Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

“[The Book of Mamie is] as much an allegory, morality play, and folk tale as it is a novel.... Through an incredible mix of personalities, many with dislocated minds, human nature is revealed at its lowest levels of degradation, and one is grateful for small acts of kindness, signs of hope, and the generous infusions of wit and humor.”

—Faith B. Miracle, Wisconsin Academy Review

Reviews: The Book of Mamie

[Editor’s Note: Duff Brenna won the 1988 Associated Writing Programs Best Novel Award for The Book of Mamie.]

Full Text of Reviews

She Had to Come From the Moon
Review by Harry Middleton
New York Times Book Review, 7 January 1990

There is much to be admired in Duff Brenna’s ambitious first novel. A work of varied textures and unusual richness, it has an energy that catches hold from the very first sentence. And that energy is what propels the reader through the geography of its particular world, revealing the tragically small distances that sometimes separate our perceptions of idiocy and genius, beauty and ugliness, innocence and wisdom, cruelty and compassion, courage and cowardice, humanity and brutishness, love and manipulation. Such is the geography that makes up Mamie Beaver’s life; such is her rural Wisconsin world.

Duff Brenna lets us know in the very first sentence of The Book of Mamie that his heroine is a person of extraordinary possibilities: “Mamie Beaver, she had to come from the moon. Or maybe even the stars.” But to her father, John Beaver, she is nothing more than another piece of farm equipment, “his mule.” Not surprisingly, there’s a storm brewing between father and daughter. “They were like two forces of nature, two winds coming from opposite directions, two mountains breeding landslides, two oceans battling it out, making storms like the Atlantic and Pacific at Cape Horn.”

Mamie Beaver is different. “Mamie Beaver, head like a proud pumpkin. Retarded Mamie Beaver.”

Mamie, whom almost everyone sees as a grotesque idiot, whose strange looks mask a girl who is sensitive and intelligent, is desperate to break free of her father’s cruelty, to flee her suffocating life of endless physical labor and mindless abuse. Escape comes, as it so often does, almost by chance, and it binds Mamie to Christian Foggy, the 15-year-old boy who befriends her when she runs away from home.

Christian and Mamie embark on an incredible odyssey across northern Wisconsin. It’s a frenetic journey, with Christian and Mamie falling in and out of the hands of a wild-eyed cross section of humanity, closely pursued by John Beaver and the law. For, in addition to the loss of his daughter, Mamie’s father has a score to settle: when he tries to take her from her hide-out, Christian whacks him on the head with a good-sized piece of wood, then flees with Mamie, leaving John for dead. Only a Beaver could have survived.

This extraordinary narrative is told by Christian, who is drawn closer and closer to Mamie even as he tries to find some way to rid himself of her. It is a story of lost youth and life lived deeply. And it portrays a transformation that is at once comic and tragic, as the trauma of Mamie’s life is peeled away, revealing a young woman of immense complexity and compassion. Gradually, Mamie changes from a stuttering girl who’s hopeless in school to a person capable of deep insight, a young woman whose mind and life seem connected to the world in ways the ordinary human being can never fully appreciate or understand.

Duff Brenna, who now teaches creative writing at San Diego State University, once made his living on a Wisconsin dairy farm. And his experiences there have clearly strengthened this fine novel. The winner of the 1988 Associated Writing Programs Novel Award, The Book of Mamie is a risky, graceful book. Its story is told in language that is lean and unpretentious, a language forged out of the hard landscape of the rural Middle West.

(Copyright Harry Middleton. All rights reserved.)

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The Book of Mamie
Trade paperback edition, Wordcraft of Oregon
Foreword by Thomas E. Kennedy
Copenhagen, Denmark 2006

It is no wonder that Duff Brenna’s The Book of Mamie was lavished with rave reviews all over America when it appeared in 1989 — east to west, north to south, in virtually every major and many minor newspapers.

It is no wonder that The Book of Mamie won the coveted, national Best Novel Award of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP).

And no wonder that its readers find it like a gateway to a new New World, vast and exciting.

The wonder is that it was allowed to go out of print after its second edition sold out and while people were still buying it. The wonder is that it has remained out of print for fifteen years.

For The Book of Mamie is, itself, a wonder.

Anyone who ever dreamed that Mark Twain might be reincarnated to tell us an American story of our times can have his wish fulfilled right here. Any American woman who ever snorted skepticism at Paul Bunyan, thinking, It’s the women who were the giants, who had the real muscle — well, Mamie is your girl. As her narrator, Christian Peter Foggy, puts it, “If Orphan Annie and Paul Bunyan had had a daughter, I figured something like Mamie would be the consequence. Mamie Bunyan... Tinkerbell with a gland problem...” Uberfraulein. First Saint of the Church of Mamie.

