14 June 2017

Book Review: "Granola, MN" by Susanne Aspley

Book Review: "Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town" by Susanne Aspley

Set in a fictional rural town in modern-day Minnesota, Suzanne Aspley's "Granola, MN" is a light-hearted romp through some potentially dark territory, including such topics as drug addiction, losing a child, and what it means to come home from war. It's bursting with Middle Western charm, snark, and wisdom.

Aspley's characters are full of character, new regional archetypes who each have their flaws, but who also generally support and believe in each other. The tone is snappy and fresh, so laugh-out-loud and dialogue-driven that it seems ready-made for a small art house film. Think "Northern Exposure" meets "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" Or "Gilmore Girls" as narrated by the clear-eyed, smart-mouthed title character in "Juno."

The exurban setting of Granola, Minn. (pop. 2,000) is rich with details that ring true, such as old-school hardware stores that serve free popcorn to customers, and sounds-about-right business names such as Git-n-Split, Liquor Pig, Taco Gong, and Chub Grocery.

Aspley's narrator-protagonist is the quietly ambitious Allison Couch (like the thing you sit on), who dreams of one day buying the town's hardware store, in order to save it from the clutches of the local real-estate hustler. Her friend and mentor, Mr. Whitehead, owns the "last Alamo of Granola's original downtown stores." The county building inspector, who also happens to own the adjacent strip mall, covets Whitehead's land for its potential as a parking lot. Plot-wise, that tension is far from the only thing going on, but it serves as an effective zipline through the book's smaller adventures.

Content with the day-to-day rhythms of Granola, Allison's worldview gets a little bigger when she meets Toby, a military veteran who was awarded the Silver Star for actions in Afghanistan. Toby has recently moved in with his mom, the principal of the area high school. The townspeople want to celebrate Toby with a float in the Fourth of July parade. Toby's relationship to the war, however, is complicated.

"People think I'm some kind of hero," he tells Allison. "But I don't feel like one. There's a clown jury, a box of bozos in my head that keeps telling me I'm guilty because I'm alive. And the jury don't stop replaying the evidence. […] I wish I could have save them all, or none of them. Or kill all the Taliban, or none of them. I don't like the feeling of playing God, like it was up to who I should save, or kill, or not."

Says the well-grounded Allison, a little earlier: "I think it's normal to be different after a war. You'd be crazy if it didn't affect you, but you gotta manage it a little better. And you can't do that alone, or by not letting people help you."

In short, "Granola, MN" is a delight. Nothing too deep, unless you think about it a little more. Or read it more than once. And, given how packed it is with wisecracks and jokes and plainspoken pearls of wisdom, you'll want to do both.

Author Susanne Aspley is a retired 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve. During her 20-year military career as a photojournalist, she deployed to places such as Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait, and Panama. She is also a former drill sergeant, and served in Thailand as a member of the Peace Corps in 1989-1991. She has written two novels, and multiple children's foreign-language books.

"Granola, MN" is available in trade paperback and Kindle format.

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