Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Post # 26

Quote for the day: "The statistics from this era [19th Century], which some historians portray as the romantic age of sail, are chilling: once a man went sailing, his life expectancy dropped to between ten and fifteen years. Men fell from masts, were swept off by the jibes of unskilled helmsmen, slipped on icy decks, were  crushed by cargo, and drowned or froze when ships sank or were driven ashore." White Squall: Sailing the Great Lakes by Victoria Brehm.


White Squall: Sailing the Great Lakes
by Victoria Brehm

Invariably, whenever I opened this book I recalled my first, intimate experience with the Great Lakes. While still in elementary school I crossed the Straits of Mackinac on a car ferry. In a voyage that was over far too quickly, I soaked in the grandeur of the Great Lakes, spied the log ramparts of Fort Michilimackinac, and spotted an incredibly long, lake freighter crossing the ferry's wake. On that short voyage, I became incurably addicted to the romance and history of the Great Lakes and this fine book has fed that addiction. 

Victoria Brehm's wonderful book is an anthology of rare firsthand accounts gleaned from reports, letters, memoirs, stories, poems, and diaries of those who sailed paddled or steamed the Great Lakes from the early 1600s through the 1900s. It even includes an excerpt from a David Mamet play. It is an outstanding example of dogged research accompanied by brilliant commentary. The book had me wallowing for days in my fascination and passion for Great Lakes maritime history and heritage.

The White Squall is divided into several thematic sections each of which is introduced by Brehm. Her introductory essays are filled with fascinating details such as how the birchbark canoe was a perfect marriage of function and beauty. Incredibly lightweight but able to carry large loads, it also took great skill to maneuver the craft. She quotes Hemingway after his first try at piloting an Indian canoe proclaiming, "Just as sturdy as a church, like hell. You have to part your hair in the middle to balance it." In the 1600s voyagers paddled from sunup to sundown and when they came to portages each had to carry 90 lb. packs or more which explains why more voyagers died of strangulated hernias than drowning. In another introduction, she succinctly explains how Great Lake schooners differed from their saltwater counterparts and why. 

The author explains the conditions that made the Great Lakes the most dangerous waters in the world to sail and reports that experts estimate 6,000 to 10,000 boats have been claimed by the freshwater seas, including the first sailing ship and first steamboat launched on the Lakes. Ships went down with such regularity in the 19th Century a Congressional investigation was held to determine the causes and remedies. 

But the meat of the book and the reason for its endless fascination are the eye-witness accounts and first-person narratives. There is the account of a gun captain who describes the Battle of Lake Erie from the blood-soaked deck of Commodore Perry's flagship in the War of 812. Brehm estimates that up to 30 percent of Perry's squadron's crew were African-Americans. James Fenimore Cooper helped a friend in an Old Sailors Home write his autobiography in which he describes the sinking of his warship in a sudden squall on Lake Ontario. There is a vivid description of a perilous voyage by canoe from the Soo to Detroit that is juxtaposed to a recent first-person account of a woman kayaker's life and death struggle to survive a storm on the north shore of Lake Superior. 

Women officers aboard 1,000-foot bulk carriers detail their experiences as sailors and officers,  their life at sea, and the book concludes with one of the women's poems describing being outbound from Duluth in a Lake Superior storm. One line reads; "In a gale there is no horizon to hope toward, only the greedy, relentless wind of exactly this spot." There is an account of how a schooner is built almost by hand in a small boatyard in the 1800s. Not to be missed is the 62-year-old Bay City woman who was the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Her brief and precipitous voyage is excerpted from her autobiography which she hoped would make her wealthy. She died poor. The book is filled with diverse and always interesting primary source material from great voices that tell great stories. The book is complemented with illustrations, and a helpful glossary which includes the term, "Barney's Bull." The term has an English /Canadian heritage and is slang for worthless. There is also a bibliography that can yield a lifetime of further reading. 

This book deserves the "Great Lakes Literary Heritage Award for 2018," if there was such an award. On second thought there is, I just created it. Ms. Brehm, your certificate will be in the mail shortly, along with a monetary prize up to, but not to exceed Barney's Bull. Seriously, this book should find shelf space on every medium-sized and larger library in the Great Lakes region and anyone with an interest in Great Lakes maritime history will find it totally engrossing.

White Squall: Sailing the Great Lakes by Victoria Brehm. Ladyslipper Press, 2018, $29.95.

A Dangerous Remedy: A Sheriff Matt Callahan Mystery
by Russell Fee

Loren Estleman, Steve Hamilton, and the great Elmore Leonard are three of my favorite mystery authors not only because they are masters of the genre but because they set many of their mysteries in Michigan. The above trio is to blame for my longstanding, slavish devotion to constantly being on the lookout for new mysteries set in the state. So it's hard to explain how I missed the 2016 publication of A Dangerous Remedy. I just feel very lucky I somehow recently discovered it. 

