Thursday, February 26, 2015

Post-Apocalypse in Northern Michigan: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I was snooping around NPR's "Stateside" website and came across a story about Station Eleven, the Great Michigan Read choice for 2015-2016. The book was up for the 2014 National Book Award and was on the 2014 Top 10 lists for Time magazine, the Washington Post, and Amazon. I went online and found it for $5.99 on iTunes Books and read it in two sittings.

The book is set in Northern Michigan twenty years fifteen years after a flu pandemic ends civilization. The flu hit hard, bringing death within hours. Mass extinction ended all communication, the power grid, order.

People left large cities where resources were scarce and violence prevailed. The struggle to survive those first years included hard choices. Tattoos of knives designate kills.

Those who remembered 'life before' tell stories of everyday miracles: switches that brought light or heat or cool air, devices that allowed one to talk to people anywhere in the world, a screen that gave 'immortality' to actors. Children are made upset, or marvel, at such tales and adults debate the wisdom of memory keeping.

The night before of the 'end of the world', famous film actor Arthur died on stage whiles playing King Lear in Toronto. He had skyrocketed to fame, gone through three wives, and was weary.
"He'd spent his entire life chasing after something, money or fame or immortality or all of the above."
Eight year old child actor Kirsten Raymonde liked to hang around Arthur. He gave her unpublished comic books created by an ex-wife. After Arthur's death Kirsten's handler gives her a paperweight meant for Arthur, returned from the same ex-wife. These become the girl's totems, and Arthur her obsession.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is part of The Traveling Symphony, wandering minstrels--musicians and theater actors-- who perform King Lear and orchestral pieces in small communities along the northern Lake Huron and Lake Michigan coasts. When the flu hit they had been performing in Toronto, Ontario.Their motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek:Voyager, is "Survival is insufficient."

As the troop wanders Kirsten searches for old magazines articles about Arthur, and even finds an unauthorized biography. She later comes across his only son, unaware of his identity, in a tragic moment of unfulfilled possibilities.
Raymonde: What I mean to say is, the more you remember the more you've lost.
Diallo: But you remember some things...
Raymonde: But so little. My memories from before the collapse seem like dreams now."
When the flu closed the airports a plane headed for Toronto was diverted to Severn Airport along Lake Michigan. It becomes a small city of survivors and the home of The Museum of Civilization, a rumored and legendary place run by Arthur's friend Clark. When troop members disappear the Symphony heads for the agreed upon meeting place, going further south than they have ever ventured, to Severn Airport and the Museum.

Mentioned are Traverse City, Mackinaw City, "New" Petoskey, East Jordan, and the National Forest (likely Huron-Manistee), places we Michiganders know well. Several characters started out in Toronto and followed the lakes and rivers into Michigan. In 2010 the author was on a book tour in Petoskey and Traverse City and decided it was the perfect backdrop for this novel.

The book is beautifully written. I am intrigued by all the layers and will read it again, knowing I missed so much with one read.