Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Post # 7

Quote of the Day: "The first qualification for public office in Hamtramck is a prison term." A common saying of the 1940s because of the graft and corruption in the city's government.


The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of Straits
by Tiya Miles

This book is a triumph of research and persistence in sifting through scraps and pieces of  primary source material from Detroit's first century of existence.  Yes, its a scholarly work but very readable and it details an aspect of the Motor City's history that is often ignored or just consigned to the shadows - slavery in Detroit. The author's premise is that from its founding through its first hundred years the 'Peculiar Institution' was an integral part of Detroit's economy and culture. 

In Detroit both Native Americans and African Americans were held in bondage and the buying and selling of slaves was common practice. Most Native American slaves were female and worked as household servants and quite often were their owners' mistresses. On the other hand Indian slaves were freed much more often than African slaves. African Americans usually numbered about a third of the Detroit slaves, at any one time, and were considered a status symbol by most slave holders.

Slaves as a whole were only a small percentage of Detroit's population. In 1750 Detroit counted 33 slaves out of a population of 483 souls. By 1773 the number had risen to 85 and spiked in 1782 to 180 and to 288 in 1796.  The sharp rise in numbers was due to the French and Indian War when Detroit raiding parties as far south as Kentucky and invariably returned with slaves. By the end of the War of 1812 slavery was all but gone in the territory. 

Which leads me to the one disagreement I have with the publisher, not the author. The book's blurb claims that, "Miles reveals that slavery was at the heart of the Midwest's iconic city..." I think that's overselling a very important and valuable history. Cadillac didn't found the city to further slavery, nor does the book persuade me or argue that the city would have failed if it didn't have slaves or a small slave trade.

The author does convince the reader that because of Detroit's physical and jurisdictional isolation in the 1700s the issue of slavery was not addressed until the U.S. took control of the city after the War of 1812. It did not help that the city was often operating under conflicting French, British and American laws. Jay's Treaty of 1795 averted war between the U.S. and Britain and also gave control of British forts and Detroit to the Americans within two years. The treaty also insured French and British subjects they would loose no property after the Americans take over. This obviously included their slaves.

At the same time the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery and involuntary 
servitude. The author presents plenty of evidence on how the law was either simply ignored or the slave owners had their chattels make an X on a sheet of paper that turned them into voluntary indentured servants for life. Ms. Miles is especially good at ferreting out both the tragedy and absurdity of slave law. For some years before Canada outlawed slavery a Canadian slave could escape to Detroit and be recognized as a free man and courts would not send the ex slave back to bondage. On the other hand slavery still existed in Detroit and slaves regularly escaped across the river where they were made free men and courts wouldn't return them to the United States. And then the author tells the story of  family of slaves that fled to Canada gained their freedom and then the father of the family was asked to return to Detroit and recruit and lead a Black armed militia. He accepted the offer and was promoted to Captain. So Detroit became the first place in America with a company of armed ex African American slaves commanded by Black officers.

The author makes this history personal, intimate, and interesting by telling the early history of the city through the lives of the slaves as well as the slave holders. The author digs up wills, court records, and family journals, in order to paint a picture of  individual slave experiences in Detroit and the Cat's Cradle of confusing laws that ensnared a slave in a web of deceit and oppression.

The result is a revelatory study of Detroit's first hundred years.

Miles. Tiya. The dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits, The New Press, 2017, $27.95

Sweet Girl
by Travis Mulhauser

This novel is an addictive, taut, gritty, and suspenseful slice of up north Michigan noir.
Percy James is a 16-year-old girl who in personality and spunk could be the twin sister of Mattie from True Grit. Her older sister has married and moved to the West Coast to get away from her meth addicted mother, leaving young Percy to deal with mom Carletta.

When Carletta disappears for several days it is up to Percy to find her, even as a fierce winter storm dead aim at northern Michigan and Emmet County where Percy and her mom live. The obvious place to look is Sheldon's, one of the major meth dealers in the county. Heading into Emmett County's back country Percy gets her truck stuck in a snow drift as night falls, and has to walk the last mile to the meth house in a growing storm. She finds Sheldon and his girl friend passed out in the living room and quietly searches the house for her mother.  Instead she finds a few months old baby in a second floor bedroom lying in a bassinet shoved up next to an open window with blowing snow starting to cover the baby. On close examination the baby girl's dirty diapers haven't been changed for ages, she suffers from horrendous blisters and rashes across her back and bottom, and she's screaming to be fed. Percy wraps the baby in blankets, grabs a can of dry baby formula and baby in hand flees into the storm.

Percy knows Sheldon will come after her and heads for a cabin well back in the woods looking for help from an old man who once was sweet on Percey's mom and lived with them for a year. The man's name is Portis and is the closest thing Percy has ever had to a dad. And I can't help but believe Mulhauser named the character as homage to Charles Portis the author of True Grit. Portis, the character, is is an irascible old drunk, rude more often than not, and for his age a rugged outdoorsman. He kicked drugs but continues to drink heavily because as he says, "I suppose it is a slower more reasonably portioned suffering."

