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Book Review: News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist by Laurie Hertzel

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It is apparent from the first pages that this accidental reporter has a way with words; she was “threading through the rabbit warren of musty back hallways,” or the Lake was “no color at all, brightening to a band of intense white at the horizon.” And then further into News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist she gets into the thrum and hum of the newsroom, and you are there with her too: “A blue haze of cigarette smoke hung in the air, punctuated by the rich smell of percolating coffee.”

Laurie Hertzel’s writing is rich for the senses; she takes you there and in many cases puts you in the thick of it, especially when it is something she cares about. From this account, things that we can surmise she cares about include nature, friends, and an abiding sense of place taken from her hometown of Duluth. This sense of place is not so easily transferred to her writing about her sojourn in Russia, however. From there, we get a feeling of anxiety and restlessness – peeling off from the group, waiting by the phone for the calls that never come, the long lines, not speaking the language.

But in truth, this doesn’t seem like the adventures of an accidental journalist. It seems like the adventures of a natural journalist. For what Hertzel describes is not just a career, it is a bygone era, when yes, you could smoke in the newsroom, women were subjected to sexist treatment, and things had moving parts that you could see, instead of microchips. In her first 10 years, the old typewriters were replaced by the pneumatic tubes were replaced by the Atex computers. The lead was no longer hot; the copy girl lost her job.

Her story is closely linked to the story of Duluth and the Iron Range, the decline of the steel industry and the loss of thousands of jobs. She is a witness to a changing era, even as she herself tries to decide what she should be doing with her life. It is a personal story, but also a story of a community and a way of life that is now gone.

And all this is communicated in a personal, factual style that is interesting even if you have never heard of a linotype machine or had an inkling to watch a press run. Of course, it does help if you are a writer, or want to be one. Hertzel details the rundown of how to become a journalist – both the prescribed method, and how it happened to her (hence the book’s subtitle). She worked her way through the newsroom, shifting around to jobs she didn’t even want due to changes in upper management, talked her way into an assignment that landed her in Russia, and finally tried her hand at fiction, landing plum fellowships, winning awards and publishing short stories in journals around the country.

There’s quite a bit about the trips to Russia, the dog-tired days after nights on the train, the way the country changed from her first trip (under Communism) to her second (after the Soviet collapse). It’s evident she cares deeply about the people, she wants to know their stories. Finally, somehow, through a miraculous combination of opportunity and timing, she gets a chance to tell one, and co-writes a book, They Took My Father: Finnish Americans in Stalin’s Russia, with Mayme Sevander, an American Finn turned Russian. This process is detailed thoroughly, and we sense that this is the beginning of the end of her time in the small-town newsroom.

There must be a lucky streak in her somewhere, because she manages to have jobs offered her that many would vie for, but this could also be due to plain old dogged stick-to-itiveness. As she states, each time a door opened, she just walked through it. She wonders at times if she should perhaps choose her own path, and that seems to be successful as well. It’s a well-told story of an interesting career that is still steaming ahead full speed.

But it’s also an intensely personal story. Hertzel wants to write about people; she might suffer a little from wanderlust, even given her 18-year tenure at her first full-time job. She seems to have an eye for the story in all of us. Hertzel had the fortunate timing to come into journalism when there was money; to see the good times and the old ways and to grow into the new ways, but to also witness the constriction of that industry, and yet, to survive it. It seems that no matter where that leads, this is one journalist that is going to be resilient enough to come out on the other side.

We who are lucky enough to benefit from her work at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis feel that we know her already, but we get to know her even better from this tale of her career and life and how she came to be where she is, including her position as Books Editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Call it coming-of-age, call it confessions of an ink-stained wretch; whatever you call it, you will root for her. And wait to see what she does next.

Check out this Q&A with Laurie Hertzel for her advice on writing, thoughts on nature and what Mayme Sevander said to her when last they met.

University of MN Press, hardcover, 24p
ISBN 978-0-8166-6558-7, $22.95

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