Saturday, December 1, 2018

Post # 33

Quote of the day: "The Man-Devouring Lake." The Chippewa's name for Lake Michigan.


Across the Great Lake
by Lee Zacharias

Simply put, this is an extraordinary novel. In 1936 Fern is five-years-old, lives in Frankfort, Michigan and her father is a captain of an Ann Arbor Railroad Car Ferry that transports rail freight cars across Lake Michigan from Frankfort to Menominee year-round. As the book opens, Fern's mother has become too ill to take care for her (in fact she's dying) so her father takes his daughter aboard the ferry for a winter crossing of Lake Michigan. For Fern, it is the adventure of a lifetime and the book is Fern's vivid, detailed recollection of the eventful voyage as she remembers it as both an eighty-year-old woman and a five-year-old girl. One of the great achievements of the novel is how a life-changing event eighty years in the past is recalled and influenced by the process of aging and at the same time is seemingly relived by a five-year-old as it occurs. The co-mingling of the memories from the perspective of then and now adds depth and nuance to a wholly engrossing story.  

The ferry becomes stuck in ice after barely leaving the harbor, rescues another ferry captured by the ice, faces a terrible storm, and is threatened by a variety of hazards common to ships and sailors who ply the waters of the great freshwater seas. Even seen through the eyes of a five-year-old the book is a marvelous recreation of life aboard a railroad ferry in the 1930s and the crew members are so believably drawn they seem to walk right off the page.

In alternating chapters, Fern tells of her life in Frankfort in 1930s and 40s in such detail it comes alive on the page. She also recounts how the voyage altered the course of her life and led her in unexpected directions. And as Fern relives the voyage in her eighties the more she grows confused as to who she is. The little girl on a great adventure or the old woman she's become.

It is obvious even without looking at the extensive bibliography that the author did an impressive amount of research. But what is really remarkable is her skill at weaving a great story within the warp and woof of the facts. The book is immensely readable except for  the author's stunningly arresting sentences that beg to be reread, highlighted, or flagged such as: "..when you grow up on the shore of a great lake you learn its moods, and observing those you begin to learn the inconstancy of the world." Or, "I don't think there is anything quite so pure as the sight of an egret taking flight on a clear morning, like a clean, white handkerchief flung against the bright blue sky." Lastly, my favorite. When people told Fern she grew up in innocent times she reflects, "that innocence is just ignorance dressed up in nice clothes."

This book has to be a solid gold lock for being listed on Michigan Notable Books of the Year. If not, there's something wrong with how books are selected for the list.
Across the Great Lake by Lee Zacharais. University of Wisconsin Press, 2018, $23.95, hardback. 

Elemental: A Collection of Michigan Creative Nonfiction
edited by Anne-Marie Oomen

The blurb on the back of the jacket states that this book of essays, "approaches Michigan at the atomic level." Frankly, I have no idea what that means. One of my favorite essays in the book has the writer following the Niagara Escarpment which stretches from Niagara Falls around the northern edges of Lakes Huron and Michigan before it disappears somewhere south of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Until I read the essay I had no idea that the beautiful 90-foot-high limestone cliffs lining Snail Shell Harbor in Fayette Historic State Park in the UP -- one of my favorite spots in Michigan -- is part of the escarpment. That and many other of the fine essays found here hardly seem to reach the sub-microscopic "atomic level."

What the reader will find is a wonderful collection of personal, and often deeply personal, essays by Michigan authors writing about how their and our lives are entwined with our state's complex natural setting, climate, landscape, and environmental issues.  No better example of what I am desperately trying to explain is a woman writing of her first winter in Michigan as if it was a first date. Now that is creative nonfiction.

The book opens with a heartfelt story of growing up a farmer in Michigan's Thumb and how an immigrant family put down roots in the area's rich soil just like the crops they sowed. It speaks beautifully of the intimacy farmers have with the earth and there are passages that describe the land in prose that is often as lyrical as poetry. Another essay details in passionate and personal outrage the poisoning of the state's rivers, streams, inland lakes and the Great Lakes themselves. The author scathingly describes the 50-year-old, dented, rusted, corroding, oil pipeline with its missing supports that carries 20 million-plus gallons of oil a day under the Straits of Mackinac. 

I found Jerry Dennis' essay on his work in construction prior to becoming a full-time writer especially compelling. For five years he worked with a talented crew of carpenters who truly enjoyed their job of building condos on some of the most beautiful and scenic landscape in the Leelanau Peninsula. His crew members are sharply drawn characters and Dennis captures the comradery of the crew and the pride they take in their work. And even as they took pride in a job well done, the men regretted that the land on which they built condos would no longer remain undeveloped and open to all. To quote Dennis, "And the hunting in the park was very good, as was the fishing in its lakes and streams. The men wanted the place to stay as it was; and they wanted the freedom to build on it at will." The last sentence could serve as our species' epitaph. 

The book is packed with thoughtful, poignant, funny, and provocative personal essays that make the reader look anew at our extraordinary home state.

Elemental: A Collection of Michigan Creative Nonfiction edited by Anne-Marie Oomen. Wayne State University Press, 2018, $19.99.

All of the books reviewed in this blog can be purchased by clicking your mouse on the book's cover which will take you to Amazon where you can usually purchase the book at a discount. By using this blog as a portal to Amazon and purchasing any product helps support Michigan in Books.

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February 1, 2020 Post #51

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