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'Jailhouse' -- an arresting read

The day before Neil Haugerud was elected sheriff of Fillmore County in 1959, he crashed an airplane. Or, rather, his unoccupied airplane crashed itself after he failed to jump into it on startup. It had flown all over town, unguided, before crash...

The day before Neil Haugerud was elected sheriff of Fillmore County in 1959, he crashed an airplane. Or, rather, his unoccupied airplane crashed itself after he failed to jump into it on startup. It had flown all over town, unguided, before crashing harmlessly on its outskirts.
Decades later, as he was working on the craft of writing at the University of Iowa (the Harvard of writing programs, by the way), he was arrested pursuing one of the class exercises.
During his eight-year tenure as sheriff, Haugerud seldom wore a gun but eluded death a few times. He had a jailbreak and learned the tricks of the carnival trade, how each game of "chance" suckers its marks. He and his wife and children lived in the same house as the county jail, where his wife was expected to cook for the prisoners there.
Think he has some stories to tell? Darn right. And the book doesn't even delve into his 11 years in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Writing in short essays, his memory spurred by the logbook he kept at the Fillmore County Jail, Haugerud brings readers deep into his stories, shedding fresh light on the job of keeping the peace in rural America.
Haugerud can write, make no mistake. In a simple, clear voice he runs readers through a gamut of emotions, from compassion for the many misfortunes his job brought into his life, to the dry humor that masks the grimmer realities. He masterfully weaves his stories to work together, combining them into the plot of his life, writing with wit and sensitivity.
There are some unforgettable characters in here. Quickest to mind is Doc Nehring, the county coroner. His dry humor and one-liners are both comic relief and grim reminder of the life-and-death seriousness of the business. What else can you say about a guy who, when cutting down and photographing a suicide victim who'd hung himself, quips "Smile, Ed." Or the same guy who, in his first real words of conversation to Haugerud, said "How'd you like to make love to my wife, Neil?" -- just to pass the time.
Though Nehring is the most prominent, there are dozens of other characters from Haugerud's past -- criminals, both benign and dangerous, alongside crime victims and even the insane -- who are drawn with similar sensitivity.
Calling this cast "honorable, eccentric" characters, Haugerud writes in his preface, "I came to understand how people make a lot of mistakes, but in my view there are very few bad people." That seems like a good attitude for law enforcement.
My only concern with all of this is for Haugerud -- some of the portrayals aren't all that flattering, and while some of the information is public record and some names have been changed, ours is a litigious society. One has to wonder how well-insured he is.
The "good people, dumb mistakes" idea is one theme of the book. The other, while gently presented, is more serious. He's concerned with the current state of the justice system and of law enforcement. He zings a couple of judges and lawyers he worked with, telling shocking stories. If these are even slightly reflective of our current justice system, they warrant attention.
Haugerud also talks about his own arrest -- simply for observing an incident in Iowa City -- and that story is also shocking. It's all the more disturbing in light of the troubles that police force had shortly after Haugerud's experience, troubles that parallel recent incidents in New York.
"Jailhouse Stories" is a well-realized piece of work, impressive in its depth and versatility. It's hard to take anything away from someone who's got stories to tell and writes with craft and sensitivity, and that's what Haugerud delivers.
Haugerud will be in Duluth for a book signing Saturday, April 1 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Barnes & Noble. Scheduled to join him are members of the St. Louis County Sheriff's Department -- it should be an interesting event.
Kyle Eller is the Budgeteer book reviewer. Submit your books for review to him in care of the Budgeteer News, 222 West Superior Street, Duluth, Minn. 55802. To talk books, call him at (218) 723-1207 or send e-mail to kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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