General 6-5-2003

Review: Twelve Branches: Stories from St. Paul

This review by Charlie Mahler is reprinted by permission from the Ripsaw News.

By Nora Murphy, Joanna Rawson, Julia Klatt
Singer, Diego Vazquez, Jr.
Coffee House Press, 2003
$10, paperback; 192 pgs

Twelve Branches isn’t just a book, it’s a project. The story behind this project goes like this: The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library decided to create a book based on the local community, so they hired four professional authors to write 12 stories, one story for each branch of the St. Paul Public Library system. Over the course of a year, the writers collected a series of local tales that would become Twelve Branches.

The book opens with “The First Time I Saw St. Paul.” After hearing of the death of a friend in a gas leak explosion, a Latino man is reminded of moving to St. Paul as a child following the death of his father, a World War II veteran. The boy’s displacement and loss become a persistent theme, continuing into his adult life.

“Translations” gives a family portrait of Cambodian immigrants adjusting to a new city and a new way of living. A former doctor finds himself unqualified to practice in America and therefore settles for translator work. His wife, a nurse, must also restart her career. Their children disregard family traditions to forge their own new lives as Americans.

In “The Catcher,” a grandfather who once played in the Negro Baseball League disappears. This story begins with his white daughter-in-law and her twin sons at a Memorial Day service then shifts to the perspective of one of the young twins who wanders off in search of grandpa. The interesting intermingling of personal and local history compensates for the dull resolution.

For most readers, the book’s interest as cultural experiment may exceed its literary value. Twelve Branches is an intriguing idea—the afterword even gives some tips to copycats—but it ultimately suffers from its nature of being written by committee. Many stories convey a weak sense of setting—a major defect considering the project itself. This St. Paul feels like a multi-cultural Anytown, USA.