Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Post # 42

Quote for the day: "The U.P. is small-town America, everywhere. It's the speed we move at -- slow. It's circa 1950 up here. It's like you pass through an invisible barrier when you get over the bridge."
Jim Declaire, a resident of Ishpeming. Detroit Free Press. July 25, 1993.


by John Smolens

A new novel by John Smolens, the director of Northern Michigan University's Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, is always welcome news. On opening Out, I was surprised to find it a sequel to the novel Cold which was published in 2001. I had not cracked the spine of the earlier book and had no idea if a prospective reader would get more pleasure out of Out or simply plug themselves into the new novel faster after a Cold read.  To find the answer I first read the book that sparked the sequel and I'm very glad I did. 

Each book stands alone although both have somewhat similar plot lines, are compulsively readable, and perfectly capture the experience of being caught in a life-threatening Upper Peninsula blizzard. And after reading Cold it seems pretty obvious why Smolens was drawn to writing a sequel -- he simply had to revisit the compelling, and singular character that dominates both books, Del Maki, the sheriff of Yellow Dog Township.

In Cold, an inmate walks away from a state prison work gang during a heavy snowstorm and stumbles across the remote farmhouse of a widow who, with a gun in hand, gives the escapee shelter from the storm. When she tries to march him to the nearest working phone he escapes. Norman, the escapee, heads toward home to a brother who helped send him to prison, the woman he loved and betrayed him, and a dysfunctional, twisted family that holds secrets that may set him free or kill him. On his trail is Sheriff Del Maki who ends up snowbound in a UP camp with Norman, his dangerous and dysfunctional family including his lover turned betrayer and the brother who engineered his downfall. A lethal blizzard howls outside, and inside the situation comes to the boiling point as Maki tries to figure out who is guilty of what, if anyone can be trusted, and how to get out of the camp alive.

Out reconnects with Del Maki almost 20 years after the events described in Cold. The book opens with Del at his isolated, almost off the grid home recovering from hip surgery and still grieving over the death of his wife. A blizzard is threatening to envelop the UP but that doesn't stop an imminently expectant mother-to-be physical therapist driving out to his isolated home for his regularly scheduled post-surgery session. The therapist's two lovers have already spilled blood over who is the father of the coming baby follow her to Maki's house to settle the issue. They are joined by a stranded motorist seeking shelter from the life-threatening storm. It quickly becomes apparent that the situation in the house could be more dangerous than the storm and Del quickly realizes it's likely not everybody is going to make it out of his house alive.

Both books should come with a warning printed in bold letters across their covers, Warning: Crack this book, read the first page and your life will not be your own until you've reached The End. Smolen's books are relentlessly readable. He is a master at creating believable plots with menacing but full rounded characters and he expertly calibrates tension and suspense in small increments until readers find themselves as helpless as a fly caught in a spider web. If I haven't talked you into reading either book as yet, Del Maki is a memorable character who will stay with the reader long after the two books are finished and no one is better at capturing the rugged, beautiful, and often dangerous essence of the land and people found north of Big Mac. Lastly a disclaimer. When it comes to John Smolens I'm no longer a critic or book reviewer, I'm a fan. Pick up one of these books and he will knock you Out Cold.

Out by John Smolens. Michigan State University Press, 2019, $26.95
Cold by John Smolens. Three Rivers Press, 2001, $12 pb

Michigan POW Camps in World War II
by Gregory D. Sumner

While riding in a taxi twenty some years ago in Germany the cabbie turned to me and said in near perfect English that one of the best days of his life was when he became a POW shortly after D-Day. He was shipped to the United States and spend the rest of the war working on a farm in upstate New York.  He held the United States and Americans in the highest regard because of the fairness and kindness with which he was treated. That brief exchange in a Mercedes on a German autobahn came immediately to mind when I picked up Sumner's book. It is a short but very informative history of WW II POW's in Michigan and I'm pleased to report that most of the 6,000 plus German and Italian prisoners of war held in Michigan echoed the sentiments of the German cabbie.

By 1943 with the collapse of the German army in North Africa and the invasion of Sicily the Allies had to deal with hundreds of thousands of prisoners. The Geneva Conventions allowed prisoners to work as long as it didn't contribute to the war effort and on the homefront, the U.S. workforce faced critical shortages. By war's end, more than 400,000 POWs were shipped to the States and put to work. In Michigan the POWs picked fruit on the west side of the state, harvested sugar beets and navy beans in the Thumb, turned lumberjacks in the Upper Peninsula, picked celery near Kalamazoo, and at one time more than 500 worked for Gerber Baby Foods.

