Cambridge woman to hold book signing of Cloquet Fire

Cambridge author Marilee Selin will hold a book signing at Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge for her book, “The Red Box: A Child’s Memoir,” on Saturday, Feb. 11.

The original red box that lends Marilee Selin’s book its title. Photo by Austin Gerth
The original red box that lends Marilee Selin’s book its title. Photo by Austin Gerth

“The Red Box” is based on the life and experiences of Mary Alice Selin, Marilee Selin’s mother-in-law, who, along with her three sisters and brother, was raised by a single father after their mother was institutionalized for mental health issues. It was unusual for a father to raise children on his own. The book signing will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Selin based the book on interviews with Mary, as well as research into the history of her family and of Bain, the small community in Aitkin County they called home.

Selin calls the book a work of “enhanced nonfiction” because while the story is grounded in fact, it is told in the first person from the perspective of Mary Selin as a child. All of the dialogue in the book is necessarily imagined.

When she was a child, Mary Selin and her siblings lived through Cloquet-Moose Lake fire of 1918, which burned most of Bain and forms the book’s climax. The children were home alone when the fire broke out, and they escaped on their own.

The red wooden box referred to by the book’s title was used to carry the family’s only surviving possessions safely away from the fire.

“Their dad said, ‘If there’s a fire, you do not leave without this box,’” Selin said.

Unable to take the box on the train that carried refugees of the fire away from Bain, the Selin children hid it near a creek.

Marilee Selin still has the original red box. The possessions in it included familial memorabilia like pictures of their parents, letters and a Bible. The significance of other items, like a pin cushion, is unclear.

Selin spent years working on the book and revised it many times before deciding to self-publish it. She began conducting interviews with Mary Selin in 1999, and she put together an early version of the story to share at a family reunion that was written as a purely historical summary.

“The idea just kind of evolved,” Selin said. “The summary that was just written as a historical account didn’t grab anyone’s attention very much.”

Writing has always been a hobby of Selin’s. She is a biology teacher by trade, but she has written articles and edited a church women’s publication, and she caught the writing bug after winning an essay contest in eighth-grade.

Selin said her continual revisions over the years focused on nailing the right voices for the book’s characters, since they were real members of her husband’s family. People still living on his side still remember Mary Selin and others in the book, and knew them before Marilee did. In the case of Mary, who narrates the story and who she only knew as an adult,

Selin had to project back and try to understand the feelings and behavior she would have had as a child.
Before they went ahead with self-publication, Marilee’s husband Roger Selin made several hand-bound copies of the book to give to family members to read, figuring if they didn’t care for the book, they wouldn’t publish it. When they presented the book to Roger’s family, one of his sisters paid Selin a high compliment.

“You have nailed my mom’s personality right on,” she said, per Selin.

Selin said she hopes to write more books in the future and has worked on others off and on over the years. She would like to write two more books drawn from her husband’s family history, including one about his grandfather’s time in the Spanish-American War.

For more information on “The Red Box” and Marilee Selin, visit the book’s Facebook page under the name “The Red Box-A Child’s Memoir.” For more information on Scout & Morgan Books and the book signing, visit scoutandmorganbooks.com and check the events tab.