Novelist Mary Relindes Ellis brings the immigrant experience home. Her latest book, “The Bohemian Flats: A Novel,” explores immigration and Minnesota’s history through the eyes of her great-great-grandparents before World War I.
She first got the idea for the book after crossing some steps in Minneapolis and wondering why they were there. She soon immersed herself in the history of the area.
Because she grew up with many immigrants, she knew what it was like to have that experience. Ellis wanted her novel to show a different angle of immigration. Instead of the typical immigrant story of coming from poverty, with no money, she wanted to show what it was like from the young intellectual perspective.
“My great-great-grandparents did come over with money,” Ellis said. “They weren’t rich, but definitely had money. I wanted to show the immigrant experience of these three young intellectuals who reject all the bourgeois German wealth deliberately to choose to live in a very poor area because they are the hippies of their day.”
Ellis will hold a book signing at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 26, at Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge. She hopes Isanti County residents can connect with the novel because the same type of immigrant experience happened in Cambridge, Isanti and surrounding cities.
The novel follows Raimund Kaufmann and his brother Albert from a German farm to the Bohemian Flats of Minnesota — a diverse immigrant village along the banks of the Mississippi River. There, they find different forms of prejudice and a chance to reinvent their lives in the milling capitol of the U.S. They find diversity and a vibrant culture that many Minnesotans have forgotten.
“Minnesota was probably one of the most tolerant immigrant communities,” Ellis said. “People say that New York and Boston have this amazing immigrant experiences, not realizing that it’s here in Minneapolis too. It was the very same. We had prostitution among the riverfront and runaway slaves that followed the Mississippi.”
“Minnesota has its warts,” Ellis said. “I’m tired of this region of the country being seen as bland, as nothing. That just isn’t so. We have the biggest Somali population in the nation. We have good food. We have the largest Hmong and Cambodian immigrant population in the nation. It’s not boring. Minnesotans are a bit too modest in claiming their history, and they need to claim their history.”
She also hopes that they come out of the novel more tolerant and with a better understanding of what it feels like to move to a new country.
Ellis was raised in northern Wisconsin. She grew up feeling out of place, with her not-so German features. She remembers being classified as anything but German: French, East Indian or Mexican mostly. She moved to Minnesota in 1978 and received her degree in English from the University of Minnesota.
“About my junior year (in college), I told my mom I wanted to be a writer,” Ellis remembered. “She cried.”
The Bohemian Flats follows Ellis’ widely acclaimed first novel “The Turtle Warrior.” She’s already working on her third novel, which will follow one of the main characters from “The Bohemian Flats” on a new journey.
Scout & Morgan Books is located at 114 Buchanan St. N., Cambridge, and can be reached at 763-689-2474.