Or anyone who wishes old Steinbeck could have given us one more of his best, or who has read through all of Dickens and yearned that he might come back as an American, or that a new American Dostoevsky might appear with a heartlands, tall-tale sense of humor — here they are, ladies and gents, reborn in a guy who has lived the life: dairy farmer, juvenile delinquent, paratrooper, gantry operator, truck driver, and award-winning professor of literature, all in one.

Duff Brenna is American literature, and all our great writers inform his heart and his talent, though he is quite himself as well. He could make a dyed-in-the-wool New York City boy like myself yearn for the Midwest and swear it truly is the real heart of the heart of our country.

The Book of Mamie makes you remember what a great novel is, a wild exciting read, a book that opens your eyes with wonder, that every twenty pages or so makes you jump up and walk a circle on the rug just to cool down enough to keep going. This is not art about art or the vague posturings of a writer reaching for a lacey metaphor; this is a great big, awe-inspiring, wonder-inspired story about American people in the heartlands. Here you’ll find characters who step off the page into your life — or grab you from your easy chair and drag you into theirs: the fire-breathing John Beaver who would scare the proverbials off a brass monkey; old Jacob Foggy, the malapropic half-wise patriarch with his foggy wisdom; Kritch’n Foggy, desperate to understand so he can teach that understanding, pummeled by jealous brothers, and face to face with a moral choice that sets him on a merry chase from hell; and, of course, Mamie Beaver herself, a benevolent pagan goddess innocent, idiot savant, who fishes with her nipples for bait and crackles with electricity.

The paradise of the American wilderness is born again here — fruit and game, rivers and green shelters, wild onions, roots and berries, streams and lakes full of fish. Here is an original American picaresque road show, complete with giants and mad preachers, creaky out-back diner philosophers who hypnotize you with the truth and steal your money, crotchety railway men and sumo-sized ne’er-do-well seekers of Art who weep at a drop of blood, rifle-mad killer farmers, hunter taxidermists crazy as Norman Bates, good country people and bad country people, and all manner of people; farmers who practice a religion based on Shakespeare, a whole town of Mamie-ites worshipping Melville and Shakespeare in conflict with the Christers, the Church of J.C. vs. the Church of Hoomanity, suffering Catholics who worship pain, broken-backed workers felled by Hurry UpMoney, and an aging hot mama who thinks everyone is trying to peek up her dress — not to mention a cow named Jewel who’ll steal your heart and a golden Lab named Emma so real you long to scratch her ears, and you’d swear you really saw her dance beneath the moon in a snowy field...

There are book burnings, sex and violence, incest and murder, fear and  joy and the thunder of God, and heroes more innocent than rogue pounding along on their feet of clay, a cast of characters who would make Dickens and Twain sit up and salute: John and Mamie Beaver, Kiss of Death Cody, Mongoose Jim, Charlie Friendly the barman, Phoebe Bumpus, two-ton Don Shepard, Teddy Snowdy, Robbie Peevey, railroad Amoss, thick-necked Bob Thorn, Blind Venus the hoochy-coochy carnie girl, Anna and Soren Gulbrenson and their feisty little Pekingese riding herd on them all, and all the Foggys — Jacob and his sons, Christian, Cash, Cush, Calvin, Calah, and Cutham, and their sister, Mary Magdalene...

Brenna knows the people and he knows the land, knows how it’s been used and abused; he knows the machines and the scams used to work it, knows the animals and the plants and trees and fields, knows about harvest and silage, harrowing and plantings; he knows how the color of paint on a farmhouse will respond to the change of seasons; and he knows what people do and have done; and he tells us everything he knows and has learned and shows us his America in a language uniquely American, beautiful as the summer sky over a wild wood lake, soddy as the earth, snowy as a deep-winter pine forest, tender as fresh alfalfa in a cow’s maw, exciting as a car chase on a country road...

Anyone who has read the great American writers — the ones with strong blood beating in their veins, Twain and Faulkner and Steinbeck, Melville and Whitman and London and Sinclair Lewis, all of them — will hear their spirit humming again in these pages, fueling Brenna on. And those who have not read them will discover a glimpse of them in the spirit of this new great American writer, Duff Brenna.

Praise to David Memmott and his Wordcraft of Oregon press for putting this American classic back within the reach of people hungering for a great read.

Enter this novel, ladies and gents, and prepare to laugh and to weep, to chuckle, gasp, and pause to think. Prepare to meet America. More: prepare to be amazed!

(Copyright Thomas E. Kennedy. All rights reserved.)

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