When Candace Simar heard that her great-grandfather drove a stagecoach to Fort Ambercrombie in North Dakota toward the end of the Civil War, she excitedly told her college-age children.
They didn't care.
She told them about the Sioux uprising in Minnesota in 1862.
They'd never heard about it.
But her son, noting his mom's enthusiasm, challenged her to do something about it: Write a book.
So she did.
Now Simar, a retired nurse, has published eight books. One of them, "Shelterbelts," was selected for this year's Community Read project organized by Friends of the Library and Alexandria Community Education.
"It is amazing for me," Simar said. "'Shelterbelts' is the favorite book I've written. 'Shelterbelts' is based on the area where I grew up in Otter Tail County. It's all fiction, but I've used the land and the buildings. It feels very personal to me."
A community book club
Community Read programs take place around the country, promoted by major publishers and were dubbed a "big, exciting, community-wide book club" by one North Carolina library. Alexandria's began in 2011 when organizers Amy Sunderland and the late Karen Simmons, then the library director, encouraged area residents to read the novels of Minnesota writer John Hassler, said Deb Trumm, a member of the Community Read committee.
Since then, the committee has chosen a wide range of books by local and nationally-known authors. Community Reads have included classics (the 1930 whodunnit "The Maltese Falcon"), best-sellers ("The Things They Carried," about the Vietnam War) and memoirs ("The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir" by Minnesota writer Kao Kalia Yang).
"We swing back and forth," Trumm said. "We like Minnesota authors if we can, or something kind of local, that's in paperback and ties into Minnesota."
Community Read selections must have widespread appeal, she said, adding, "It can't be super long because we know people won't read it."
The committee has a fund to buy copies of the book, which they make available for free and hope readers will return once they're done or pass them along to other readers. This year, they gave out 50 copies of "Shelterbelts."
Readers go through books on their own, then take part in book-related activities. The committee looks for ways to tie the book's themes in with local organizations and events. With "Shelterbelts," for example, readers were able to meet Simar this week.
Events scheduled throughout June include:
• A Master Gardeners talk inspired by "Shelterbelts," also called windbreaks
• "Coffee in the Gardens" at the Legacy of the Lakes Museum to pay homage to the end of World War II
• A book discussion
• A showing of the film "Sweetland"
Besides Master Gardeners, Community Read organizers have teamed up with other entities one might not connect with literature, such as the Legacy of the Lakes Museum, the county foster care system, restaurants and even Elden's Downtown Floral.
Community Read once took place in the winter, but bad weather forced so many cancellations that it migrated to summertime, Trumm said.
About the book
"Shelterbelts," published by North Star Press in St. Cloud, tells the story of a farm family following World War II. It's about a sister who ran the farm during the war and a brother who returned home after being a prisoner of war.
"I'm also very fascinated with the ending of World War II - not just the war, but what happened after the war was over," Simar said. "It was an intense time. Everyone felt they had lost time with the war and got busy and modernized their lives."
Simar heard some of the stories she tells in "Shelterbelts" while taking care of the elderly who remembered the years following the war. Many were soldiers. One man, a widower, told her war stories whenever she stopped by his house to care for him.
She didn't realize he was breaking out of that shell that silenced so many veterans until he said, "I want to tell you, I've never told this to another living soul. I never told my wife. I couldn't talk to my children about it."
When people tell her, "You write like you were there," Simar credits those old people she cared for and stories passed down from her own family members.
Shelterbelts is a tribute to the people she has known, she said. It is also a study of what was happening in America after the war. Even by the time she was born in 1953, the war was still a huge topic.
"The war overshadowed everything in our lives when we were little," Simar said. There was the massive relief effort to feed poor children in Europe, and the dynamic between those who served and those who didn't. Her dad did not serve, she said; he stayed home to farm.
"He always felt guilty about it," she said. "The veterans were held in very high esteem. We were so grateful that they won."
Simar is known for the research she pours into each book, and this one was no exception. While studying rural electrification, she discovered, much to her surprise, that there were many people who did not want electricity.
"A lot of people thought that was wasted money," she said. "There was a real fear after the war was over that the economy would slip back into the '30s. It went both ways, those who wanted to modernize and those who didn't."
"Shelterbelts" was a finalist for the Midwest Book Awards and the Willa Literary Awards in Historical Fiction. Simar has received grants from the Five Wing Arts Council to attend writing retreats and workshops.
IF YOU GO
• What: Community Read events
• Companion Film: "Sweet Land," Tuesday, June 11 at 2 p.m. at the Douglas County Library meeting room, or Monday, June 17, at 4 p.m. at Grand Arbor.
• Book Discussion: Monday, June 24 at 6:30 p.m. in the Douglas County Library meeting room.
• Master Gardeners Brown Bag Lunch: Tuesday, June 25 at noon in the library meeting room. This discussion will cover plants native to rural Minnesota.
• Coffee Break in the Gardens: Wednesday, June 26 at 2 p.m. at the Legacy of the Lakes Gardens and Boathouse. A presentation about a time after WWII when the sugar rations were over and egg coffee was served with great baked goods. Cost is $7 and participants need to sign up through Community Education, 320-762-3310.