Monday, April 17, 2023

Post 81 April 17, 2023

Dear Readers,

The July 2022 announcement that Michigan in Books had ceased publication was premature.  Instead, let's call it a hiatus. Frankly, self-imposed deadlines and the constant back log of review books proved stressful. Authors deserved better than having to wait up to three months for a review. But the blog kept reminding me of books I enjoyed, the authors I got to know, and the gratification of publicizing writers working in near obscurity. The number of Michiganders writing about their state continues to surprise me. And I've come to believe if one could accurately count the number of authors per capita in the U.P. it could be called a writer's colony. Lastly, the blog's monthly readership didn't decline after July 2022 - it increased. Here's hoping this doesn't reverse the trend.

So, Michigan in Books is back with new guidelines. Postings will be erratic and fewer books may be reviewed. Most, if not all postings, will contain a review of a book generally considered a Michigan classic. I have long wanted to look back at Michigan's literary heritage but couldn't find the time. Admittedly a poor excuse is too often close at hand. Readers are more than welcome to comment and openly disagree with my choices. I no longer have a proofreader, so I apologize in advance for typos, grammatical, and just stupid errors that will find their way into this blog. 

Quote of the Day: "Invent a simple device like an automobile, to get you from here to there more quickly than you could go without it: before long you are in bondage to it, so that you build your cities and shape your countryside and reorder your life in the light of what will be good for the machine instead of what will be good for you. Detroit has shown us how that works." Bruce Catton. Waiting for the Morning Train. 1972.


Tin Camp Road by Ellen Airgood

I knew I would like this book within the first two sentences. They are: "Laurel Hill knew that part of her would die if she ever had to leave Lake Superior. Its lapping was a heartbeat, one connected to her own." Laurel is a single mother with a precocious ten-year-old daughter Skye. They live in a tiny U.P.  community on the shores of Lake Superior. Their home is a small, run-down cabin and Laurel manages to scrape together enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table by cleaning motel rooms. 

Airgood has captured perfectly a U.P. that once was and, in many ways, still is. For a number of Yuppers life is a mix of poverty, fellowship, a strong physical and emotional bond with the environment, and a rugged tenacity to do whatever it takes to just get by. Laurel has no safety net under her precarious tight rope of getting by when she learns the cabin is no longer for rent and she must look for a new home and job. She also worries authorities will discover she's leaving a ten-year-old alone in an abandoned trailer when she's working. For Laurel, just getting by is within a heartbeat of broke and broken. 

Adding to Laurel's stress is her constant worry that she is depriving Skye of opportunities for a better life found below the bridge. Laurel is willing to take Skye south regardless of the fact that when she spent time in the lower peninsula she felt like "a fish on a sidewalk." Skye is a fascinating child who's old for her years, deeply loves the U.P., and can read her mother like a book. As their lives tetter on the edge and their future darkens Skye grows stronger.

Airgood has written a deeply felt book on a special mother-daughter relationship. She also writes of the undeniable and profound way in which the Upper Peninsula seems to alter the DNA of its people, and the strong sense of community that steps up when just getting by is in jeopardy. Moving and memorable.

Tin Camp Road, by Ellen Airgood, Riverhead Books, 2021, 288p., Hardback $27, Kindle $4.99. 

Waiting for the Morning Train: An American Boyhood by Bruce Catton

I first read this book some 40 years ago and remember it fondly as a great account of a boy growing up, at the turn of the 20th Century, in the lumbered-out lands east of Frankfort. What made this book even more interesting is it was a major departure from a rather private man who wrote extensively and brilliantly on the Civil War. He was responsible for making me a Civil War buff.

On rereading it after four decades it was a surprise to discover the book was much more than an autobiography. Undoubtably readers will be spellbound by the wonderfully recalled, near idyllic life of the author's first sixteen years in Benzonia. The town was founded in the 1850s as a religious community by men of "deep faith." Included in the town's charter was a commitment to "temperance, anti-slavery, and included the founding of a college." Catton remembers that growing up in the village was, "just a bit like growing up with the Twelve Apostles... ." Some of its inhabitants considered uttering the word "Golly" a form of profanity. Catton as with his award-winning Civil War narratives has the gift of transporting the reader to a place and a time as if he invented a time machine.  

Catton shows his historical chops in several chapters. The first chapter is a concise almost poetic history of the discovery and exploration of Michigan and the Great Lakes by Europeans. There is also a brief yet thorough and lively chapter on the lumber boom in Michigan, its decline, and the clear cutting which left the state a vast land of stumps.

What I forgot was Catton's bleak outlook on modern society as illustrated by the above Quote of the Day. His childhood community was based on the improvement of person's inner self and Catton believes it was out of step with society's growing love affair with technology. Catton reasons that when a technology is invented it can't be stopped. The lumber industry used technology to make logging more efficient. The result was a state covered in stumps and society called it progress. Catton argues that mankind has become a slave of the machine and it "operates at full speed." Technology split the atom and a couple of decades later produced the ability to wipe out humanity. Catton died before climate change became an issue and a threat to our livable world. But he would not be surprised that while nations meet and agree to reduce carbon emissions the past year set a new world for the amount of carbon released into the environment.

Near the closing Catton writes, "The present may be disturbing and the future may be in the highest degree ominous, but nobody gains anything by seeing in the irrecoverable past a charm and comfort which it did not have." You must read the last short chapter to fully grasp the title's brilliant and moving symbolism. 

 Waiting for the Morning Train: An American Childhood by Bruce Catton, Wayne State University Press, 1987, 260p., $26.99.

Under the Ashes: Murder and Morels by Charles Cutter

The author's previous books in the Burr Lafayette mystery series feature courtroom dramas so arresting they handcuff one to page. And when court recesses the reader is immersed in the beauty and ambiance of northern Michigan. This fifth in the series meets the same high standards.

Nick Fagan is Michigan's hottest disc jockey from Gaylord north to the Straits and part owner of the area's newest and most popular FM station. WKHQ is simply killing the competition and Nick loves to rub in his success to other station owners and DJs. Ah, but fame is fleeting. On a night out with his wife Molly at their favorite restaurant, the chef prepares "veal morel" dish for Nick with mushrooms he picked earlier in the day. After the main course Nick does a face plant in his Baked Alaska and within days dies of a heart attack.

Molly hires Burr Lafayette to represent her in court when the insurance company refuses to deliver on her husband's million-dollar life insurance policy. Lafayette had eagerly taken the case because his small law firm was deeply in debt, and this looked like an easy paycheck. But the insurance company refuses to cooperate, new evidence turns up, the insurance company pulls a legal rabbit out of a hat, and Molly is charged with murder. As the trial begins the prosecuting attorney is sure he is presenting a slam dunk case while Lafayette believes Molly is lying to him. Even worse he has no idea how to mount a defense. 

The courtroom scenes are brilliant, funny, sharp as a razor, and compelling as Lafayette desperately attempts to discredit witnesses for the prosecution. He also drives the poor judge to distraction as he stalls in search of a defense. The morel of this story is that in the hands of author Charles Cutter death by poison mushrooms is grand entertainment.

Under the Ashes: Murder and Morels by Charles Cutter, Mission Point Press, 2023, 260p., $16.95.

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