Book Review: Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range

overburdenbookcoverBy Aaron Brown
Published by Red Step Press
(2008, 239 pages, $16.95 Softcover)
Reviewed by Alissa Johnson

Maybe you’ve done it, too. You know—driven right by Mine View in the Sky in Virginia, Minnesota on your way to Ely. It looked sort of interesting, but you were headed to the wilderness. You were ready to get there! Maybe you, too, passed towns with names like Babbit and Embarrass and wondered how they got names like that, chuckling as you thought: “Embarrassed about what?” Thanks to Minnesota author
Aaron Brown, who explores the Iron Range in Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range, a
collection of his essays, columns from the Hibbing Daily Tribune and commentaries from public radio station KAXE, we can correct our errant ways.

A fifth generation Iron Ranger, Brown defies convention. Nearing thirty, he is, as he puts it, “far past the age when most educated young people are, in our culture, supposed to leave [the Iron Range] for big cities and suburbs.” Yet he stays, supporting his family in a radically different way than the generations of miners before him. Living under the shadow and inspiration of their overburden—“piles where the mines dump their unused earth”—he is uniquely situated to understand the history and culture of the Iron Range and contemplate its significance in the “modern” world.

Though many of his essays are whimsical (most anyone who has visited northern Minnesota will appreciate the futility of setting up a bug tent in relentless winds), Brown does not shy away from complexities. He finds legitimate beauty in the mining landscape. He explores openness to change (and sometimes lack thereof) as he contemplates the future of the Iron Range, and he acknowledges the benefits of this regional stubborn streak. And he does it all with a self-deprecating wit and sarcastic humor that make you laugh out loud. Like when a young Aaron Brown believed that then presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’ limo would pass in front of the junkyard where he and his family lived and worked, convinced the secret service would take a less public route to Dukakis’ speaking engagement:

“I was eight, but oddly knowledgeable in this area, having used an encyclopedia to appoint small toys to positions in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of a federal government I carried around. (I recall being disappointed that so many Congressional and Supreme Court seats were held by twelve-for-a-dollar expressionless pink dinosaur erasers, but I had no idea how close to reality I had come).”

It is moments like this that lend Overburden its authenticity. Through the prism of life’s small moments, like putting the kids to bed and the work-a-day routine (whether that’s donning a hard hat or, in Brown’s case, sitting at the computer in his bathrobe), Brown explores the Iron Range through its stories. It is a fitting way to honor the spirit of a region where whole towns moved with the mines, miners actually dueled in the middle of Hibbing in the not-so-distant past, and where change is suspect but Senator Paul Wellstone
was embraced.

Overburden leaves a lasting impression of a complex place that is much more than a space between the Cities and Up North. Brown reminds us that though the height of mining has passed, the Iron Range has not.

Read more in Wilderness News Summer 2009

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