldn’t be returning to teach for my senior year. Nathan was one of the best professors and advisors that I’d met—he was an invaluable guide through the ins and outs of both the publishing industry and the art of writing creatively. It was with his help that I was able to edit and design for the 2015 edition of the Summit Avenue Review, land a summer internship with Graywolf Press, and tend to the roots of a budding writing voice. So for Nathan I was—and will always be—incredibly grateful. Put simply: I was sad to see him go.

But there was a bit of a silver lining—Nathan’s departure meant that we’d eventually get the chance to see what sort of a project would become his full time gig. And see we will, with his debut novel The Nix, which is set to be released at the end of this month. For many of us, this is a long anticipated release; after Nathan came to visit last spring, the entire department was positively humming. The exact magnitude of this buzz became blatantly clear when Nathan was able to fill an entire lecture room on a warm Friday afternoon. As a community, we knew there would be hype around the book, and we were really, sincerely hoping that it would live up to it.

I have to report that it absolutely does. The Nix is stunning, and it’s so gorgeously expansive that it’s hard to even know where the praise should start. For one, it’s a brilliant story—my copy is now ragged due to how hungrily I dug into it, bringing it with me everywhere and tearing in whenever possible. It’s a delicious read.

Even attempting to describe the plot feels reductive. In many ways, it’s about a mother and a son. But it’s also about the mess of media and politics that we see around election times. It’s about protests of all different types—both historical and modern, and in both cases it examines the intimate motivations of the protestors themselves. It’s about video games also about the modern blur between online and “real life”, the very real mental, emotional, and even physical costs and appeals of fantasy, and the ultimate nature of obsession. It’s about the Midwest: it covers little towns full of industry and but lacking in opportunity alongside Chicago and its endlessly sprawling suburbs with equal precision. It’s about being a crybaby, an aggressive middle schooler, a child prodigy, a college plagiarizer, a factory worker, an activist, and yes, a college English professor.

But perhaps The Nix succeeds most by making the reader crave each of these stories equally—with every perspective shift and break in time, I was ravenous to catch up with a character I’d been missing while still reeling from being ripped from the last. Structurally, the book would give the best spider web a run for its money—it is as elegant, sturdy, and well composed as they come. Each element feels delicately and artfully connected while simultaneously resisting the trap of tying up everything up in a tidy, convenient bow. That is a major feat for a book that is 600+ pages long.

Nathan uses that space wisely. It is the type of deeply satisfying book that I loved glutting myself on for a weekend—in those 600 or so pages, there is space for a chapter told in logical fallacies, a bit of Choose Your Own Adventure, and a stream of consciousness sentence that spans an entire chapter. This is all earned; Nathan artfully carves out room for poetry, parody, humor, and ultimate honesty. Part of the reason The Nix is such a slamming success is that it engages with modernity in a way that isn’t overly judgmental—it feels like a candid portrayal of who we are now and how we came to be. Every character is treated with attention and exactitude that makes each story feel real and dear. So yes, the book takes up space, but if anything should demand 600 or so pages of attention, it’s a story like this. Smart, funny, and earnest, The Nix induces empathy in a way we could all use more of.

Ultimately, this book is so rich, so seamless, and so well connected that it inspires. This is the type of book that makes you want to do nothing but write—the type of book that is so full and hearty that it makes you believe someday you could do it too. And when it comes down to it, isn’t that just about that best gift a creative writing professor could give?

Author Visits, Faculty Teaching, Undergraduate English

The Road Not Taken

In the Fall of 2013, as I considered text selections for my new course The Road Not Taken, the recently published novel Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger caught my attention. I was struck by the complexity of the characters and the nod to our own Minnesota history. But, I hesitated on committing the novel to my syllabus because it was only available in hardcover and I felt the expense to students was a burden. In the end, I could not deny that the novel was brilliant, beautiful and that it fit surprisingly well with my theme of young people making poor choices with often devastating consequences.

