“Sigrid Brown” is a pen name that represents the part of me who stays up too late watching mysteries and has read every Harry Potter novel twelve or thirteen times. Read “Sigrid’s” thoughts about books and the performing arts on her blog as well as on Facebook and Goodreads. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @sigridbrown005.
The Girl in Duluth is a literary mystery in the vein of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. When 18-year-old June Bergeron’s mother goes missing, June fears the disappearance could be connected to the unsolved murders of several women found in the woods near Duluth, Minnesota. As she starts to ask questions, she is pulled into an ugly and dangerous world of exploitation and abuse, and she discovers that everyone around her has been keeping secrets.
Set in a remote area of Minnesota on the Canadian border, The Girl in Duluth tells the story of not only one family’s troubled history, but of a shrinking rural community reckoning with issues of gender, class, and race. Candid and elegant, June’s voice also simmers with the uneasiness of a young woman who has suddenly become aware she can no longer be sure of anything.
Publishers Weekly calls The Girl in Duluth an “affecting debut …. Brown easily creates engagement with [her main character] June, and poetic prose is a plus …. Fans of thoughtful crime fiction will hope for more from Brown.” You can see the full text of this review and more reviews here.
The Girl in Duluth has been named as a finalist in the 2023 Midwest Book Awards! Gold winners will be announced in person at the Midwest Book Awards gala held on June 17, 2023 at Open Book in Minneapolis. Renowned book critic Mary Ann Grossmann is set to keynote the event, which is open to the public. Ticketing information is available here.
Learn more about the writing of The Girl in Duluth and see a book-club discussion guide below. You can also read an excerpt on Sigrid’s Booklife page.
You can support independent creators and bookstores by buying The Girl in Duluth as either an ebook or a paperback on Lulu.com or by picking it up or ordering it online at Eat My Words Bookstore in Minneapolis or Zenith Bookstore in Duluth. I’m also in the process of recording an audiobook.
Watch a video of me reading from The Girl in Duluth at Eat My Words Bookstore in September of 2022!
Writing The Girl in Duluth
I grew up in northern Minnesota. My family did not have deep roots in the area, but I was always intrigued by the families that did. You do not have to dig very far before finding connections between most of the people who live there. They might be related by marriage or blood. Maybe they worked together a year ago, or twenty. Or their great-grandparents were neighbors or schoolmates, or picked berries together or punched each other’s lights out, a hundred years ago.
A rural area where most people live far apart from one another, even though the land is unbroken by mountains or other intractable topography, can seem like a place ruled by isolation. Members of a community choose separation not only from busy population centers, but also from one another. But like trees whose roots have become hopelessly entangled underground, most people in a place like that are tied to one another by either the present or the past—whether or not they let it show on their faces when they see each other in the street.
When I was writing The Girl in Duluth, I was thinking about both the connections we choose to make and the connections history chooses for us. People have been in northern Minnesota for thousands of years. They’ve lived off the land and made themselves a part of it by building trails and roads, naming plants and creatures, burying and marking the bodies of their dead. The departures and arrivals of various groups of people have both enriched that process—adding layers of language and culture—and disrupted it, sometimes catastrophically. Minnesota’s most famous orchid goes by many names: Maskisinis, Lady’s Slipper, Moccasin Flower, Makizinwaabigwan, Cypripedium (Venus’s foot). The plant can live for a hundred years. This land remembers everyone who’s walked on it.
I got the idea for this novel when I first read about the high number of sex- and human-trafficking rings operating in northern Minnesota, and in particular the connection that runs between communities in the area that are primarily populated by Native people and the shipping ports at Superior and Duluth. It’s part of an old, ugly story. There are always people who will capitalize as long as they possibly can on the chaos that was created when the ties that a group spent generations knotting together were disrupted. There’s no task more vexingly difficult than healing an old wound when someone profits by keeping it open.
The beauty of north-central Minnesota is quiet rather than majestic. Wild, but flat and subdued—some say disconcertingly so. In many places, you can walk or drive an awfully long way without seeing any lights. I think it’s a good setting for a mystery. With The Girl in Duluth, I also wanted to remember that crimes happen to real people—and to explore the ways in which both pain and restoration can travel across distance and time.
Book Club Discussion Ideas
1. How would you describe June and how does she talk about herself? What are some of the ways other characters—Tonya, Aunt Sylvi, Zee, Jack—describe her? How is her self-identity shaped by those around her?
2. At different times, the narrative focuses on certain objects that make several appearances: a teapot, a written note, a handful of hardware. What do these objects mean to different characters in the book and what roles do they play in the story?
3. How are names important in the book? Which characters make deliberate decisions about what they want to be called, and why do they make those decisions?
4. At one point, Frank calls Tonya his “best friend.” Early in the book, June describes her mother’s relationship with Frank in the same way. In the present action of the book, Tonya can’t speak for herself about her connections to other people. How do you think Tonya would describe her relationship with Frank? What other friendships are important in the book, and why?
5. For June, guilt is an emotion that conjures up ghosts from her past. Which other characters experience guilt in the novel? How do their reactions to guilt affect the decisions they make and the events that happen in both the present and past action of the story?
6. Why does June call her mother a “Pretendian”? Do you agree with June that the way Tonya behaves when it comes to race is problematic? What are some other places in the book where characters reckon with racial differences? Do you think June comes to any conclusions about the best ways to navigate them?
7. How are June and Zee’s experiences growing up in Aulneau similar, and how are they different? At one point, both Zee and June accuse each other of making a comparison of their experiences “a contest.” What do they mean? Do you agree with either or both of them?
8. June refers to Britta as being on a “small-town newspaper adventure.” Why do you think she uses that phrase? How does Britta fit into the fabric of this small town?
9. Throughout the book, June often feels that she is the object of a game of emotional tug-of-war with some of the people she is closest to; she also plays that game with other people, particularly her mother. What do other characters in the book—such as Jack, Zee, Tonya, and Aaron—want from June, and what do they want for her?
10. June begins her story by talking about the place where it happens; she tells us that outsiders often view this part of the world as “strange and lonely.” After reading the book, does this description feel accurate to you? How would you describe this place?