By Steve Amick
If youve ever longed for a Northern Michigan version of Garrison Keillors Lake Woebegone, then delve into the riddles of The Lake, the River & the Other Lake by Steve Amick.
Amick has created a town called Weneshkeen on the shores of Lake Michigan, weaving several stories together in a plot whose characters become close-knit by books end. He even drew a map of the town on the books cover, which should add to its intrigue factor at local bookstores.
Amick tells us that Weneshkeen means Who are you? in the Ojibwe of the original settlers, and that definition suits the book well, since local readers will enjoy deducing where the town is located on Lake Michigans gold coast. He tells us that Point Betsy is a ways north, so that would most likely place the fictional town somewhere between Ludington and Bear Lake, although there are also clues that it could be in Leelanau County (ie. a lake in town was once famously featured in National Geographic... hmmm, wonder what that could be?).
Amick, who divides his time between Ann Arbor and a family cottage on a famously clear lake along the northern edge of the Lower Peninsula, has the prestige of Pantheon Books as the publisher behind his first novel. His short stories have also appeared in Playboy, The New England Review, Story magazine and on National Public Radio, giving his book credence as a significant novel of our region.
His lake town of Weneshkeen could well be anywhere along the coast, since it serves as a mish-mash of most every Northern Michigan community with appropriately dorky hallmarks. It has a yearly Sumac Days festival, for instance, and produces several excellent brands of locally made sausage. There is also a culture clash going on betwixt the old-timer townies who occupy dilapidated cottages along the shore and the wealthy summer residents and tourists whove bought up the best lakefront property. There are Hispanic migrant workers, Polish cops and various Northern Michigan archetypes, such as a cranky old cherry farmer and an irate Ojibwe named Roger Drinkwater.
In this regard, the book hails from the Colorful Character genre of fiction, reminiscent of Ken Keseys later works, or the comic side of T. Coraghessan Boyle.
The hazard for Amick is that while his rustic, rural characters may enthrall readers at a distance of Ann Arbor or New York City, they risk seeming rather stereotypical and shopworn to those of us who live close to the novels action. The scenarios, too, may lack tread for those whove gone down the road of Us vs.Them one too many times (ie. townies vs. fudgies; wise old steward-o-the-land farmers vs. unscrupulous developers, etc.). And local readers may recognize some plot lines as torn from the pages of area newspapers or Northern Michigans gossip grapevine.
It seems possible, for instance, that a Nam vet Ojibwe named Roger Drinkwater could carry on a politically correct vendetta against idiot boy jetskiers on a lake in Northern Michigan by vandalizing their waverunners... but does it ring true and is there enough umph to make anyone really care?
The reader can decide; most will likely give Amick the thumbs up for writing a funny novel of the North. And if one plotline fails to please, there are others to choose from: rumors that David Letterman is moving to town, for instance; a squabble between two neighbors over a common border; a retired minister addicted to website porn; and a racist cherry farmer whose kids get back at him by marrying into other ethnic cultures.
Clearly, Amick hopes to land Weneshkeen on the map with other fictional burgs such as Lake Woebegone, Salems Lot and Empire Falls. But given the undercurrents of power and social uprising in real Northern Michigan communities such as Traverse City or Petoskey, one wonders if he wouldnt have been more successful casting his spell in the real world of Northern Michigan where we have colorful characters to spare.
A fighting chance round-up of regional authors
By Robert Downes
Marketing your own book has to be at least as risky as betting your retirement savings on the nickel slots at the local casino.
Consider: An author scribbles for months or years in obscurity -- literally talking to himself -- writing a book which will compete with thousands of others in print. Invariably, he puts up $5,000 or more of his own money to self-publish all his hopes & dreams for success.
Then there is the task of trying to distribute the newborn book and whip up enthusiasm for reviews in the local press. Often, self-published books tend to have a self-published look, with covers that fall well short of Seventh Avenue standards. And the prose and plotlines in many self-published books are, frankly, as batty as Draculas secret cave -- the reason that many books are self-published to begin with.
With that said, its worth noting that Huckleberry Finn was a self-published novel, as were works by Dickens, Hawthorne and many other authors we now consider to be among the classiest of classics. So, under the principle that every authors work deserves a fighting chance, here is a roundup of the latest crop of regional books to bloom in the Express mailbag.
Devil in the
By Walt Shiel
Slipdown Mountain Publications
The best of the bunch reviewed here is Walt Shiels hellraising account of a blazing inferno that torched the northern end of our peninsula.