As it turned out, my students never complained about the cost and, in fact, declared that it was their favorite book of the semester. When I told them that Krueger lives right here in St. Paul, my students were astonished and asked that I find a way for them to meet this local author.

WilliamKentKrueger-200pxlAt that time, Krueger was already the author of the wildly successful Cork O’Connor detective series. I was certain that this famous author, whose work is frequently listed on the New York Times bestseller lists, would not have time to visit a local University classroom. But, as he later said to me, “All you had to do was ask.” Sure enough, Kent walked in, sat down and facilitated one of the best class discussions of the semester.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” suggests that in life, there is no right path. There is only the path you choose. Ordinary Grace opens with the mysterious death of young Bobby Cole and the character of Frank as a reflective adult recognizing that he “should have known him better, been a better friend” (Prologue). For Frank, the summer of 1961 becomes a time of heartbreaking loss, misunderstandings, and the painful recognition that there are things we cannot bear, but must accept. Throughout the novel, Frank wonders if the events of that fateful summer could have turned out differently if he had made different choices and, quite literally, taken a different road.

OrdinaryGrace-200pxlKrueger does a remarkable job of describing the agonizing struggles of young adults. Ariel, a talented musician has been accepted to Juilliard, yet inexplicably decides to forgo this opportunity and stay in the small, unsophisticated town of New Bremen, MN. Frank struggles with what he thinks he knows from what might be the ultimate truth about a homeless Native American. Another character struggles with the secret of his sexual orientation. Even the town bully Morris provides an opportunity to recognize that mean-spirited behaviors probably come from a life of loneliness and indifference.

Another intriguing aspect of Kent’s work is the way he weaves Native American Culture into his writing. Although not originally from Minnesota, after he moved here in 1980 he became fascinated with the beauty of the Boundary Waters and the rich Ojibwe culture. In fact, his main character in the Cork O’Conner mystery series is half Irish and half Ojibwe. Ordinary Grace provides an opportunity to speak to the Great Uprising of 1862, a part of Minnesota history that our public schools often either ignore or misrepresent. In the years preceding the uprising, thousands of white immigrants settled in Minnesota. Although the settlers and Native Americans appeared to co-exist peacefully, the truth is that the Native people had their land taken, game poached and, in the summer of 1862, their annual annuity payment was inexplicably delayed by Congress. The Sioux launched a brief rebellion against the white settlers in Southwestern Minnesota and nearly a thousand settlers were brutally killed. For generations, the story of this uprising has been skewed to put blame on the Sioux tribes, although their people were in fact starving and dying from malnutrition and disease. On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Sioux braves were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. This remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In Ordinary Grace, the misunderstood character of Warren Redstone opens the door for discussion about the prejudice and overall unfair representation of our Native Minnesota people.

"Battle of New Ulm" (1904), Anton Gag

“Battle of New Ulm” (1904), Anton Gag

In the spring of 2014, Ordinary Grace won the prestigious Edgar Award for the best mystery novel. It is recognized as a classic work of literature with a suspenseful plot, poignant characters, and beautifully written prose. Teachers will find that there are many ways to approach this novel, only a few of which I have listed here. The story truly does explore “The Road Not Taken,” and yet in the words of Robert Frost we recognize that we cannot go back and choose the other road, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back” (14-15).  Frost affirms that we only have one chance to choose our road in life.

With a stunning, award-winning novel and his humble, down-to-earth personality, William Kent Krueger has become a highly sought- after speaker. This month, we are privileged to have him visit our campus and address a larger audience. Krueger will read from Ordinary Grace and participate in an audience Q & A.  A book signing will follow this event.  Please join us for a memorable evening with a man who genuinely enjoys engaging his readers.

Works Cited

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” You Come Too.  New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 2002.

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Jeannie Hofmeister is an adjunct professor in the English Department. She is primarily interested in 19th-and 20th-Century American Literature and regularly uses work from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath in her classes.