Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Post 8

Quote for the day: "It is so healthy here, that a person has to get off the island to die."   
                        A soldier stationed on Mackinac Island in 1830.


Tracking the Beast
by Henry Kisor

Michigan mystery readers will take to Henry Kisor and his book featuring Sheriff Steve Martinez because it is so good on so many many levels. It is a well-crafted police procedural, peopled with believable characters, and boasts an absolutely unique plot line. The remote Upper Peninsula milieu is captured like a fly in amber and to my great delight the author puts the village of Ontanogan and Ontanogan County on the literary map.  I'm guessing many Michigan readers will have trouble even finding it on a map. 

Although set in Michigan the mystery begins when railroad workers in Omaha clean out a long unused hopper bulk freight car and discover the skeleton of a small child. The case falls in the lap of  Porcupine (read Ontonagan) County Sheriff Martinez' lap because the hopper car came from a large rail siding deep in the woods in his county. Various railroads have stored freight cars there when not needed, and some have been sat on the remote siding for years.

With the help of the Michigan State Police, tribal police, and game wardens Martinez cordons off the large railyard and begins a through screening of dozens of hopper cars. In a day long search two more dead girls and the body of a man shot in the back of the head are found lying inside two other hoppers. The cops are more than perplexed. There's little chance of identifying the remains of the two girls and it is unlikely the dead man is the killer of the girls.

Kisor unwinds the mystery and the work of the police team with a deft hand. The task force's investigative work feels authentic, and the systematic search for a needle in who knows how many haystacks captivates the reader. Railroad buffs will also probably enjoy the book for its information on railroad operations. 

This the fourth Steve Martinez mystery and frankly they deserve much more attention than they have received. They're worth reading just for the Upper Peninsula ambience as in this passage, "One gets spoiled by the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula, where heavy traffic consists of a dozen cars backed up behind a one-lane path around bridge repairs, where you can go into the woods all day without encountering another human being, where the air is so clean you can take deep breaths without coughing, where you can lie on your back in a forest clearing and count every star in the Milky Way."

The author is a retired editor and critic of the old Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. He was a finalist in 1981 for a Pulitzer Prize for criticism and spends half the year in a cabin on the shores of Lake Superior in Ontonagon County. He obviously knows how to write and is writing in near obscurity. Wake up mystery lovers and take a literary trip to the western U.P.

Kisor, Henry. Tracking the Beast, Gale Cengage Learning, 2015. $25.95

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era
by Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and  James P. Leary

In August 1919 Franz Rickaby strapped a rucksack on his back, threw a fiddle over his shoulder, wrapped his hand around a walking stick, and took his first steps out of Charlevoix, Michigan on a 900-mile journey on foot to North Dakota. Rickaby was a songcatcher and his 900-mile wander took him to lumber camps from Michigan to North Dakota where he hoped to hear and record on paper the songs of the shanty boys. Rickaby was friendly, open, and usually chinned his fiddle and played for the lumberjacks in their bunkhouses where it was traditional for the shanty boys to entertain themselves nightly by taking turns singing songs. It was an unwritten rule that a singer could not repeat a song already sung. Rickaby's mission was to collect and preserve the unique songs of the lumber camps in the fading days of White Pine era in the northern Midwest.

Published in 1926 the book Ballads and Songs of the Shanty Boys quickly became a classic among folklorists. The book didn't just contain song lyrics, but most often contained the melody, and who wrote the song and its many derivations. Franz Rickaby died before the book came off the press and Franz left a significant amount of unpublished matrial he'd gathered and probably meant to publish at a later date.The book also was soon out of print.

Pinery Boys is three books in one. It brings Ballads and Songs of the Shanty Boy back into print, it also contains a short biography of Rickaby by his granddaughter, and the final third of the book contains forgotten and unpublished songs that were omitted from the 1926 book.

Many of the songs originated in Michigan and became favorites throughout the Midwestern north woods. "Michigan-I-O details the difficulting traveling to and living conditions in the camps and after complaining of the bad food and having to bed down in snow the laundry list of complaints ends with: 
"We'll see are wives and sweethearts, and tell them not to go
To that God-foresaken country called Michigan-I-O."

"Jack Haggerty's Flat River Girl" is a long lament about being dumped by a sweetheart and was sung by thousands of jacks around the Greenville timber yards and Muskegon River. "Harry Bail" came from a family of songs recounting in bloody detail the injuries and death that were so close at hand in sawmills and lumber yards. The songs second stansa sets the scene:
"In the township of Arcade, in the county of Lapeer,
There stands a little shingle mill that has run about one year.
'Tis where the dreadful deed was done caused many to weep and wail.
'Tis where this poor boy lost his life, his name was Harry Bail."

The song "Silver Jack" is worth the price of the book itself.   Jack was an authentic north woods character. He could drink most men under the table and was famous for his no holds barred fisticuffs. Lumberjacks loved to trade tales of his storied fights and "Silver Jack" recounts one of them. The fight started because a young atheist lumberjack was too outspoken about his lack of religion and Jack took exception. In part the lyrics read:
"One day we were all sittin'round
Smokin' black-head tobacco
And hearing Bob expound:
Hell, he said, was all humbug,
And he made it plain as day
That the bible was a fable,
and we 'lowed it looked that way.
Miracles and such like
Were too rank for him to stand,
And as for him they called the Savior
He was just a common man.

"Your a liar," someone shouted,                Now this Bob weren't no coward
"And you got to take it back."                   And he answered bold and free:
Then everybody started--                           "Stack your duds and cut your capers,
Twas the words of Silver Jack.                   For there ain't no flies on me."
And he cracked his fists together                And they fit for forty minutes
And he stacked his duds and cried,            And the crowd would whoop and cheer
"Twas in that religion                                   When Jack spit up a tooth or two
That my mother lived and died;                  Or when Bobby lost an ear."
and though I haven't always 
Used the Lord exactly right,
Yet when I hear a chump abuse him
He's got to eat his words or fight."

The remainder of the song tells of the end of the fight and Bob's sudden acceptance of the divinity of Christ and in Chrsitian brotherhood they passed a bottle of rot gut liquor around the room.

The granddaughter's short biography of her songcatcher grandfather and his work is an introduction to a fascinating and all to short a life. And who knew songcatcher was a job title and one ever operated in the state. The songs collected by Rickaby are pure gold and all the more interesting because many were born in Michigan's north woods. If you're drawn to intereting lives, American folklore, the wild and wooly lumbering era in Michigan and the Midwest, or American folk songs then, "stack your duds and cut your capers," and go out and get the book. Or just tap the book's image below to order it.

Rickaby, Franz. Dykstra, Gretchen. Leary, James P.  Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era, University of Wisconsin Press, 2017, 356p.   $25.95

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