In Sawbill: A Search for Place, Jennifer Case traces her lifelines across the face of a well-worn map. Starting in Minnesota, Case unfurls the story of a woman irrevocably shaped by landscape and perpetually haunted by nostalgia. Her dedication to place becomes disrupted as she sacrifices location for education and her parents, grandparents, and siblings follow trails of opportunities to locales as far flung as St. Croix. With the dots on her map inching apart, Case’s anxiety manifests as an obsession with Sawbill, a resort owned briefly by her grandparents. Case weaves the resort’s history with her own, coaxing the place off the page. Sawbill becomes an emotional touchstone that the narrator returns to as she moves through the different stages of her life. From graduate school to motherhood, northern Minnesota provides a framework for Case to make connections between her experiences and find a sense of home—no matter where she might be.
Just as the title suggest, Case juxtaposes a specific place with the idea of still trying to find it. However, despite “Sawbill” getting top billing in the title, the memoir’s subtitle and the search for place occupy more narrative space. Sawbill engages with the idea of emplacement and how a locale can define us. Case begins with an arrangement of childhood memories that follow her family trips through northern Minnesota. As the story flashes forward to an older Jennifer, juxtaposing her childhood memories with her camping trip with her boyfriend, the reader can quickly see how these early interactions with the Minnesota landscape shaped her perspective on things as crucial as family, functionality, and interpersonal dynamics. When the two lovers can’t easily conquer the elements, the narrator begins to doubt the very viability of her relationship. These questions of how life is dictated and ultimately defined by place arise throughout the memoir. Some concerns are merely practical as Case struggles to attend a funeral and arrange get-togethers with her family; other concerns are ecocritical as she struggles to establish a connection between her and the nature of New York. With each new challenge, she contemplates the choices she and her family have made that have left her feeling placeless and the greater social and economic pressures in the US that encourage nomadism.
I found Sawbill to be a refreshing and relatable story that I will no doubt return to. In her search for place, Case provides a roadmap for the weary 21st century traveler. Anyone who has spent the night in an airport or missed a loved one’s party will cling to Case’s observations and claim them as their own. Sawbill embodies the yearning for a home that is only a fantasy and attempts to reconcile the desire for stability with the reality of movement. Though Case feels her home is on Minnesota’s northern shore, she moves to Nebraska and New York. Though she knows her stay in Binghamton is temporary, she paints the walls of her rental. She strikes a balance, finding a space between Scott Russell Sanders “Homeplace” and Richard Ford’s “Must Be Going.” Life settles between staying and going, loving and leaving, knowing and learning. In this vein, Case encourages her audience to not only find their homes but make them. Above all, she inspires her readers to search for their place—even if they already know where it is.
About the Author: Cheyenne Marco holds a PhD in creative writing and teaches English at the University of South Dakota. She also does outreach for Friends of the Big Sioux River and fantasizes about sleep. Her works have appeared in Lake Region Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Turk’s Head Review, and Prairie Winds.