Saturday, January 3, 2015

Michigan's "UP" in Literary Fiction

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is remote and sparsely populated. It is surrounded by Lake Superior to the north and Lakes Michigan and Huron to the south. People, most from Finland and Nordic countries, came for the jobs. In the 18th c it was an important sources of lumber and ore, with ships carrying its resources through the 'inland' sea to ports at Chicago and Detroit, Erie and Buffalo. The forests were decimated. There were copper mines, iron mines, and coal mines that created towns. The mines closed. Ford left a 'ghost town', Pequaming, now a tourist town, where once he harvested and processed wood for his cars.

With 3% of the population and a quarter of the land--but one area code-- the UP is its own region with distinctive characteristics, its own dialect, and even cuisine. Yoopers got pastys--meat pies--from Cornish immigrants, and Finnish delicacies can be found. Fishing is not just a hobby.

The UP was and still is a sportsman's paradise, a tourist's destination of great beauty. The same escarpment that creates the Niagara Falls created Tahquamenon Falls and other smaller falls in the UP. Agates lay on the Superior beaches. Lighthouses dot the coast. And now there are casinos.

Terry O'Quinn who played John Locke on Lost is from the UP as was actor James Tolkan.

There is a heritage of UP fiction, small but notable. Classics like Anatomy of a Murder, made into a movie with James Stewart. The author John D. Voelker used the pen name Robert Traver. Voelker retired from a successful law career to fly fish trout and write.

Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams stories were set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and ever since anyone writing about the UP has been compared to them.

The Hemingway family came from Chicago north along Lake Michigan to vacation in the various resort communities in Michigan. (Chicagoans still do this.) Hemingway visited Seney in 1919 for a fishing trip. He never returned to the UP. His stories, including The Big Two-Hearted River, have forever associated him with Michigan.
I decided it was time to read a book by Michigan native Jim Harrison. NetGalley offered his newest novel, The Big Seven, set in the Newberry/Seney/Marqutte area of the UP. The novel's narrator first appeared in Harrison's novel The Great Leader.

The book refers to many Michigan places we have seen on trips Up North: Seney, Newberry, Marquette, Grand Marias.

Told in the first person narrative, we get to know the main character quite well--things I did not really want to know, too. Sunderson retired early from the Michigan State police where he was a detective. He drinks. He is obsessed with female posteriors. And he brought his work home, which contributed to the demise of his 40 year marriage to his ex, Diane, who he still loves.

In The Big Seven we learn about Sunderson's life long obsession with The Seven Deadly Sins, those which can condemn one to hell. He was a kid when he heard a sermon about them, and it has haunted him ever since. He constantly weighs his life, and other's, in terms of The Big Seven. He is sure there is a missing one: violence.

Sunderson and Diane had 'adopted' a neighbor's girl, Mona. Diane contact him because Mona is in trouble, dropping out of college to be a groupie. He tries to scare Mona's beau via blackmail. It didn't work, but he ends up with $10,000. He buys a remote cabin where he can indulge his love of trout fishing.

The cabin is situated in the midst of the Ames family--gun-totting, abusive, incestuous psychopaths. Sunderson intends to steer clear of them, but the Ames housekeeper/cook who comes with the cabin is found dead. Her replacement, another Ames family member named Monica, is a great cook who wants to escape her life. He is also befriended by her uncle, ex-com Lemuel Ames, a wannabe writer of crime fiction whose manuscript reads like a confession of murder. Sunderson finds himself deeply involved.

Meantime, Sunderson is trying to write a book about the eight deadly sin--violence.

I didn't enjoy being in Sunderson's head. His thoughts jump all over the place. He constantly commits several deadly sins, including lechery and gluttony. He is a man who just 'can't say no' when young women throw themselves at him. Plus there is the older neighbor who has set out to catch any many she can. Sunderson is upset by abuse of women and children, is well read, and basically not a horrible person. But reading his wandering thoughts and inner secrets can be in turns repulsive and dull. And yet...we see into a man who is honestly struggling with his own nature. There is also a black humor about things that happen. I realize that Harrison choose to write this book from Sunderson's viewpoint for a reason. The satisfying ending with Sunderson and Diane finding a compromise relationship is quite sweet. One wonders what Sunderson will be thinking about in a third novel.

In a Lansing State Journal interview Harrison said that his publisher was "upset about his next novel--'because it's about evil.'"

It has been several days since I finished The Big Seven. I don't know if I will read another Harrison novel any time soon. But I won't soon forget it.

I received a free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Big Seven
by Jim Harrison
Grove Press
Publication February 3, 2015
ISBN: 9780802123336
At a local author and book fair I met Royal Oak, MI native Peter Wurdock and purchased his book of short stories Bending Water and Stories Nearby, A Northern Michigan Short Story Collection. The stories are all set in the UP, with Newberry and Marquette often referenced. Illustrations include paintings and drawings.

Most of the stories concern people in crisis, facing dangerous situations, death, grief and the loss of loved ones, or at their lowest point in life. They must come to grips with the fact that in the end "Life'll  kill ya" as one character says. 

One story that deviates into whimsy is "Black Gold". Northern University student cousins on a short vacation before summer jobs at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island are exploring with a metal detector when they find a box with old coins. They realize their grandfather had a cabin in the area and wonder if  he had hidden the box. They ask family members about their grandfather's camp and life. He hobnobbed with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, The comment "Maybe you found his treasure" and learning of their grandfather's link to the Jewish Mafia and missing slot machines spur them into renting scuba gear to search the lake bottom for 'black gold.'

Bending Water is available through Blue Boundry Book or and can be found at COSTCO stores.
ISBN 978-0-9894214-1-6, $13.99, paperback
$6.99 on Kindle

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