Fort Custer was the largest permanent POW camp and many temporary camps were set up on county fairgrounds, and former Civilian Conservation Corp camps where the prisoners lived while harvesting various local crops. The Owosso Motor Speedway was converted into a POW camp and was featured in a Time Magazine article. Prisoners housed in Detroit's Fort Wayne maintained the city's public parks and open spaces. Hardcore Nazi's and troublemakers were often isolated in special POW camps out of state.

Before POW workers arrived in an area the public was warned not to fraternize with the prisoners but that proved impossible to enforce.  It was often the case that a dozen or more POWs were assigned to work on large family farms and for a few days a guard or two would accompany the prisoners to the farm then after a week or so the guards just disappeared. The prisoners came to respect their employers and often ate with the families when the woman of the house saw the poor quality of the lunches supplied to the POWs by the camp cooks. Many prisoners on returning home after the war wrote letters to the families they worked for thanking them for their many kindnesses. One woman remembering her childhood thought of the POWs on her farm as her brothers.

The book is filled with surprising details and lots anecdotal material and stories that bring this all but forgotten aspect of WW II on the homefront back to life. The book is filled with photographs that enhance the narrative and a bibliography provides avenues for further reading on the subject. My only quibble with the book is that the author on several occasions uses John Smolens' novel Wolf's Mouth as a source for describing life in a UP POW camp. Sumners even uses quotes from a fictional character in the fictional camp as an example of work and living conditions in a typical POW camp. That aside, this book is a very readable, informative, and even an entertaining look at the surprising importance of POWs to Michigan's labor force during WW II and why prisoners of war returned to their homes in Germany and Italy with such positive feelings for America and her people.

Michigan POW Camps in World War II by Gregory D. Sumner. History Press, 2018, $21.99.

U.P. Reader: Bringing Upper Michigan Literature to the World -- Issue  #2
U.P. Reader: Bringing Upper Michigan Literature to the World -- Issue #3
Mikel B. Classen, editor.

When I started this blog 18 months ago I would only have needed one hand to count the U.P. authors whose books I'd read or was even vaguely aware of. Today I would need all my fingers and toes to do the same. The richness of talent and the wide variety of literary styles and offerings from U.P. authors has been one of my greatest rewards for creating Michigan in Books. If you are looking for a sampling of what Upper Peninsula authors have to offer, for three years the annual U.P. Reader has served up a very appealing smorgasbord of short stories, memoirs, history, travel, poetry, humor, and adventure.

Especially appealing to this reader are the travel guides to and the histories of a variety of UP attractions and places, and the irrepressible humor that flows from so many essays and stories. Maybe the best example is an essay entitled "The Yooper Loop" that describes "a monstrosity of tangled highway" where US 41 and M-26 meet at the Portage Canal Lift Bridge in Houghton, Michigan. The author claims, "Police have been known to request a mental health leave of absence after trying to conduct an accident scene investigation at the Yooper Loop." But before detailing a traffic intersection, "that defies logic" the author guides the reader through the contentious and often funny arguments among Yoopers as to what makes a Yooper a Yooper.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Larry Buege offers two stories about the UP's little known seldom seen, and most certainly an apocryphal creature, the Amorous Spotted Slug often referred to as the A.S.S. The author claims the slug never made it on Noah's Ark and migrated to the UP from the Amazon forest via floating coconut shells. The group "Slug Lovers In Michigan Empowered," S.L.I.M.E. for short, are working to make it the state slug and have formed Slug Nonbelievers Outreach Teams (S.N.O.T.) to canvas the state promoting the A.S.S.

Funny, wise, or speculative, the essays, memoirs, and poems found in the pages of these profusely illustrated annuals are windows to the history, soul, and spirit of both the exceptional land and people found in Michigan's remarkable U.P. Two of the pieces found in the first issue were nominated for Pushcart's "Best of the Small Press" award and the second issue was or is under consideration for inclusion in the Michigan Notable Books. The state motto when translated into English reads, "If you seek a beautiful peninsula look around you." I would add, "If you seek some great writing about the northernmost of the state's two peninsulas look around for copies of the U.P. Reader.

U. P. Reader issue #2 edited by Mikel B. Classen. Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association (UPPAA), 2018, $15.95 pb.
U.P. Reader issue #3 edited by Mikel B. Classen. UPPAA, 2019, $14.95 pb.

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.

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