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Column: Duluth permanently inhabits author Michael Fedo’s soul

Maureen Maloney

You can take the man out of Duluth, but you can’t take Duluth out of the man. Case in point: Michael Fedo, as demonstrated by his latest book, “Zenith City: Stories from Duluth.” A native of the Zenith City, Fedo moved away when he was 25, to return only as a visitor over the next five decades. The 32 stories that make up this collection are rooted in his Duluth upbringing and leave no doubt as to the deep sense of place that followed him into adulthood.

Although the stories comprise a memoir of Fedo’s formative years, Duluth is the main character. It is the gritty, self-effacing, fiercely stubborn blue-collar city of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Many of Fedo’s tales evoke kind of a grainy, black-and-white documentary feel: extended families living under the same roof, a strong immigrant presence, rooming houses, radio entertainment, a World War II-inspired patriotic school assembly and encounters with colorful locals and luminaries in places like the Armory, the Classy Lumberjack, the Flame, the Pickwick, Nick’s Hamburgers, and Joe Huie’s Café. Fedo’s remarkable memory brings it all to life along with the early years of the Dukes and Wade Stadium, neighborhood schools, the perils of living on a steep slope, industries of old (Garon’s Mill, Oliver Mining) and the Bowery.

The city Fedo left provided him with these and other ingredients for some wonderful stories. Duluth gave him Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Sinclair Lewis. It gave him opportunities to explore various artistic arenas. The stories were written over a range of years, and many were previously published. Some readers might take issue with the unflattering character traits of the city that occasionally emerged as he penned his memories. It is tempting to read too much into the book as a whole, but his fondness and appreciation for the Zenith City shine throughout. Fedo manages to be self-aware without being self-conscious; the personal is taken to a thoughtful, universal level.

Some stories have only tenuous connections with Duluth but are welcome side dishes. One example is the very funny “Jogging with James Joyce,” a story from Fedo’s adult life. In it, after a few pints in a Dublin pub, he agrees to do a jogging tour of the sites associated with Leopold Bloom, the hero of Joyce’s epic “Ulysses.” The touching “Christmas with the Klines” takes place well outside of Duluth but demonstrates the emotional ties Fedo already felt with Duluth as a young adult.

Fedo wore many hats in his Duluth days, including those of musician, stage director, budding journalist and radio announcer. The wider world that called to him led him to Ohio, Wisconsin, New York and eventually back to Minnesota, where he taught public speaking at North Hennepin Community College for 27 years. Three of the constants in his life that originated in Duluth have been writing, theater and teaching.

Another thing he carried with him was a social consciousness that inspired him (among other things) to write a book about the lynching of three black men in 1920 in downtown Duluth. He was likely driven by the same instinct that made him wander over to Satchmo’s dressing room at the Armory in 1953. Instead of getting in line for free ice cream like the rest of his pals, he had a reporter’s desire to dig beneath the surface for deeper meaning.

A lot has changed since Fedo left in 1964, including Duluth’s image from a struggling, rugged sportsman’s paradise to a haven for bicyclists, hikers, skiers and shoppers. He visits often and marvels at the contrast between then and now. He still wanders through the East Hillside neighborhood and sees it through a boy’s eyes. Even though he chose not to return, he declares, “Home will always be the house at 918 N. 10th Avenue East, where my brothers and I were raised living next door to my grandmother…All the holidays were at Grandma’s, and I still miss her paper-thin ginger and sugar cookies.”

Fedo continues to write and is currently working on a book for novice writers. In a wry acknowledgement of his own challenges, he has given his manuscript the working title of “Adventures of a Midlist Author.” In the meantime, those who love Duluth, love literature and/or are contemplating their roots will enjoy his latest offering. He will appear in Duluth on two occasions in June, at the Bookstore at Fitger’s on June 12 at 6:30 p.m. and at the Duluth Public Library on June 23 at 6 p.m.

You can take the man out of Duluth, but you can’t take Duluth out of the man.

Maureen Maloney is a reference librarian at the Duluth Public Library.