Monday, April 1, 2019

Post # 41

Quote for the Day: "Water, the first element of life, shapes us all; in Michigan it is so ever-present that Michiganians forget its significance. Michiganians seem to have an almost mystical feeling about water and the north woods -- that dark, mysterious, wonderful land that lies north of Clare."  Martha Bigelow. "Michigan: A State in the Vanguard," in Heartland by James Madison. 1988.

Dear Readers,

Eighteen months ago I would not have believed a blog that was posted every two weeks could or would slowly come to dominate this blogger's life. In order to reclaim some independence from Michigan in Books, allow me to read a few books by my favorite non-Michigan authors, and pursue an entirely unexpected interest in and a modicum of talent for creating what passes for art, this blog will be posted once a month starting with this post. Thank you to all the readers of this blog which has grown to over 600 a month. I deeply appreciate your continued and growing support and sincerely hope that publishing Michigan in Books once a month does not discourage your readership or interest.

Tom Powers


The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers 
by Bridgett M. Davis

If this well over-the-hill, retired, white (except for the age spots), old suburbanite had the slightest idea where one could put down a buck with a Numbers runner I'd play 308.  That is the number of pages in this remarkable, eye-opening, and thoroughly engaging story of the author's mother who raised five children, managed the household, and for 34 years ran a Numbers operation out of her home. She was one of only two women to ever operate a Numbers business in Detroit.

Fannie Davis and her husband moved from Nashville to Detroit in the 1950s with the hopes the author's father could get a good paying job on the assembly line. But like many African Americans who moved North in hopes of fair and gainful employment, he got the worst paying job in the plant and spent more time laid off than working. So Fannie decided she must join the workforce and help support the family. Proud and independent she refused to be a cleaning maid for white folks or get a job on the lowest rung of the assembly line. She wanted to run her own business and serve a Black clientele. So she borrowed $100 from a relative and started her own Numbers running operation.

The author is Fannie Davis' youngest child and this unique book succeeds on three levels. It is a moving tribute to her mother, presents an intimate and fascinating account of how the Numbers game operates and has become a veritable institution within Black urban culture, and lastly, what it was like to grow up in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s. Mrs. Davis comes across as outspoken, sharp-tongued, a very astute businesswoman, very generous, and a great mother who always put her family first. She was a keen observer of society. When vacationing in Florida and watching people of my complexion slather on the tanning oil and becoming human rotisseries in the broiling sun she commented, "They want everything we got but the burden."

The business of running a Numbers operation is especially interesting. From age five the author knew, without being told, she could never talk about her mother's business outside of the family. The career was highly stressful not only for Fannie but the entire family. There was always the threat of arrest, being robbed, and of most concern having too many customers pick the same winning number. When a $5 bet can return $5,000 in winnings it doesn't take but half-a-dozen $5 winners to oblige Mrs. Davis to pay out $30,000 and potentially wipe her out. Miss one pay off and a Number operator is out of business. How she ran her business, made enough to buy a new home, drive the best cars, put her children through college, shop at the best stores, and always maintain an edge against a huge payout makes for fascinating reading. The author's mother even figured out how to make the newly introduced state daily lottery an asset for her business.

This book is obviously a loving tribute to her mother even as it details and reveals an endlessly interesting subculture of Black urban America.  And on a deep down personal level, although we come from worlds that are separated geographically by roughly seventy miles but are culturally light years apart I would have been delighted and honored to have met and known Mrs. Fannie Davis. What a woman, what a story.

The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridgett M. Davis. Little, Brown and Company, 2019, $28.

The 22nd Michigan Infantry and the Road to Chickamauga
byJohn Cohassey

On Horseshoe Ridge's Hill #3 in the Chickamauga Battlefield stands a monument to men of the 22nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment who marched into their initial baptism of battle on September 20, 1863, and sacrificed themselves to help save the Union Army. Five hundred eighty-four officers and men of the 22nd from Oakland, Livingston, Macomb, St. Clair, Lapeer, and Sanilac counties entered the battle. A day later 70 men and a few commissioned officers were present for duty. 

The history of the regiment from formation and training in Pontiac to its near destruction on the field of battle in protecting a flank of the Union Army from envelopment is recounted in this well researched but altogether too brief account.  But if a reader or Civil War buff wants to learn of the incredible bravery and sacrifice of this little known and lamentably unheralded regiment, as well as a generally ignored chapter of Michigan in the Civil War there is nowhere else to turn but this book.

There was apparently no regimental history written of the 22nd Michigan by a Civil War veteran or member of the 22nd Michigan and the only history of the regiment, if it can be called that, was written more than a decade ago and went out of print so fast I suspect it was privately printed. It was only 19 pages long and is apparently owned by only two libraries in the state. A check of rare and used book sales sites show one copy available for purchase at $40.25 plus shipping. So by default, John Cohassey has written the most comprehensive and authoritative history of the regiment to date.

At 160 pages of narrative, the book is unusually brief for a regimental history. At the same time, those interested in Michigan's contribution to the Union cause and the exceptional history of the 22nd Michigan will be thankful for this book. The short work is packed with arresting details and memorable stories. Readers learn the regiment went into battle with 80 rounds of ammunition per man and after countless charges and counter-charges, the men reported they were out of ammunition with the battle still hanging in the balance. They were ordered to fix bayonets and charge the Rebels with their empty muskets. They drove the enemy from the field but in doing so the 22nd was surrounded and ordered to surrender. Many members of the regiment managed to escape in the growing darkness and chaos of battle but 190 enlisted men and 14 officers were captured. Some prisoners eventually found themselves struggling to survive in the notorious Andersonville prisoner of war stockade.

The book makes excellent use of photographs and has an impressive bibliography that will lead readers to a multitude of other interesting works. A map of the area within the Chickamauga Battlefield in which the 22nd fought would have been a great addition to the book. Like any good author, John Cohassey leaves the reader wanting more.
The 22nd Michigan Infantry and the Road to Chickamauga by John Cohassey. MacFarland and Company, 2019, $35.  

Any of the books reviewed in this blog may 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.


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...