From the Beauty Parlor to the Barricades!

In 1996, Lorna Landvik had a dream that she was Gorbachev's temp during a nuclear crisis. Not long after, she set off on a nine-month, cross-country disarmament march with her husband and baby.
Diana Watters

The blurbs on the back of Lorna Landvik's books trumpet the same descriptors: "funny," "warm," and "tender." Her characters tend to be women making the proverbial lemonade, gossiping, and looking after one another in places like beauty parlors and coffee shops. All of her books, except for her latest, Oh My Stars (Ballantine Books), are set in Minnesota, and they all move at a rather Minnesotan pace, heavy on the dialogue, heavy on the life lessons, unafraid of platitudes. They're the sort of books you might recommend to a kindly aunt who's feeling down, not your Amnesty chapter.

What you wouldn't be likely to guess is that these books were written by one pissed-off progressive. Aside from some go-girl feminism and a Depression-era interracial relationship, Lorna Landvik the author has largely kept politics out of her half a dozen books. But when Lorna Landvik the private citizen starts talking politics, she isn't warm or tender at all. She can be kind of funny, though.

What gets her started? I had an opportunity to find out on a windy spring day by Minnehaha Falls. Landvik's eyes crinkled gently behind her sunglasses and she never quite stopped smiling, even as she held forth on no-new-taxes pledges, "rabid" right-wing talk radio, underfunded public schools, the alleged leftward lean of the mainstream press, and, most vehemently, a certain Republican secretary of state in a certain Midwestern state starting with "O."

When she took a breath, she stopped briefly to tell me about the way the lakes looked the last time she landed at the airport here and ask whether there are a lot of lakes back where I'm from. And then she went right back to why protests get covered on page 12 of the mainstream newspapers, even in Minnesota.

"I'm proud to be from Minnesota," she says. "I'm proud of our progressive history. I'm proud we were the only state that voted for Mondale. And I still believe that the majority of people are progressive. The majority care about people who aren't necessarily just like them. It's just that the voices on the rabid right are so much louder."

Landvik's Twin Cities cred goes pretty deep: Her parents--a South Dakotan and a native Minnesotan--met at a church picnic by the deer pen in Minnehaha Park. She and her three older brothers grew up in south Minneapolis. Patty Jane's House of Curl, her well-received debut novel, is set just up the street.

It was her idea to meet me in front of the Longfellow House by the falls. "This used to be a public library, before they moved it here," she says. "I used to come here, to the park, and get a big slab of taffy--all butter and sugar, I'm sure--on waxed paper. Then I'd get a stack of books at the library and go read all afternoon."

With her soft blond hair, petite frame, and easy smile, the 50-year-old Landvik still has the look and demeanor of a Midwestern girl who might read Caddie Woodlawn and To Kill a Mockingbird in the afternoon shade. And then she tells you about the time she temped at the Playboy Mansion.

"No bunny ears," she says, deadpan. "I asked when they called with the job." Landvik spent her time there sorting and labeling Hefner's private movie collection. "I always considered myself a feminist. But I never bought into Hefner's pseudo-empowerment stuff. I kept hoping to meet a Playboy bunny who'd just be very comfortable and very happy in her body, but I never did. It was a very sumptuous life but ultimately pretty skeevy."

That was when she had moved out to L.A. to be, in her words, a "movie star." She spent 10 years there and another two in San Francisco, taking small parts, doing standup and improv, and temping and waitressing.

Then, shortly after her first daughter was born, she had a dream. She dreamt that she was Gorbachev's temp secretary when the U.S. launched a nuclear strike. She had until noon to convince Gorbachev to avert all-out nuclear war. "But I thought, 'I'm just a temp! I don't have the power to stop this!' I'm not the sort of person who believes in my dreams, but that's when I realized what a scary world I had brought my daughter into and I knew I had to do something."

What Landvik did back in 1986 was join a thousand other people walking from California to Washington, D.C., calling for nuclear disarmament. The money ran out two weeks into the march, in Bakersfield, California, but 450 people, including Landvik, her husband, and their daughter, kept walking for nine months and made it to Washington. "It was terrible. And it was the best thing I've ever done. I never want to do it again," she says.

"Sometimes people would drive by and [stick up their middle fingers] and shout 'Get a job!' But I like to think that some kid in some town we walked through maybe, I don't know, could become the next Gandhi. That's what protests do. They wake people up, people who maybe didn't know that nuclear bombs were a threat or that their votes were stolen." (The most recent protest Landvik attended was about the Ohio election.)

As we were leaving the park Landvik said she was on her way that evening to do a reading in Woodbury. I brought up the fact that her books are probably pretty popular in suburban book clubs, and that a lot of those suburban women might have Bush stickers on their SUVs.

"Nah," she said. "I find that most of the book groups tend to be liberal. In fact, most people who read tend to be liberal. I think that's the definition of a liberal worldview, when you're exposed to all kinds of people different from yourself. I think the ability to imagine people very different from yourself and to think about what their lives are like, that's a very liberal way to think. Like Atticus Finch says, 'If we just walked a mile in another man's skin....'"

Landvik's eyes crinkle again behind her sunglasses. "Wow," she says. "There's a platitude for you!"

Twin Cities Reader Summer Books Issue:

The Barnstormer A few years ago, Doug Ohman was a theme-park executive with 600 employees. Today, he photographs barns. What happened?

The Dirty Parts Romance Novelist Connie Brockway Wants to Know Why People Can't Look Past the Unbound Bosom and Love-Swollen Member

Fixing a Leak What happens when a reporter doesn't keep his word to an anonymous source?

From the Beauty Parlor to the Barricades! Her Warmhearted Characters Feel Good About the World. Lorna Landvik Doesn't.

Love and Marriage To Most of Us, Nothing Sounds Worse Than a Loveless Marriage. According to Stephanie Coontz, It Wasn't Always That Way.

Life of Johnson It wasn't fun bringing up the rump of the avant-garde. B.S. Johnson felt compelled to do it anyway.

Review: Joe Coomer: Pocketful of Names

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