The past two years have seen the publication of a variety of excellent books set in Michigan. Here are five of my new favorites.
Captain Francesco Verdi, an Italian officer captured in North Africa by Allied forces, is sent to a POW camp in AuTrain in John Smolens’ latest novel, Wolf’s Mouth. The POWs are terrorized by Vogel, the senior POW and a ruthless Nazi. Once Vogel threatens Verdi’s life, Verdi escapes from the camp and hides out in Munising. Avoiding the police, Verdi and Chiara, a young Italian American woman Frank had met on earlier authorized trips into town, escape to Detroit where they marry and begin a new life as Frank and Claire Green. Some years later, an INS agent finds Green and informs him that Vogel is tracking down and killing former POWs who refused to conform to Nazi ideology at the camp. The agent wants to use Green to find Vogel so the American government can bring Vogel to justice for his war crimes. There is eventual justice but it happens on Verdi and Vogel’s terms. Turns out, about 1,000 German POWs lived at five camps in the U.P. Five thousand more survived the war in Lower Michigan. For more information, watch The Enemy in our Midst, John Pepin and Jackie Chandonnet’s 2010 film about WWII POW camps in the U.P.
Garden for the Blind by Kelly Fordon is a series of linked short stories set in and about Detroit and its suburbs between 1974 and 2012. In the first story, young, wealthy Alice witnesses an accident that kills her sister. Left mostly to herself, Alice becomes friends with her neighbor and troubled classmate Mike. Together they blame an unpopular classmate for something Mike has done. The stories follow Alice and Mike as they graduate and move through adulthood into middle age as they face or ignore the consequences of their youthful acts. Family members, friends, and other local people weave paths through the stories. These include a veteran who sleepwalks, a Buddhist monk, and a woman who has devoted her life to teaching children who are blind. It is she who builds the titular garden in the last, breathtaking story.
Detroit Hustle is an upbeat chronicle by journalist Amy Haimerl that recounts her and her husband Karl (and their dogs)’s move from their increasingly expensive place in Brooklyn to a large abandoned house in Detroit. Haimerl draws on her early life in Denver where she inherited a can-do spirit from her hard-working dad. This attitude fortifies the young couple who buy cheap but find that loving restoration (including plumbing, heat and electricity) costs so much more than they imagined. What’s most fascinating in this memoir is Haimerl’s discussion of the realities of living and working in Detroit with its stressed economy and politics. She questions their role as middle class homeowners in terms of gentrification alongside the many residents who stuck it out in Detroit over the past decades. She points to the need for Detroit’s lending institutions to redefine investment requirements. Hard work and believing in Detroit must count in the process. She speaks about living in and accepting Detroit for what it is without trying to make it into what a newcomer left behind. Haimerl and Karl are stronger for the challenges they found in both their new home and their new neighborhood and community.
Reading a description (other than mine, of course) of Travis Mulhauser’s debut novel, Sweetgirl, might cause you pass it by. If you did, though, you’d miss a quirky, satisfying quick read. Sixteen-year-old Percy sets out to find her mother whom she assumes is strung out on meth, probably in Shelton Potter’s cabin. When she enters the cabin, she doesn’t find her mother. She does find a drugged and sleeping Shelden and his equally unresponsive girlfriend. Hearing a cry, Percy hurries upstairs and discovers a baby girl, alone, snow falling from an open window onto her crib. Impulsively, Percy grabs the sweet girl, planning to drive back to town and drop her off at the local hospital. She didn’t count on her truck getting stuck in the snow, the tragedy that befalls her friend Portis as he helps her race through the blizzard, first in his truck and then by foot, and the violence brought about by Shelden’s armed friends who want the baby back. Neglected children, drugs, addiction, sounds bleak? Yet the story is also about courage, family, survival, and fierce love. It even has its humor. I look forward to Mulhauser’s future books.
Feather Brained by Bob Tarte is summarized succinctly by its subtitle: My Bumbling Quest to Become a Birder and Find a Rare Bird on My Own. However, the subtitle can’t express the charm, humor, and encouragement readers find in its pages. Tarte is not a nature person. I don’t think he likes getting his shoes dirty. At least not until his first and unexpected sighting of a rose-breasted grosbeak. Totally caught in the bird’s spell, Tart, reluctantly, starts to develop a relationship with the outdoors in general, and to birding in particular. His book charts Tarte’s truly bumbling progress getting to know birds and sticking with it when the weather turns wet or wintry, especially when the chase for a particular bird takes him away from home. (He doesn’t like to drive far either.) Along the way, Tarte meets birders and those who care for orphaned or injured birds. Tarte and his wife Linda live in Lowell with ducks, turkeys, parrots and wild birds they rehabilitate. I watch the trees and rivers for birds much more than I did before reading Tarte’s joyful book.
The staff of Peter White Public Library wish you a happy New Year filled with all the joy, strength, and encouragement found in libraries full to the brim with books, music, films and adventure.
--Cathy Sullivan Seblonka, Collection Development/Reference Librarian