Dirty Shirt by Jim Landwehr

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Dirty Shirt by Jim Landwehr. eLectio Publishing, 2014.

Reviewed by Davis Endries

More often than not, we read the memoirs of celebrities, soldiers, addicts, and politicians. It seems as though we want the secrets of success and the pitfalls of failures of those different than ourselves. These books line the bestseller lists year after year. Rarely do we get a chance to read the real stories of our neighbors, friends, and family. Packed with all the same rhetoric as any self-help book on the market, featuring leadership, codependency, and identity. Landwehr uses all of the psychological bases forming a sentimental and enlightening bond with readers from all backgrounds.

In a series of three parts author Jim Landwehr goes from a friend to a brother, to a father in the Boundary Water Camping Area of northern Minnesota. Through this coming-of-age or maybe coming-of-middle-age story, we sit around the campfire as he goes in high visual detail about the wildlife and wild rides encountered with family and friends. The chapters range from short stories of “Rails, Roadways, and Reality” about hitchhiking, to the secular parts of the trips as in “The Portaging”. Where he incorporates his interpretation of the laws of physics.

Stories and life lessons such as “it’s always good to start a trip with a dirty shirt” are balanced somewhere between light humor and foreboding philosophy. The reciprocal lessons learned early in the book often reappear in different vignettes and metaphors. Particularly the lesson of preserving raw meat. When Doug’s persistence outweighs the skepticism about the practicality of bringing fresh meat resulting in “The meat had all the appeal of a dirty, sweaty sock floating in toilet water.” We see the literal experience of the problems in bringing perishable items. Or possibly the disappointment in conceding to group thinking. Both of these ideas are returned to and overcome in different situations. In the trip of 2012, among the decidedly different approaches to previous challenges “The adults shared some fine boxed wine-a Chardonnay, vintage 2011- that was initially frozen and used as an ice pack, a trick I learned from Tom.” This multi-use of resources speaks volumes to the message laid out throughout the book. Other lessons such as placing cameras in Ziploc bags were never figured out. Maybe this speaks to the notion of valuables and the inherent contradiction of technology vs. nature.

Landwehr’s book frequently brought back memories of growing up with my brothers on the Wisconsin waters. Though we rarely camped, the universal lessons of “if you couldn’t take a little razzing…then you should stay home” and “We were all up there to laugh and have fun, and sometimes meant that you were the source of entertainment” could easily highlight our fishing trips.

Consisting of more 40 chapters and 230 plus pages this collection ranges more than 33 years of camping trips and family memories. While the group dynamics change with time, the stories aren’t just memories about the BWCA: They are about the discovery and reflection that keep families together.