I simply can't understand why this fine historical novel hasn't gotten the recognition it so richly deserves. It should have earned a spot on the annual list of Michigan Notable Books, and belongs on the shelves of every mid-sized to large public library in the state. But a check of MEL, or the Michigan eLibrary, which contains digital catalogs of 440 Michigan libraries, shows the novel is owned by a grand total of three of those 440. The author, the book, and Michigan's reading public deserve better. But to the book.
Will Caster from Coldwater is a member of the 10th Michigan Artillery. The unit is in the thick of the fighting at the Battle of Chickamauga and the description of the small, violent corner of the battlefield held by the Caster's battery is masterfully drawn. Slaughter makes the chaos, horrors, and capriciousness of life or death within the maelstrom of battle palpable. When Caster's battery is overrun, he's badly wounded, and only survives because of an act of savagery he never thought was within him. His wound gets him discharged from the army, and Caster returns home haunted by nightmares and bouts of uncontrolled anger. A 100 years later his condition would be known as PTSD. Will only knows something is broken within him and he self medicates with alcohol.
After a couple of restless years on the family farm, Will travels to Saginaw determined to turn around his life and become a timber cruiser, or land looker for a lumber company. The owner of one Saginaw lumber company is also a Civil War veteran and likes Will, but tells him he needs to learn all about lumbering before he can be a land looker. Will is hired with the understanding he will work in a lumber camp for a year absorbing all he can about how a camp is run and the particulars of the lumber industry in Michigan. Then they will talk about learning the art of land looking.
Slaughter paints an authentic and fascinating portrait of life in an 1860s Michigan lumber camp. Readers learn along with the sharp-eyed Caster how the men live and work in the north woods, as well as the odd assortment of men drawn to the camps. The author's description of a camp bunkhouse is so vivid readers will be holding their noses. Imagine a long, narrow, one-room building with floor to ceiling bunks lining both long walls. There's one door and a single window because the lumberjacks are hardly ever in the bunkhouse during daylight hours. So the room lacks ventilation and is dark and gloomy. A red hot wood stove in the center of the room gives off stifling heat with wet and smelly wool garments hung from every rafter and most bunk ends to dry. Pipe smoke forms a constant haze within the room and the tobacco's pungent odor is mixed with the smell of the wet clothes, and the unwashed bodies of 60 men.
Will Caster thrives on the work, and spends the next summer learning the craft of a long looker. The long ongoing struggle to over come his PTSD is realistically drawn and hope of a normal life and family finally seem like a possibility. The book is full of great characters who come alive on the page whether it's a child, a dog, or any number of colorful lumberjacks.
This is one of the best historical novels I've read this year. It is based on the author's family history and is the first in a projected trilogy. Buy the book or demand your library buy it.
Prohibition in the Upper Peninsula: Booze and Bootleggers on the Border by Russell M. Magnaghi. American Palate/History Press, 2017, $21.99
This brief but profusely illustrated history of prohibition north of the Straits of Mackinac makes for intoxicating reading. After a short review of the temperance movement, and the political and social forces that resulted in the Volstead Act, the book plunges into the impact of prohibition on law enforcement and Michigan society in Yooper Land.
Even though alcoholic beverages may have been a more popular thirst quencher than water in the U.P., going dry won the popular vote. But the public quickly decided they didn't like the law. Magnaghi reports that in many U.P. counties the public voted sheriffs out of office who enforced the law, many local courts summarily dismissed prohibition violations, and community leaders withheld money for enforcement of the law. Police in some city's strictly followed the letter of the law and in other towns speakeasies operated openly in sight of the police station, and in Menominee in the same building. On the other hand, all the local breweries in the U.P had to close their doors, or tried unsuccessfully to stay afloat by making soda pop. The local breweries never recovered from prohibition and it wasn't until craft beer began to flourish in the 1990s that breweries returned to the Upper Peninsula.
The author writes that there were three main avenues through which Canadian booze arrived in the U.P. In the west, the Wisconsin town of Hurley, known as the wettest town in the country, lay just across the border from Ironwood. The Dairy State city poured so much booze into its sister city across the border a bottle of hooch was as common in an Ironwood home as salt and pepper. In the east, enough whiskey crossed from the Canadian Sault to Michigan's Sault Ste. Marie the booze could have raised an up bound boat in one of the smaller locks. And from the locks south on the St. Mary's River, to where it empties into Lake Huron it was impossible to shut down smugglers. Magnaghi stresses that the U.P. was both a transfer point from which liquor was shipped to Milwaukee, Chicago, and other Midwestern cities and a distribution center for the high class resorts in the U.P., Wisconsin's Door Peninsula, and northern Michigan resort towns like Harbor Springs.
Both The Purple Gang from Detroit and Al Capone's mob used Mackinac Island as a warehouse and transfer point. The famous Grand Hotel served liquor and reserved a large room for gambling throughout prohibition. To make sure high society was well aware of the hotel's always open bar, management arranged for the sheriff to stage raids to remind the wealthy they could always wet their whistles with the finest booze at the Grand. By 1927, the St. Ignace newspaper claimed illegal liquor shipments through the U.P. was,"out of control."
Throughout Michigan's northern peninsula making moonshine and home brewing became more than just commonplace. Escanaba and Ishpeming reported their sewer mains had to be cleaned weekly because they were constantly clogged with mash from stills and home brewing. When a man, looking like a gangster, drove up to a group of boys in the town of Raymbaulton in the Keweenaw Peninsula, and asked the boys, "Who makes booze around here?" he got an unexpected answer. A boy stepped forward, point to a home on the corner and said it was the only house that didn't make moonshine.
By the mid 1920s, prohibition was simply ignored by most local police and the justice system in many counties and cities in the U.P. The commander of the Michigan State Police said it would take the entire United States standing army to keep Michigan dry.
Russell M. Magnaghi packs this slim volume with entertaining and eye-opening details of the years when the U.P. went dry. Pour yourself a craft beer, put your feet up, and take a sip of this book. It goes down easy. Cheers!