July 1, 2020 #56

Wednesday, July 1, 2020
Quote for the day: "I have seen the storms of the Channel, those of the Ocean, the squalls off the banks of Newfoundland, those on the coasts of America and the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico. Nowhere have I witnessed the fury of the elements comparable to that found on this fresh water sea." French naturalist Francis Count de Castelnau, 1840.


Mastering the Inland Seas: How Lighthouses, Navigational aids, and Harbors Transformed the Great Lakes and America
by Theodore J. Karamanski

The author writes that for the first European sailors on the Great Lakes, "prayer and an act contrition was the closest thing they had to a navigational aid." In a sparkling and vigorous narrative, the author describes man's attempt to turn a wild and untamed watery wilderness into a safe, commercial avenue for the transportation of raw materials, manufactured goods, and people. 

The first Europeans to venture onto the freshwater seas learned that the native canoers had devised Lob Trees to mark hidden harbors, inlets, and portages. A man would climb a tall pine and a few feet from the top prune the branches all the way to the trunk. This left the top of the tree, which was not cut back, as an easily seen navigational marker. From the Lob Trees, the author traces the development of lighthouses, buoys, charts, harbor improvement, radio signals, radar, and satellite GPS that were all meant to tame the water wilderness.

The book is full of surprises and fascinating stories. The first lighthouse built in Michigan was erected at the south end of Lake Huron where it flows into the St. Clair River in 1825. It collapsed three years after its erection. The first lighthouse built near the mouth of the Chicago River fell over on the same day it was inspected and officially announced as finished. As is evident, the building of the first lighthouses had no oversight by the government, their design was compromised by a lack of engineering expertise and corruption. The hard work and dedication of lighthouse keepers is also fully explored.

What I didn't expect to find in this book is the politics of Great Lakes maritime aids. The work of building lighthouses, channel deepening, and the improvement of harbors in pre Civil War America became sectional issues. The South opposed nearly all money spent on Great Lakes navigational aids which the North favored. In addition to the opposition of slavery, the newly formed Republican Party supported the improvement of Great Lakes harbors and channels. After the Civil War, the government poured money into taming the freshwater seas.

This fascinating book does not have an altogether happy ending. The author writes that the Welland Canal, which allows ocean-going ships access to the Great Lakes, causes $200 million worth of damage to the lakes annually. In 2015 an independent study revealed more than half of all harbor and navigational improvements were in failing condition. Breakwaters are generally considered to have a 50-year life span and half of all such improvements predate WWI. Anyone with even a passing interest in Great Lakes maritime history will find this book must reading. 
Mastering the Inland Seas: How Lighthouses, Navigational Aids, and Harbors Transformed the Great Lakes and America by Theodore J. Karamanski. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2020, $36.95.

Dead of November: A Novel of Lake Superior
by Craig A. Brockman

Lake Superior has spawned many stories and legends. To look at the world's largest freshwater lake, in surface area, one can't deny it casts a spell and leaves one in awe. Of the many Lake Superior legends at least one is based on fact. The vast inland sea, due to its 39-degree temperature at its lower depths, does not give up its dead.

In his first novel written for adults, the author has taken the above Lake Superior legend as a starting point, worked in some real or totally imagined Native American legends, added some folklore, and created a highly original novel that's part suspense, part history, and entirely captivating. Many will label this as a novel of the paranormal. Yet even skeptics, like this reviewer, who does not care for the genre will find themselves drawn into the story and suspend belief as the narrative propels readers to the conclusion. The novel works because Brockman writes with confidence and authority, creates believable characters, and writes so well of Lake Superior and its hold over those who live along its shore. I had marked a sentence in the above "Mastering The Inland Seas" for use in its review but found the quote is even more appropriate for this review.  The author of  "Mastering the Inland Seas," wrote, "... indigenous people...saw the vast inland sea as a living entity with which humans had a relationship."

Psychologist Adam Knowles, the novel's main character, worked in a clinic in the American Soo. When his Native American wife drowned in Lake Superior her loss became so painful he moved out of Michigan. As the book opens he has begun having dreams of his wife's death. He also receives a call from a fellow psychologist who works in the Soo clinic who askes Adam to return to the Soo and help his friend handle the growing list of patients experiencing dreams of people who drowned. It almost appears as if Superior is giving up its dead. Marine scientists are also reporting the lake is undergoing strange changes. 

No matter how unlikely all this seems readers, in a matter of a few pages, will find they have waded too far into the book and are caught in an undertow that drags them into deeper and deeper water. You won't be able to come up for air until the last page of this inventive and haunting novel of Lake Superior.  

Dead of November: A Novel of Lake Superior by Craig A. Brockman. Curve of the Earth Publishing, 2020, $19.95.

U. P. Reader, 4th Volume
Mikel B.Classen, editor

This fourth annual showcase of the best short works by U. P. writers once again entertains, enlightens, and most importantly raises the awareness of the literary talent to be found north of Big Mac. The 45 pieces included here include U.P. history, poetry, short stories, reportage, humor, biographical essays, a U.P. notable booklist, and section of award-winning essays by young people.

I was delighted to see Larry Buege has once again climbed aboard his literary hobby horse and describes a homeowner's confrontation with an infestation of the Amorous Spotted Slug (A.S.S.). Larry has been writing about A.S.S. in earlier U. P. Readers in a noble but fruitless effort to make these gastropod mollusks Michigan's state slug. I would also like to encourage Buege to write about the whale sightings in Lake Superior and take up the equally important cause of naming a Michigan state whale.

There is a transcript of a talk by Karen Dionne, author of the "Marsh King's Daughter," in which she recounts her journey from being a moderately successful author of two environmental thrillers to the wildly popular author of the above book. Her talk also gives tips to would-be novelists and what she learned about writing that led to being a bestselling author. The Whiteout by Rich Hill tells the dramatic story of his friend Allen who went ice fishing on the great lake and couldn't find his way to shore when a whiteout struck and died.

A most unexpected and fascinating piece by Deborah K. Frontiera tells the story of the formation of  U. P. sandstone, most of which is told from the stone's point of view. Over the course of a million years and tons of pressure, the deposited sand became sandstone. In the 1800s it was mined and shipped to Calumet where the stone was used to build St. Anne's church. The sandstone has seen the church sold and turned into an antique shop. A few years later the building was bought with donations and with a state grant was beautifully restored and became the Keweenaw Heritage Center. Other works describe shipwrecks and heroic rescues, a tribute to a father, the descent of a mother into dementia, and the story of a U.P. deer camp.  

There is a lot to enjoy in this fine collection of short works by a surprising abundance of very good writers found north of the Straits of Mackinac.

U.P. Reader: Bringing Upper Michigan Literature to the World, 4th Volume, Mikel B Classen editor. Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association, 2020, $16.95 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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