Minnesota Nice – ‘There’s Something I Want You to Do’ by Charles Baxter

‘There’s Something I Want You to Do’ by Charles Baxter    (2015) – 240 pages    Grade: B

 

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“Minnesota nice” must really exist since it has its own entry in Wikipedia. The first lines in the entry state:

“Minnesota nice is the stereotypical behavior of people born and raised in Minnesota to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. The cultural characteristics of Minnesota nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation  It can also refer to traffic behavior, such as slowing down to allow another driver to enter a lane in front of the other person. Critics have pointed out negative qualities, such as passive aggressiveness and resistance to change.“

I have lived in Minnesota for 25 years, and I can honestly say “Minnesota nice” is real. But not to worry, I was born and raised not in Minnesota but in Wisconsin, so none of the above applies to me.  However Charles Baxter was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the stories in his new collection “There’s Something I Want You to Do” all take place in Minneapolis.

All of the stories are named either for a virtue (Bravery, Loyalty, Chastity, Charity, and Forbearance) or a vice (Lust, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Vanity).   In ‘Loyalty’ a man who has remarried takes in his mentally ill ex-wife, because:

 “She’s wreckage. It’s as simple as that. We have these obligations to our human ruins. What happened to her could’ve happened to me or to anybody.”

 This is only one example of ‘Minnesota nice’ behavior in these stories.  In ‘Charity’ a man flies from Las Vegas back to Minneapolis to rescue his gay lover who is now addicted to a pain-killing drug and living outside down by the Mississippi River.

quotation-charles-baxter-day-meetville-quotes-91983I have read a fair amount of the fiction of Charles Baxter, and I do admire his work, especially ‘The Feast of Love’ which is based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.  Several of the stories in this collection depict the strangeness of everyday life, chance encounters, a doctor of pediatrics who communes with the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock at the Stone Arch Bridge, a woman who looks forward to dying.

If I have a complaint, it is that the people in these stories are just too nice.  Without villains or at least bad people, there is little real conflict, no intensity.  There is one mugging, but the mugging seems rather gentle, and the victim suffers no ugly repercussions.  Even in severe illness and death, these characters seem rather mild-mannered.

Maybe next time Baxter should bring in some wild wicked evil people from other states beside Minnesota (perhaps from Wisconsin) to stir things up a little.

 

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10 responses to this post.

  1. So “Minnesota nice” is the American equivalent to the French “Chtis”. People from the North of France (Lille) have the reputation to be very kind and friendly. (which, based upon my experience, is true)

    Thanks for this, I’m going to recommend it to a couple of friends.

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    • Hi Emma,
      Your observation is very interesting. I would say that the north of France is about the same latitude as Minnesota, so maybe this ‘Nice’ thing is geographical. It is better for the people to have a reputation for being nice rather than the opposite.
      ‘White Dog’ will be coming real soon.

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      • I think Lille’s climate is a lot warmer than what you have in Minnesota. (from what I’ve heard)

        I’m looking forward to your review of White Dog. I hope the book gets a good grade! 🙂

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        • Hi Emma,
          Yes, Minnesota is about the same latitude or even farther South than northern France, but much colder. I have never been to France, but I know England is warmer due to the Atlantic Ocean even though it is farther North.
          Yes, I’m having fun grading fiction now. 🙂

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  2. Maybe I should move to Minnetosa – I could do with more courtesy on the roads

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    • Hi Booker Talk,
      After driving to and from work 26 miles each way for 7 years from Ramsey, MN to Minnetonka, MN , I’m not sure Minnesota Nice applies all that much to the drivers in Minnesota. However the fact that there were no accidents does speak well of Minnesota drivers. 🙂

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  3. As someone born and raised in California who moved to Minnesota 21 yeas ago I definitely agree Minnesota Nice is a thing. I regularly offend native Minnesotans by being too direct and to the point and the passive aggressiveness is sometimes so over the top I can’t help but laugh. I’m still here after all this time though so that says something. I agree, however, that people on the roads aren’t so very nice. As for Baxter, too bad the stories lacked a bit of oomph. Though it is always kind of fun to read fiction set in places you know 🙂

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    • Hi Stefanie,
      Yes, I enjoy having local landmarks and sites I’m familiar (Stone Arch Bridge, etc) with in stories I read. Most of Baxter’s stories take place near the University of Minnesota which is an area that I do not know well.
      It is interesting that you came here from California, because it still seems most people head from East to West and not the other way around. It must have been difficult for you to deal with Minnesota winters. I came from Wisconsin where the winters are nearly as bad. You must be used to it by now although this winter has been strangely mild. 🙂

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      • Winter wasn’t that hard to get used to. Having grown up with the seasons being hot and not as hot with occasional rain, real seasons were a novelty. By the time the novelty had worn off I was used to it all. My dad’s side of the family is originally from northern MN so I always joke that I was just returning to my roots 🙂

        My husband has read a few of Baxter’s books. I keep meaning to try one but haven’t managed it yet.

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