Portis can't turn down Percy's cry for help. They feed the child, treat her blisters, and rashes the best they can, and worried about the child's elevated fever, Percy and Portis take off cross country heading for Petoskey and the hospital. They will not only have to survive the storm but avoid being captured by Sheldon's deadly crew of drug dealers and enforcers. To make it even worse Percey and Portis are on foot while Sheldon's crew is hunting for them on snowmobiles. 

The rest of the novel unfolds during the course of the night. The two main characters are finely drawn and engage readers' full attention. Milhauser writes crackling dialogue and is very good at capturing the isolation and hopelessness of the poor, and those who live on the ragged fringes of society. Veins of dark humor run through the story and throughout the book memorable sentences abound. On enduring Emmet County winters Percy remarks, "It's not so much the cold, it's the fact that at some point the ass kicking feels personal."

The author is from Petoskey and currently lives in Durham, North Carolina. Here's hoping readers don't have to wait too long before Mulhauser makes another literary visit to his hometown.

Mulhauser, Travis. Sweet Girl, HarperCollins, 2016, $26.99, pb 

And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917- 2017
Ronald Riekki, editor

From the introduction by Thomas Lynch, in which Michigan's award-winning literary funeral director recalls a childhood trip to the U.P. to the heart-breaking poem about the devastating impact of drugs on the Rez this book seems nothing short of a gift from the publisher. Except for a few well-known authors, U.P. literature, from poetry and novels, to mysteries and non fiction, is often overlooked or simply ignored. Even those who consider themselves widely read will not recognize a majority of the author's names.  Or as Lynch writes in his introduction this is, "A book brought into being, like a bridge to a mysterious place, offers us access to voices stilled by time or disinterest or obscurity."

Editor Ronald Riekki has mined a century of U.P. writers and poets plus a few pieces from authors from below the bridge to present readers with the rich literary landscape found north of the Straits of Mackinac. The poems and excerpts from the little known writers living north of the Straits are often the most interesting and surprising because they let the reader see the U.P and its culture through the eyes of those who live there. The book also offers the joy of revisiting and rediscovering work from familiar authors like mystery writer Steve Hamilton, or Ernest Hemingway, Jim Harrison, and even Gordon Lighfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and its opening sentence that still sends chivers down the spine. If you've forgotten, it reads:

     "The legend lives on from the Chippewas on down
        Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee."

There are many stand out poems and excerpts but I must mention a few favorites. Mildred Walker's novel "Fireweed" is set in the post lumbering days of the U.P. when immigrants arrived and, with only limited success, tried to farm a land blistered with white pine stumps and covered in acres of slashings. Walker won the Hopwell Award for the this novel and was a National Book Award nominee for a later book. The chapter  included here nails the desolation left in the wake of clearcut lumbering in Michigan.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice and author of "Anatomy of a Murder" Robert Traver is represented by a chapter from his "Laughing Whitefish." The novel is an enlightening courtroom drama in which a Native American tries to legally reclaim land belonging to the tribe. I've never read one of Justice Traver's legal opinions but I can attest to his narrative skills in telling a story and capturing a historical period.

The dozens of poems in the book range from a tribute to  the U.P.'s culinary contribution to the state -- a pasty, to the Soo Locks, and the wilderness landscape and the folks who've learn to live in it. Other poems take the reader to a pow wow and a even a Dominoes Pizza. I must admit I'm not always a big fan of poetry but there are poems here that bury themselves in your 
heart. The poem "To Dance is to Pray"is a wonderfully moving description of a pow wow. One stansa reads:  "Your blood pumps with purpose,
                           in rhythm. Thunderous chills climb,
                           your spine -- spirit passengers riding your bones
                           ascending, spirits of those yet to be born. Spirits of those
                           who have passed on, spirits of those
                           who lie alone, awake
                           The heartbeat sounds. The lead singer on the 
                            host drum cries to the open sky. At the base of hundreds 
                            of pines 
                            a thousand footsteps
                            erupt in time.
                            Grand Entry begins.

The last word on what it means to be a Yooper comes from the poem "Vacationland" by Ander Monson. The last sentence of the first stansa reads:
                             "Everyone from here is still here
                                regardless of where they are or where they end."

This collection of writings is as refreshing and eye-opening as a dip in Lake Superior's Whitefish Bay on a hot day.

Riekki, Ronald, ed. And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917 -2017, Michigan State University Press, 2017, $29.95 

No comments:

Post a Comment

February 1, 2020 Post #51

Quote for the Day: "(During the 1880s) the only toiletries north of Saginaw were mustache wax and alkali soap." Russell McKee. Aud...