The book is set on Beaver Island, the most remotely inhabited island in the Great Lakes. The author has used his literary license to make it Michigan's smallest and least populated county. Just the place for former Chicago policeman Matt Callahan, who is not sure he is ready to come out of his self-imposed withdrawal from society and attempt to restart his career as a police officer.

Matt Callahan is one of the most compelling characters in any novel or mystery I've read in some time. He is still healing, both physically and mentally, from a horrifically disfiguring wound. It is so bad he wears a mask over half his face from which scars peak out and hint at the devastation thrown acid has done to his face. For Callahan, the job of Sheriff of Nicolet County on Beaver Island seems like a quiet, undemanding, corner of northern Michigan to resume his life as a cop. Of course, it proves just the opposite and tests Callahan's strength of character, physical and emotional health, and whether he can still function as a cop and deal with imminent physical danger.

Callahan is a fully developed, fascinating character and his struggle to overcome his injuries are as involving as the deadly, and well-plotted mystery the island hides. Even the minor characters are believable and well drawn. The author has done a great job of capturing the essence of life in up north Michigan. Not the tourists on vacation, but the people who have lived there for generations or pulled up stakes and headed north to escape the rat race of urban life in southern Michigan.  Fee writes, "People in the Northwoods didn't so much as want to make it as to make do. Ambitions were less abstract and more concrete...they by and large aimed for community and connection with place. Their pace was steady and synchronized to the passing of the seasons." Or was until Callahan begins looking into three seemingly unrelated files mysteriously left on his desk by the last sheriff, with a note to the new lawman to make them a priority.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying mystery with a great sense of place. Anyone who reads it will impatiently await the next novel in the series.

Dangerous Remedy by Russell Fee. Boreas Press, 2016, $12.99

Of Things Ignored and Unloved: A Naturalist Walks Northern Michigan
by Richard Fidler

Written by a retired high school biology teacher, this book vividly reminds me of the many walks I took with my dear-departed friend Dick Derenzy, also a high school biology teacher. When you went for a walk with Dick he was constantly calling your attention to this or that plant, an insect, or small creature.  He'd then tell me a curious or interesting aspect of its life history, or how early homesteaders used that plant for scouring pots and pans, the curative effects of this plant, or the benefits or depredations of that little creature. Every walk with Dick Derenzy was both an education and a heightened appreciation of the natural world.

When I say that this book is as enjoyable and informative as a walk with Dick Derenzy I am paying it the highest of compliments. The reader gets the sense that the author is not sitting at a desk deciding which seemingly innocuous plant, or yuck inducing creature to write about, rather he's strolling through the backcountry of northern Michigan and writing about what he stumbles across.

Richard Fidler introduces the reader to the tiny parasites found in some of the most beautiful lakes in northern Michigan. During the creature's life cycle they pass through snails, lodge in the digestive tract of ducks who (to put it as delicately as possible) evacuate the creature into the lake where they cause swimmer's itch among bathers. He explains why and how leaves change color. He describes how leeches inject their victim - including humans - with both an anticoagulant and an anesthetic so the creatures will not be felt sucking your blood. Surprisingly, they are still used for medicinal purposes to increase flow to blood deprived parts of the body such as a reattached finger or toe.

Then there are the microscopic tardigrades, often called "water bears," that deserve to be included among comic book superheroes. They can be removed from the water, completely dried out and left in that state for years. Add a drop of water and they come back to life. You can't kill  Water Bears by freezing them to absolute zero, that's -273.15 degrees Celsius, or by boiling them. Scientists can't figure out where to fit them in the evolutionary tree. And if we didn't know enough about the sea lampreys Fidler tells us that Europeans ate them with great relish, or used to, and includes a Medieval recipe that sounds utterly disgusting. But evidently not to England's King Henry the 1st who ate himself to death gorging on sea lampreys.

Richard Fidler's inquisitive nature and fascination with the natural world shines through on every page. The book is almost as pleasant and enjoyable as a stroll through the woods and fields of northern Michigan, and Fidler will be sure you don't miss the easily overlooked or previously unknown natural phenomena that are always there but seldom seen or understood. 
Of Things Ignored and Unloved: A Naturalist Walks Northern Michigan by Richard Fidler. Mission Point Press, 2017, $15.95

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April 1, 2020 Post # 53

Quote for the day: "...[Lake Superior is] beautiful, empty, glittering, cold and brooding, gull-swept and impersonal; always there, alw...