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A novel by Sigrid Brown

I published The Girl in Duluth under the name Sigrid Brown in 2022, but my real name is Cheri Johnson. I'm in the process of combining my author websites and social media accounts. To keep up on my news in the future--such as the upcoming publication of my new novel, Annika Rose, in May 2024 by Red Hen Press--you can find my website here. Follow me on Instagram @CheriJohnsonArt.

Exciting news: The Girl in Duluth won a Midwest Book Award from the Midwest Independent Publishers Association! Read more about the awards and see a list of all the winners here.

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.”

From Erin Britton at City Book Review: “With an atmospheric setting in a remote and densely forested patch of Minnesota adjacent to the Canadian border, The Girl in Duluth tells the evocative and often troubling tale of a rural community populated by families with rumbling resentments and several secrets to hide.”

Watch a video of me reading from The Girl in Duluth at Eat My Words Bookstore in northeast Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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February 1, 2022

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. The novel is now available on the Lulu Bookstore as both a paperback (purchase it here) and an ebook (purchase it here). It is also on the shelf and available for ordering online at Eat My Words Bookstore in Minneapolis and Zenith Bookstore in Duluth, MN. An audiobook version read by the author will be released in spring or summer 2023. Check out the first page of the novel here, as well as a longer excerpt on my Booklife page.

Cover & page design by Mayfly Design in Minneapolis, MN.

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Meet Sigrid Brown

I live and work as a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minnesota. I love to read and to explore the Twin Cities arts scene: live music, theater, visual art, dance, comedy, literature, and everything in-between.

I’ve always had eclectic tastes as a reader. Sometimes I’m in the mood for literary fiction, and at other times it’s crime novels or children’s books. I also love graphic novels, poetry, nonfiction, and plays. (I don’t care what anyone says; while going to plays is one of my favorite things to do, reading a play offers its own special pleasures, particularly one with poetic language like Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories or Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics.) When it comes to mysteries, I’ve read nearly every book Agatha Christie ever wrote (my favorites are probably Death on the Nile and Endless Night) and I’ve gone pretty deep into the sleek, dark catalogue of Georges Simenon as well. No one can do a rich, heady atmosphere like Raymond Chandler, and Tony Hillerman is one of my new favorites.  Literary fiction and poetry I’ve enjoyed recently include Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Ron A. Austin's Avery Colt Is a Snake, a Thief, a Liar, and Sue Owen's My Doomsday Sampler.

From Edgar Allan Poe to Alison Bechdel to Laura Ingalls Wilder, what I care about most in books are careful observations of human nature that are both frank and compassionate. And I admire any writer who can—for any number of reasons—pull me irresistibly from one page to the next.

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The Story

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.

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 predominantly Native 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 another 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?

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