Post # 17

Sunday, April 1, 2018
Quote of the day: "Lake Huron...where 40% of all lake ships come to die." Jack Parker. Shipwrecks of Lake Huron. 1986.


A Good Killing
by Allison Leotta

Like the author, the character Anna Curtis is a federal prosecutor in Washington D.C., and as the book opens Anna’s life is going to undergo a 180-degree change. She returns the engagement ring to her fiancé because Anna stumbles across evidence he’s cheating on her, and she gets a disturbing call from an old friend in Michigan. The longtime friend of her younger sister tells Anna the town’s legendary high school football coach was found dead, murder is suspected, and Anna’s sister Jody is being questioned by police.

Anna drops everything and flies home to act as her sister’s defense attorney. It seems federal prosecutors can do this if the trial occurs in a state in which the federal prosecutor is not posted and the boss gives his consent. Anna is hardly back home before near-constant friction between the sisters heats up old grievances, and Jody draws a line in which she demands her sister cannot cross in defending her. The stress heightens when the police arrive at Jody’s house with a search warrant allowing them to cut sections out the carpet, knock holes in walls, and even remove bathroom fixtures as possible evidence. For the first time, Anna sees the gathering of evidence, the role of the prosecutor, and the horrible disruption in the life of an accused, who is supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty, as both unfair and intimidating.

The only bright spot amid all the legal work and the growing evidence against Jody is the old high school friend the caller sent to Metro Airport to pick up Anna. Cooper Bolden is an Afghan vet who lost a leg in Afghanistan. Being blown up in a Humvee has left him with PTSD and a dread of riding in enclosed vehicles. He picks up Anna at the airport on a motorcycle. He also invites the sisters to stay at his house when the police and their search warrant make Jody’s house unlivable. A born farmer, Cooper has homesteaded an urban farm within sight of Detroit’s RenCen. The ever-resourceful Cooper is quite attracted to Anna and volunteers to act as her assistant investigator.

It’s not long before Anna realizes that Jody has lied to her and is never going to tell the truth about what happened the night of Coach Fowler’s death. It leaves Anna with no clear-cut defense strategy unless she can unseal old court records which could reveal some of the town’s dirty secrets.

This is an expertly paced mystery, which captures the atmosphere of small-town Michigan sitting just over the horizon from Detroit’s decaying neighborhoods and its affluent suburbs. The author also does a fine job of portraying the every changing dynamics between sisters and how the steadily increasing stress affects their relationship. And as one should expect from a federal prosecutor, the trial scenes are well drawn and riveting. 

A Good Killing is guilty of possessing an addictive narrative filled with surprises that keep the reader’s nose pinned to the book until the final page. The only way to get through withdrawal after THE END is to score another Leotta title.

A Good Killing by Allison Leotta. Touchstone, 2016 pb., $15.99

Winter Heart
B. G. Bradley

I don’t know why, but often before beginning a book I thumb through it, read the blurb, the back cover, see if chapters have titles, and glance at a few pages. I guess it’s like kicking the tires of a car before you buy it. Admittedly, it’s as pointless as judging a book by its cover, but this time after a quick look through Winter Heart my first thought was this will never work.  I was wrong, utterly wrong. The poetry intermingled throughout the novel is essential to its success, the paragraphs and whole pages in italics with words here and there in bold type work, and the strange way in which chapters are sometimes separated into small, often only a paragraph in length, Parts 1, 2, 3, etc. does not interrupt the flow of the book. So I am publicly eating crow and praising the author for his creative approach to writing and formatting this very satisfying novel.

The book revolves around 60-year-old Ben O’Brian a retired university professor, poet, widow, curmudgeon, dog lover, member of an entertainingly odd family, and resident of the Upper Peninsula.  As the book opens Ben is at his camp (Yooperese for backwoods cottage) with his two Labrador Retrievers, Tom, and Huck. And as he often does, Ben is ruminating about life including; growing old, religion, his family, nature, dogs, and memories of his wife gone some fifteen years from cancer and still grievously missed.

Scattered throughout the book are poems by Ben and instead of interrupting the story they serve as windows into the character and even soul of Ben. And I love Bradley’s audacity as an author. He writes Ben’s poems and then creates a new character who reads the poems and praises the poetry and its author. At the point at which this happens in the book, readers will be so wrapped up in the story it will take a minute to recognize the author’s literary sleight of hand. 

The story is told in the first person by several characters and this reader wishes so many of them didn’t slip into inner dialogues with themselves. That's because Ben carries the book. By far, he is the most interesting character in the novel, and Bradley’s dialogue enlivens the book. It snaps, grackles, and pops while often being humorous and always sharp as filleting knife. The author’s sentences can be arresting. Thinking of his wife, Ben describes her in this glowing sentence: “My moonlight my rain.” Of Christians, Ben says, “Just shut up and sing. I’d like to tell so many supposed Christians that. They sound so much smarter when they sing.” Lastly, it would be remiss to neglect the author’s skills in describing both the human and natural landscape of the UP.

