Nirvana in Northfield, Minnesota, the Setting of Pamela Dean’s “Tam Lin”


She could now turn right and follow the stream through the Upper Arboretum, emerging eventually in her own neighborhood; or she could follow the sidewalk between the lower lake and Dunbar Hall, climb a hill, scramble through the lilac maze, cross a highway, and plunge into the Lower Arboretum, from which, if one did not eventually retrace one’s steps, one would not emerge for three days.”–Janet takes a walk in the Arboretum in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin

This weekend my husband and I hiked in the Cowling Arboretum in Northfield, a small town south of Minneapolis.  Northfield, Minnesota, is the setting of one of my favorite books, Pamela Dean’s fantasy classic,  Tam Lin, a splendid retelling of the Tam Lin ballad. (You may know the song “Tam Lin” by Fairport Convention.)

I can’t too highly recommend Tam Lin, a brilliant college classic set at Blackstock College, modeled on Dean’s alma mater, Carleton College in Northfield.  The heroine, Janet Carter, an English professor’s daughter, loves her picturesque hometown and is an English major at Blackstock, where her classics professor advisor, a “demon recruiter,” tries to lure her into classics. (She does take Greek.)  The classics majors are rumored to be crazy, and indeed, are very strange, especially a group of actors who speak Shakespearean English: “Cry me mercy, lady!” There is also a ghost who hurls Liddell and Scott and The Scarlet Letter out the window of fourth-floor Erickson on Halloween.

The classics department is full of eccentrics, headed by the  mysterious, intimidating Medeous, who has long red-black hair and a very controlling personality.   On Halloween, the classics professors and majors eerily appear on horseback in the Arboretum, where  Janet and her friends are walking.

And under the rustle of dry leaves in the light wind, the sounds came clearer now: not only the sedate thud of hoofs and the creak of leather, but a dim jingling that, as it grew louder, made a music purer”than the bagpipes. …They looked like fireflies, and then perhaps like lanterns; and then they were just an enormous greeny-gold glow that showed up the trunks and branches of the trees, the dead dry stalks of weed and a few late-blooming flowers, like things in a pencil sketch. The broad path on the other side of the bridge lit up, every stone and stick on it like a jewel; the light touched the rough wooden bridge and made it dazzling; and then they could see the riders.

As we drove into Northfield, we passed many picture-postcard-looking farms. (Farms don’t look like that in Iowa or Nebraska.) I told my husband Northfield would be magic.

It is certainly as idyllic a town as I have ever seen outside of New England.

The Cannon River

The Cannon River


The River Walk Trail

The first thing we saw was the trail beside the pellucid Cannon River. At the weekly market, the musicians were playing “Tupelo Honey.” (A ’70s time warp!) The downtown is quaint and charming, either  (a) because it has been restored, or (b)  never lost population and got run down like so many small towns. There are five coffeehouses, a couple of pubs, an olive oil and vinegar shop, a cooking store, a yarn store, a thrift store, a very solid-looking inn, and a bookstore, just to give you an idea. The sidewalks swarm with well-dressed upper-middle-class people, many of them middle-aged, some students. No ball caps! Well, almost none.  But I don’t think the 20,000 people in Northfield could possibly support  an olive oil and vinegar shop. Perhaps tourists come on the weekends.

The Malt-o-Meal Factory is blasting out cereal fumes.  It is the only Malt-o-Meal factory in the world.


Downtown Northfield

Downtown Northfield

We drove past Carleton College, which indeed looks magical. The campus is very peaceful and many of the buildings very old.

We hiked a little in what is known as the Upper Arboretum.  Carleton owns the 800-acre Arboretum.

img_3984Really lovely, lots of trees and bridges.

But we preferred the wild Lower Arboretum, which is actually above the Upper Arboretum. At the tip top of the Lower Arboretum, seven miles outside of town, is the McKnight Prairie.  Wild, hilly, a mix of trees, grasses and wild flowers.

Prairie in Lower Arboretum

Prairie in Lower Arboretum

According to Carleton’s Cowling Arboretum website, “the hilltops of McKnight were never extensively disturbed, and they remain intact native ecosystems with diverse assemblages of prairie species. ….The area around the hills was once cultivated, but has been recolonized by native tallgrass prairie species dominated by Andropogon gerardii (big bluestem) and Sorghastrum nutans (Indian grass). McKnight’s populations of native plants have served as an important local seed source for nearby prairie restorations in the Arb.”

What a perfect day! We’d love to live in Northfield.  All the Victorian houses, Tudors, and Arts-and-Crafts houses are in great shape.  A few modern houses, not many!

If you want to figure out the correlations between Blackstock and Carleton, check out The Emerald City Review’s fascinating guide to Blackstock!

9 thoughts on “Nirvana in Northfield, Minnesota, the Setting of Pamela Dean’s “Tam Lin”

  1. Kat, I will definitely look for this book. On our second trip to MN, my husband and I went to Northfield and fell in love with the town. It’s a place I could definitely live in. Thanks for the recommendation.


  2. I’m fond of the legend of Tam Lin (and in fact one of my favourite books in the 1980s was Diana Wynne Jones’s “Fire and Hemlock” which drew on it). And I have a copy of the Pamela Dean book lurking somewhere too! Northfield looks wonderful and I’m even more keen to read the book after seeing those lovely photos!


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