When the “Book Bags” met last week at Diamond Point Park for a socially distanced discussion of Tara Westover’s "Educated," Polly Scotland announced the kickoff of the 25th season of the book club. The club was formed when Polly Scotland and Julie Arnold each invited one member, who each recruited another member and so on. "Snow Falling on Cedars" by David Gutterson was the very first book chosen.
Since its inception in January 1997, the book club has had up to 14 members at a time. Over the years, 28 women have been Book Bags, but only three -– Polly, Robyn Schulke and Ann Cease –- remain of the original group. Another six of us have been members for 20 to 24 seasons. Currently there are 11 “Bags.”
The name “Book Bags” came about partly because of the group’s sometimes use of Books in a Bag from the Bemidji Public Library, but Robyn cites an off-hand comment made by a book club member’s husband as another possible source. Lin Ward, a member since 1999, says she wasn’t enamored of the “Book Bags” title at first, “but now I just smile at our silly name.”
Twenty-five years ago, most club members were still employed, so membership rose and fell with busy work schedules, raising children, relocating. Today, most are retired. As the core group has stuck together, they’ve been featured in Minnesota Women’s Press (September 2011). That same year, their Facebook page led to a “cover girls” photo appearance in "Independent," published by the Independent Book Publishers Association.
What makes Book Bag meetings special is that virtually every meeting focuses on a theme that ties in with the book being discussed. “Bags” come in costume; hostesses serve food items mentioned in the book; meeting places reflect the setting. Special guests sometimes join in the discussion.
Costumes, food, settings and guests keep things interesting
When the group read "Good in Bed" by Jennifer Weiner, “Bags” were invited to meet at Polly's -- wearing pajamas. I showed up in my yellow ducky slippers and frumpy fleece robe and knocked on Polly's door, clutching a copy of the book in my hands and was greeted by her surprised husband, Lee. I'd gotten the date wrong and was a week early.
For the book "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, hostess Lin Ward prepared a potato peel pie made with some of the only ingredients available on the Nazi-occupied English island of Guernsey during WWII: potatoes and beets. Lin’s advice: Skip that recipe.
For discussion of "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett, we were served Southern fried chicken, Coca-Cola, and chocolate cream pie (not made in accordance with the book’s ingredients, thank goodness).
The Bags have met for book discussions in private homes, restaurants, the public library, the History Center, and in a hot tub at a local motel. They met at a casino to discuss Louise Erdrich's "The Bingo Palace" and in a barn to talk about Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit." They’ve even met at mystery sites -- at previously unannounced bed and breakfasts, and even on a Caribbean cruise.
For Erica Bauermeister's book about a cooking school, "The School of Essential Ingredients," Sue Doeden, local food writer and recipe developer, was invited to the meeting to teach a cooking lesson. She had read the book and also joined in the discussion.
Sometimes book authors join a meeting. For "Muddy Jungle River," Wendell Affield attended and shared his experiences in Vietnam. In 2010, the Book Bags invited other area book clubs to read "Queen of the Road" by Doreen Orion. The author joined the meeting via speaker phone and answered questions from the several different book clubs in attendance.
Discussions, insights and the Bag-O-Meter
Even though we often get off subject, our best discussions happen when someone relates something from a book to her own life experience, and we learn things about one another that the book discussion has unveiled.
“We get to know one another better through the discussion,” Ann Cease says. "Still Alice" by Lisa Genova led to discussion about the fears of early Alzheimer's and personal anecdotes about people we know who have struggled with the disease. "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett inspired reflection about our own youth, growing up during the age of the civil rights movement.
The Book Bags meet nine times a year. Seasons begin in September with a list of recommended books and a tentative schedule. Book selections are as varied as the members themselves. The club reads everything from classics to mysteries to contemporary fiction to non-fiction; from local and regional authors to Pulitzer prize-winners; with settings from northern Minnesota to points all around the world.
At the end of each meeting, we rate the book on a scale of one to 10. Ratings are tallied and averaged for the final score on the “Bag-O-Meter.”
Since March, most meetings have been held via Zoom, except for two socially distanced outdoor meetings. Next month the club will read their 230th book, "A Good Time for the Truth" by Sun Yung Shin, and Zoom their discussion. Regardless of what we read and where or how we meet, what keeps the Bags together is the fun and comradery we’ve developed. Even a pandemic hasn’t changed that.