Oh, and the plot. Ben’s sister badgers Ben into accompanying her by rail to the West Coast where their older brother is to be married. Somewhere in Iowa Ben encounters 20 minutes or so of what seems like a miracle. It is a chance meeting and the brief encounter will change his life.

This is the first in the author’s Hunter Lake series. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next.
Winter Heart by B.G. Bradley. Benegamah Press, 2017 pb., $9.95

Torn in Two: The Sinking of the Daniel J. Morrel and One Man's Survival on the Open Sea
by Michael Schumacher

The 600-foot ore carrier Daniel J. Morrell went down in Lake Huron, off the tip of the Thumb, on November 29, 1966, in one of the all too common ship-killing storms unleashed on the Great Lakes in November. The November storms have become forever entwined with Great Lakes history and legend and so have the ships and men who met their end in those storms. It's been over 50 years since the Daniel J. Morrell was literally torn asunder by a horrific storm. Yet, to state the obvious, here is yet another account of the ship's demise and the miraculous survival of a single crewmember which will have to share shelf space with earlier accounts of the tragedy and the inevitable books still to come. Writers will never tire of describing and recounting the Great Lakes yin and yang -- their soul-stirring beauty and their horrific storms of which Melville wrote: "...they know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew."

The Daniel J. Morrell was built in 1906, and the hard-working, 42-year-old ore carrier, like other massive Great Lake carriers of her era, left every port of call with a stowaway aboard -- a fatal flaw in her very DNA. Schumacker's absorbing account of the Morrell's destruction and crewman Dennis Hale's incredible tale of survival may be the shortest book yet published on the tragedy. But he doesn't waste a word in this engrossing and full account of the sinking, which also includes transcripts of the Coast Guard's hearings into the Morrell's loss.

The Daniel J. Morrell had supposedly completed her last voyage of the season when engine problems in another ore carrier necessitated the old workhorse make another round trip to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota. Dennis Hale, a 26-year-old watchman on the Morrell, arrived at the Buffalo, NY harbor only to watch his boat leaving without him. He caught up with the Morrell in Windsor where it stopped to take on coal. Meanwhile, a huge storm was bearing down on the Great Lakes. The Morrell's sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend was also northbound and the two ore carriers entered Lake Huron on November 28, just hours apart.

By nightfall, both boats were taking a terrible pounding as the full force of the storm swept into lower Lake Huron. Twenty-five to thirty-foot high waves at intervals of 250- to 300-feet assaulted the Morrell and two of the huge waves would often pass under the freighter at the same time which put enormous stress on the hull. Rivets popped, anchors slammed against housings, wires screamed in the wind and at times wind and waves came at the ore boat from two directions at once. It was becoming ever more difficult for the Morrell to maintain her course. What the Morrell's crew didn't know was that the steel used in the construction of ore carriers prior to 1948 was susceptible to becoming weakened and brittle after long exposure to cold temperatures.

Schumacher does a masterful job of recounting from what would have been the crew's point of view in experiencing the ore carrier literally being torn in half by the violence of the storm. The bow section, where Hale's quarters were located, sank first. The watchman went into the icy waters of Lake Huron wearing underpants, a life jacket, and a pea coat. Hale and three other crew members crawled aboard a life raft and watched in probable disbelief as the aft section of the Morrell, still under power, motored away. It plunged to the bottom of Lake Huron about an hour later.

The Morrell wasn't reported missing until the next day. Schumacher describes in riveting detail the thirty-six hours Hale spent on the raft. He and his companions were at the mercy of icy waves that threatened to hurl them into the lake, and high winds that left them feeling as if they were being burned. Hale watched his three companions die, and his survival was nothing short of miraculous.  Hale was left with both long-lasting medical problems and deep psychological wounds from his ordeal.

The author fully recounts the search and rescue operations following the sinking. The remains of the Morrell wasn't discovered until a decade after she went down. The book also reveals how the fatal flaw in the old steel almost sent Morrell's sister ship to the bottom in the same storm. It was also the probable cause of the Carl D. Bradley's destruction a decade earlier when that boat went down in another November storm with the loss of all but two crewmen.

Whether you've read about the fate of the Daniel J. Morrell before, or come to this legendary story for the first time, Schumacher's book is all but impossible to put down from page one.

Torn in Two by Michael Schumacher. University of Minnesota Press, 2016, $25.95

If you decide to purchase one of the above books clicking the mouse on the cover of the book will take you to Amazon where you can often buy it for less than the listed price.

No comments

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Powered by Blogger.