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Casino fraud, murder setting for Cass Lake author's novel

Jim Proebstle, long-time summer visitor to the area, signs a copy of his book, "In the Absence of Honor," for Roger Muth, left, during a recent Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club meeting. At left is Warren Meissner while Bruce Campbell is at far right. Proebstle told about his book, which is a fictional suspense novel set in the Bemidji region. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

People who read Jim Proebstle's "In the Absence of Honor" won't help but make comparisons to Cass Lake.

The fictional suspense novel, set in northern Minnesota, speaks of fraud and corruption in an American Indian casino and focuses around a murder.

The town, Chippewa Lake, isn't Cass Lake - but it sure could be.

"I had one guy who read the book ... who kept e-mailing back and forth," Proebstle said recently in a presentation to the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club. "He started pinpointing everything in the area."

He adds: "Bemidji is featured in a lot of different ways in the book, both the hospital and BSU as well," he said. "The book takes place from Bemidji to Duluth as the primary area, other than a couple of sojourns to Washington, D.C."

The skinny -- Jake Lorenz decides to winter at his family's cabin in Sandy's Cove on Arrowhead Point and finds a gruesome murder scene. The episode draws him into the shadowy struggle for land, wealth and power, which includes the corrupt tribal council that controls the nearby Ojibwe casino. It includes a land grab by a powerful Twin Cities brewery owner.

"The feedback I got was quite good," Proebstle said of reaction from Leech Lake tribal members of his novel, including from members of the Leech Lake Tribal Council. "I met a couple of tribal council members ... and I actually asked if I need to be concerned, and they said, no, not at all."

In fact, there might be a sequel, he said. "I had no idea of a sequel when I wrote this book, but I do now as I got calls saying not only is this a problem, but this and this and this are problems too."

The book, released last fall by small Texas publisher Emerald Book Co., while set in the 1990s is topical about corruption in gaming, not necessarily at Cass Lake but industry wide, he said. Longtime joblessness and substance abuse has rocked many reservations.

"This problem lends itself to corruption," he said. "Just visually reach out in one of these reservations and drop a $30 million to a $50 million project right into the center of it, with a hundred years of lack of leadership. That project is a cash project - we call it a casino.

"With little oversight, little government controls, very little accounting controls until recently over the last 10 to 12 years," he added, "so in my mind, just a prime opportunity for corruption and abuse."

But Proebstle said the abuse of power isn't contained to Indian reservations. "We saw it on Wall Street, we saw it in our governments, we saw in an awful lot of areas, including the Catholic Church. They are people who abuse the people they were charged to lead."

Corruption, he says, "isn't systemic to a cultural level, it's systemic to people who are corrupt."

That philosophy is the foundation of the book, he said. Reservations have more than a 100-year history of settings for abuse, offering a "harsh" environment often with little economic opportunity. He also cites a traditional lack of male leadership on reservations, setting up tribes for power grabs.

Another trigger for doing the book was when he found out that instead of a per capita distribution of casino profits such as at Mystic Lake Casino, Leech Lakers got a turkey and a box of canned goods.

Proebstle has researched American Indian history his entire life. A Deer Park, Ill., resident, he and his wife, Carole, live May to September on Leech Lake. A Michigan State graduate and member of the 1965 Michigan State national championship football team, Proebstle formed Prodyne Inc., a management consulting firm.

"When you live up here, the research for this kind of book -- you kind of live it," Proebstle said. "You're working with it all the time. And if you read the newspapers, you don't have to do a whole lot more research. It's right there in front of you."

His major research was on the land.

"I really like the land," he said. "Any of us who live in northern Minnesota ... land to me really becomes an important part of who we are. ... It's the smells, it's the touch, it's the feel, it's the experience that you have wherever you are with land.

"I like to try to bring that into the story," he said. "I was able to find the field notes of Zebulon Pike."

Pike and Henry Schoolcraft were charged with finding the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which Schoolcraft found at Lake Itasca. There are only two geographic areas named after Pike - Pike's Peak and Pike Bay at Cass Lake, he said.

"The field notes were really good at describing the chief of the Ojibwe at that time, which the white people called Flat Mouth because you couldn't possibly pronounce his real name," Proebstle said. "His notes really did a wonderful job of describing the village that was one of the primary villages here on Big Sandy.

"I use that 200 years of history on that piece of land to try to pull it forward into a contemporary story, making the history of the land relevant to the contemporary story," he said.

Publishing a book isn't easy, but Proebstle had help in a publisher who has a summer home in Hackensack. He runs a small publishing house in Austin, Texas. He liked the book, and from there the process was quick, and his first run is 4,000 copies.

Editing is in three phases, and luckily he bypassed the first level where publishers simply say the concept won't work and try again. The second edit involves sequence and timing throughout the story for continuity. The final edit is a line edit, where the text is scoured for spelling, grammar and style problems, he said.

"Writing and editing are two sides of the coin," Proebstle said. "If you try to edit your own work, you'll never get done. You'll drive yourself crazy. You've got to just write and let the editors do what they do."

There are 11,000 books published every month, he said.

"Publishing is a crazy business," he said. "The publishing business is actually the bookstore system itself. Even if you get great support from the bookstores, they're small businesses that struggle with an ongoing profit-loss formula."

"In the Absence of Honor" took about five years to write, off and on, Proebstle said.

"I told myself that if I can't sell a guy from Hackensack on a book about Minnesota, I should just give up," Proebstle said. "But along with a small press, that means a small marketing budget."

Proebstle is making his way around the area this summer to present his book to local readers. He'll sell and sign books 5-7 p.m. July 11 at the Hampton Inn & Suites new gift shop opening, make a presentation July 13 to the Bemidji Rotary Club, and sign and sell books 1-3 p.m. July 18 at B. Dalton in the Paul Bunyan Mall.

As part of Bemidji State's Snow Ball in January, Proebstle offered in the silent auction six books and dinner hosted by the author, which was held June 26.