Part mystery, part coming-of-age story, Jim Guhl’s first novel, Eleven Miles to Oshkosh (University of Wisconsin Press) is nostalgic, thrilling, and very engaging.
The novel is set in the early 1970s in Guhl’s home town of Neenah. While the Vietnam War shows no sign of ending, 15-year-old Del “Minnow” Finwick also has a lot on his plate — avoiding bullies, dealing with his mother’s multiple sclerosis, keeping his grades up and trying to impress his crush (and the only African-American student at Neenah High), Opal Parsons.
On top of everything else, Minnow’s deputy sheriff father has recently been murdered by an unknown killer, who is suspected to have ties to Heisemann, the corrupt local sheriff.
Determined to bring his father’s killer to justice, Minnow enlists the help of a few characters, including his gruff World War I veteran grandfather Asa, his close friend Mark (who struggles with an abusive alcoholic father), Opal and her civil rights activist mother, several kindly women from a nearby Lutheran church, and his tough but sympathetic English teacher, Mrs. Borger.
With the support of friends and family, Minnow learns to confront his fears, as well as unexpected lessons in compassion and tolerance. He must also face different types of loss.
Although Guhl’s affection for his hometown is apparent, he doesn’t ignore its problems. Working-class Neenah, with its many paper mills and bars, is also home to racism, alcoholism and close-mindedness, themes the writer explores through believable characters, gritty, vivid descriptions and realistic dialogue.
Guhl is particularly sympathetic to outcasts, among them Wolf, a homeless Native-American man Minnow meets while fishing; fellow student Rhonda Glass, an aspiring actress who struggles with a negative body image; his nerdy buddy Steve, who is always concocting a new invention; and Larry Buskin, a bully whom Minnow eventually befriends.
Now a resident of Hudson, Wisconsin, Guhl has a great affinity for the natural beauty of the Fox Valley. Minnow’s favorite pastimes are fishing along the Lake Butte des Morts and duck hunting with his Grandpa Asa. Guhl captures the tranquility of still and frozen waters, the diversity of fish and birds, the cornfields and the simple pleasures of early morning bike riding.
Guhl’s straightforward style and unexpected plot twists, combined with a bit of Wisconsin history and plenty of local flavor, make Eleven Miles to Oshkosh a memorable, heartwarming and enjoyable debut novel.