A resident of Lake Linden near Alpena, author Shiel bases his historical novel on the true story of 10-year-old Henry Hardies, whose family faced an all-consuming fire in the farming town of Mertz in 1908.
Hardies was the paternal grandfather of Shiels wife. He and his family were trapped in the path of the largest wildfire in modern Michigan history -- a firestorm that swept across the northeast part of the state, burning Metz to the ground along with 900 homes and two million acres of forest.
Henry survives the fire, but his mother and three young sisters are among the 43 dead. The fire left 4,600 people homeless in October of that year, with winter setting in.
Shiels metaphor of the fire as a devil is apt: With no fire watch towers, spotting aircraft, telephones, or organized fifrefighting organizations and with only limited telegraph servivce, warnings were too few and too late.
Shiel dramatizes one incident of a literal hell-bound train, which strives to save refugees from Metz only to plunge into the flames at a place called Nowickis Siding, killing 13 in a gondola car. Written with the pace of a thriller, Devil in the North Woods is a grim but fascinating read, building a bonfire of the dusty pages of history.
Images of America -- Traverse City State Hospital
By Chris Miller
The past unfolds in this book of photographs chronicling the Northern Michigan Asylum in Traverse City, which got its start in 1885 and is now a major redevelopment project. Unlike the other books mentioned here, this isnt a self-published effort; Arcadia Publishing credits itself as Americas leading publisher of local and regional history.
Chris Miller, who was active as a member of the Committee to Preserve Building 50, has collected more than 200 photographs of what came to be known as the Traverse City State Hospital, which catered to Michigans mental health needs for 104 years until its closure in 1989.
Pictured are member of the staff, the farm operation and various buildings, some of which are long gone. Others, like Building 50, are shown during its construction in 1884. There are also side trips into the life of old Traverse City and its bygone locales, as well as images of other mental hospitals around the state.
A book of photographs and captions, its easy to skip around its pages, gathering an episodic view of the history of what is now the Grand Traverse Commons.
One regret is that there arent more photos of the patients who once lived and worked here. Miller tells us that at times the Asylum had a population of up to 3,000 persons. Ultimately, the numerous shots of vast building facades make the reader wonder, who were the people inside and what brought them here?
Faith of the Unforgotten
By Leathel Grody
Lethal Publishing Corporation
Give author Leathel Grody credit for not letting the laws of physics get in the way of this fantasy adventure. Grody postulates a time 400 years in the future when The Great Pulse Storms have made it impossible for electricity to exist, and the ionic atmosphere from the Storms ignites nearly all explosive substances...
And thats just for starters. Set in a medieval Kalkaska of the future and proceeding to Lansing and Detroit, Grodys world is inhabited by, an intelligent lizard species from within the Earth... waging war upon the upper land-dwelling humans in an effort to take their lands and take the humans as slaves. The merciless enemy is stronger, quicker and more intelligent than humans, and all looks to be lost for the descendents of the Heroes of Storms.
But fear not, because a spirited 15-year-old innkeepers daughter named Rebekah Ann Smith is the key to salvation in what Grody promises is the first of a trilogy.
One suspects this Sword & Sorcery fantasy would be perfect for the video game crowd, read to the accompaniment of heavy metal music. With what appears to be 34 computer-animated illustrations created by the author to match, the book resounds with heroic metaphors, as in the following passage from the book jacket:
Rebekah and a small, scattered group are all that stand as a chisel against a mountain that is ready to fall. All they have left is hope that their faith can move that mountain, and hope that the Gifts given to them by their God can cut through the falling boulders of human desolation.
By Lowell Plaugher
The rough & tumble lumberjack world of Saginaw in the 1880s serves as a backdrop for Shanty Boy, the tale of a bare-fisted boxer.
A retired coun- selor from Saginaw,
author Lowell Plaughers book tells the story of a poor boy named Billy Lavigne who falls in love with Jennifer, the daughter of one of the wealthiest lumber barons in Saginaw. Billy takes a job lumbering in the winter and soon finds hes tough enough to partici-pate in the Sunday fights in camp where, shanty boys pitch in by boxing the hell out of each other.
Billys adventures in and out of the ring offer the reader a view of life in the 1880s in the upper Midwest. He learns fisticuffs from an old black fighter, defying the Jim Crow laws of the time, and supports his brother George in his quest to become the 1896 World Lightweight Boxing Champion.
Ultimately, he has a showdown with a serial killer who preys on ladies of the night. Hmmm, wonder if young Jennifer will be imperiled by this evildoer? Read on and see...