In Kirstin Cronn-Mills new young adult novel, an avid runner with deep roots in Grandma's Marathon is diagnosed with ALS and his teenage daughter, a deft navigator of Park Point dunes and not-so star employee of a tourist destination in Canal Park, feels the feels associated with his final months.
How to deal: rip heart from chest, row miles from the shore of Lake Superior, pitch organ into the water and let it become a piece of frozen debris on the silty bottom.
At least, that's Tobin Oliver's dream-take in "Wreck," a fictional story that considers assisted suicide published in April by Sky Pony Press. Cronn-Mills' gut-twisting tale is set firmly (and very believably) in Duluth.
The author will read and sign copies of her book at 2 p.m. Sunday at Zenith Bookstore.
A bit of book trivia: At one point, this book had a more directly descriptive title, according to Cronn-Mills.
"It used to be called 'The Saddest Book in the World,'" she said in a phone interview from Mankato, Minn., where the three-time Minnesota Book Award nominee is an English teacher at South Central College.
This is Cronn-Mills fourth young adult novel, a collection that includes "Beautiful Music For Ugly Children," which won both a Stonewall Award and Independent Publishing's silver medal for gay/lesbian/bi/trans fiction. The genesis of "Wreck" came from a conversation about the lack of novels about assisted suicide.
"I was like 'OK. Oh. That's not a bad idea," she said. "It was almost a dare."
In it, Tobin is a 17-year-old photographer who lives on Park Point with her father, Steven. Her mother left years ago for a new life in France and occasional packages from her land on the front porch. Steven, a paramedic, is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease before the story starts, but he hasn't yet told his daughter.
The disease proves aggressive and first messes with his muscles, then attacks his brain. There are falls, uncharacteristic outbursts, and outpourings of tears and laughter.
Tobin navigates the challenges with a range of emotions and help from her elderly uncle Paul and family friend Ike, who has come to assist Steven with the day-to-day and Tobin with deep breaths. There is also Sid, a violinist almost boyfriend, and Grace, the best friend who doesn't quite fit into Tobin's new reality.
And then Steven introduces a box with the supplies he will need to end his life on his own terms.
The story came together for Cronn-Mills in the summer of 2015. She had friend a friend with stories of his father's ALS diagnosis, she said, and an ALS nurse to keep Steve's story on point.
She also had an experience to draw from.
"I had a lot of grief that I could loan to the book," she said. "My father passed away in 2011. I thought I could do good work with a father-daughter relationship. I really wanted to give a happy ending to my own. My dad was an unhappy man, though we loved each other a great deal. So that's what I did."
On choosing Duluth
Cronn-Mills, a native of Nebraska, has an affinity for Duluth - whether its agate-hunting or just sitting on any of the beaches whether its Beaver Bay or Canal Park. She has been making regular visits to the North Shore since 2012, she said.
"I've spent enough time to want to make sure that I represent Duluth and the North Shore as the beautiful, magical, mystical place that it is," she said.
Her eye, though, seems lovingly local. In one scene, Tobin enjoys the pause allowed by getting bridged. The family antique store she refers to as Trash Box has a by locals-for tourists feel. Fizzy Waters, a now-shuttered pop shop, gets a shout out and Osmo Vanska, the Finnish conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra, stumbles upon Sid while he's busking near Bellisios.
Tobin moves and makes pictures within the dunes, and the descriptions are those of someone who has stepped out a back door and into them. There is also a reference to a Duluth tale with urban legend appeal: a storm on Lake Superior returned a canoe that had been missing for a year to a man who lives on Park Point.
"I'm very place-oriented as a whole," Cronn-Mills said. "Place is very important to me. I just do my best to feel it; I pay a lot of attention."
She set the story in Duluth, she said, specifically because she wanted to write about the lake.
"To see if I could capture the mystery," she said. "In this context, it's a pun: the depths of the lake. It's a mystery I'm in awe of. It also works well as a place to put your grief."
IF YOU GO
What: Kirstin Cronn-Mills, author of "Wreck," reading and signing
When: 2 p.m. Sunday, May 19
Where: Zenith Bookstore, 318 N. Central Ave.
Author: Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Publisher: Sky Pony