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Book Report: Twin Cities' mystery, Norwegian spirit in this week's spotlight

White Bear Lake, Minn., author Julie Kramer is on a roll. After award winning outings with "Silencing Sam," "Missing Mark," and "Stalking Susan," she's out with another alliterative title, "Killing Kate" (Atria Books, $23.99).

Kramer, former director of WCCO's I Team and now a freelance network news producer for NBC and CBS, has created a likeable heroine in Riley Spartz, an investigative reporter for Minneapolis station, Channel 3. The widow Riley has doting parents, farmers on the Minnesota/Iowa border, a boyfriend who's a former cop and friends and enemies at the station where she always seems to be on the edge of trouble.

I'm a fan of these books because, like Riley, I worked in Twin Cities journalism for years and like being reminded of the streets and neighborhoods and institutions of there, with which Kramer weaves her stories.

I also like Riley's mother, whose answer to the perils suffered by her daughter is to bake a nice batch of brownies. As a print journalist I'm also fascinated by Kramer's detailing of how TV news works, the tyranny of the bottom line and how bosses make stupid decisions (wait until you read what happens to Riley's boss at book's end).

In "Killing Kate," Riley gets involved with two problems at the same time. First she's assigned a human interest story about a dog that suffocates when its owner leaves him in a locked car. That's not Riley's cup of tea and she prefers her other story, the killing of an old acquaintance, Kate, who has been done in by a nut, who believes an angel statue in an Iowa City cemetery is telling him to kill waitresses.

Both the dog and the waitress killers have their appointments with Riley and neither are pleasant. Kramer injects excitement in the story by telling some of it in teleprompter clips and humor when she discovers that Kate made a living as a high class pornographer and is asked by the decedent's sister Laura to complete her last manuscript of a book called "Sexpocalypse."

I blush to admit I was hoping Kramer would quote from her sexy conclusion, but, alas, she only paraphrases it, concluding that the world explodes and the protagonists get to make love with famous dead people like Einstein, Cleopatra and Elvis.

There isn't time for such fun because the breathless end of "Killing Kate" ends up with two -- count 'em -- two blood baths.

My grandfather liked to tell the story of his wife's cousin Sophia Johnson. Seems Sophia longed to visit her married daughter in North Dakota, but was afraid the cows wouldn't get milked. Her husband Peder assured her that he would be glad to milk the cows for a change.

Grandpa remembered that Peder found out he DIDN'T KNOW HOW to milk the cows and the lantern burned in his barn deep into the night.

Years later, Fern Martinson, dean of women at Augsburg College, told me that the Lutheran Church in America was lucky there were lots of laying hens around.

"Farm wives," she explained, "kept the chickens and got the 'egg money.' Without the egg money there wouldn't be a church steeple in The Red River Valley. The men wouldn't have done anything, that's for sure."

Fern died years ago, but I know she would love a new book "Norwegian American Women," edited by Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $24.95 paper).

Bergland, a history professor at UW-River Falls and Lahlum, a history professor at Minnesota State University-Mankato, draw on their own research and that of professors from around the world to make gender a prominent part of the history of Norwegians in America.

Bergland, Lahlum and scholars from the United States, Canada and Europe take issue with the stereotypical portrait Ole Rolvaag paints of Beret Holm, the wife in "Giants in the Earth." She's whiny, sad, depressed, not a great role model of an American pioneer. Using the research of interdisciplinary researchers (including some males, like St. Olaf's Odd Lovell), the book demonstrates conclusively that Norwegian women who came to the New World, were instrumental in settling the Midwest and beyond, settling in urban and in rural areas.

And it wasn't just about keeping chickens or milking cows, like Sophia Johnson. Until I read this fine book and perused its huge bibliography, when I thought of Norwegian-American authors, I thought of Ole Rolvaag, Waldemar Ager and Per Stromme. Now I've added writers like Ulrikka Feldtman Bruun, Aileen Berger Evanson, Drude Krog Janson and Palma Pederson. That's what good scholarship is all about.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.