Chicago, Illinois: Back to the Water’s Edge


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

My girlfriends always drove because they had cars, cool cars: a Monte Carlo, a Cadillac, and best of all, the Trans Am. Boy bait. And that’s what we were there for, after all, the boys. That, and a place that seemed about as far away as we could get from our land-locked suburban neighborhoods with low-slung ranch houses and two-car garages and flat, trimmed lawns.

Foster Beach.

The City. (You could hear how we capitalized it in the way we said it, like a title, a proper noun. The City. The City. THE CITY.)

The lake was there (is there), wide and wild sometimes, water rolling and crashing. Wild like we wanted to be, pulled by the moon on warm summer nights. And The City twinkled in the high rises behind us while we stood at the water’s edge.

Mostly, though, we parked. All of us. We drove to the beach as though called there, a line of cars cruising slowly, looking for a spot in the lot where we could pull in and hop out and jump onto the hoods of our rides, onto the trunks. We sat in the humid dark while our warm engines ticked and cooled beneath us.

The seventies. And we were white girls from the suburbs grown bored with the white suburban boys we knew who were either jocks or freaks, and who had curfews and homework: read The Canterbury Tales, “The Knight’s Tale;” solve for X, for Y; write a five-page paper on The Industrial Revolution.

My girlfriends, most of them, would drop out of high school, and I would go on to college, first one, then another, until I found the right one and made it work (Columbia College Chicago, just a few miles away from Foster Beach and overlooking that same great lake and the water’s edge there.)

But we didn’t know any of that yet.

What we knew was this: boys with names like Mario, like Ramon—City Boys—pulled huge speakers out of the trunks of their cars, played salsa at full volume, slapped their thighs and the vinyl landau tops in Latin rhythms. Clouds skittered across the moon lifting up over the water, and sometimes we would climb into the back seats of the cars with Mario, with Ramon, because they told us we were pretty. Different. And better times we would walk with them, holding hands and carrying our shoes, our toes in the sand close to the water’s edge. And Mario, Ramon, would say “Let’s sit, sientate,” and we would, and the world (or maybe just the sand) would shift under our bodies. And we’d listen to the sometimes loud, sometimes quiet lap of water on land, to the music swinging through the night from the parking lot, to the cars behind us rushing along Lake Shore Drive, toward The City, or toward Hollywood at the Drive’s end.

And sometimes, too, we’d lie back with Mario, with Ramon, and kiss under the summer stars that we couldn’t really see because dark is never full dark in The City; there’s always light. But we knew the stars were there like we knew other things: we were young. We were pretty (Mario said so, Ramon did.) We were miles away from home, from the suburbs, from sidewalks and shopping centers and our parents, asleep, probably, certain we were close by, safe, doing homework and sleeping over in twin beds in air-conditioned rooms.

And we knew best of all that we would come back to this place, this City place, this Foster Beach. We would leave by the backdoors of our houses and tiptoe over the patios of our yards and meet at the stop sign, the Trans Am purring, the girls inside lipsticked and ready and eager to get there. Not just the next night, and the next, but always. We would return. Pulled (even now, forty years later) by the moon, by the boys and the music, by the cars and the parking, by the possibilities, by the memories. Pulled again and again. Pulled back to the beach, back to the water’s edge.

Patricia Ann McNair‘s collection of stories, The Temple of Air, won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, the Devil’s Kitchen Readers Award, and was a finalist for the Society of Midland Authors Award. She has had fiction and nonfiction appear in a variety of publications, including Creative Nonfiction, Riverteeth, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Prime Number, Superstition Review, and others. Her work has won a number of Illinois Arts Council awards, and has been nominated for the Pushcart five times. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing of Columbia College Chicago

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TOUGH, MAGIC, REGIONAL: An interview with Julie Babcock


When I talked with poet Julie Babcock this winter she was finishing the semester teaching at the University of Michigan, excited about starting a new journal, and enjoying the events surrounding the November 2014 release of Autoplay (MG Press) her debut book of poems. The poems in Autoplay describe Midwestern territory defined by American history, local landmarks, and the narrator’s imaginative leaps that take us from Ohio to Wonderland and Valhalla while exploring the too real hazards of growing up female. Jeff Pfaller, an editor at MG Press, is drawn to “her notion that if you call the Midwest home, your past becomes something you want to run from but ultimately cannot shake. It becomes something you wish you could transform, but is indelibly tied to place.” When she came to chat, Babcock was charming and fiercely thoughtful, and very polite about the aggressive flavor of the well water at my house. If you’re at AWP in Minneapolis this year, check out Babcock’s Saturday panel, “Who We Are in the Creative Writing Classroom: Interventions in the Craft vs. Context Fight.” She’ll be reading at Lyon’s Pub that night for MG Press. - Meredith Counts, Managing Editor, Great Lakes Review

GLR: What’s happened since the book has come out?

BabcockJB: I was thinking about my younger self, and those visions that when you have your first book everything is going to change, knowing even as I was creating that fantasy that it wasn’t true. It’s been fun to realize how wrong my fantasy was. I’m teaching every day, and taking care of my son. Inside that are a few readings here and there… Life continues as it does and writing is a practice more than a product.

It doesn’t really change my daily world view except I feel a little bit more part of the poetry community and when I go to AWP I’ll be at a couple of book tables and events.

It’s taken so long for this book to come out that I’m working on several other writing projects. I’m hoping to read in my hometown this summer, that’s in the works.

 GLR: To take Ohio back to Ohio. Will it be like when you translate a translation, that it might not even be recognizable to the people that it’s about?

JB: I’m really curious! I grew up in this small town and never moved until college. I haven’t been back in ten years, even though it’s only three hours from where I am now. I had school friends from Mount Vernon who I see on Facebook bought the book – maybe people who don’t read a lot of poetry but are still living in that place. I wonder how they’ll experience the book, I hope it’s a good experience.

GLR: Anything that gets anyone buying poetry can’t be bad.

One of the things I really like in these poems is this contrast between the regionalism, these really concrete places, like the Big Boy or the graveyard where kids eat ice cream, but then you have Oz and Wonderland, and fantasy characters like Johnny Appleseed,  Jonah and the Whale. Is that trying to put some magic into the real place?

JB: I definitely am. Part of my experience growing up in Ohio was fairly – I don’t want to say banal, but there’s this – flatness. This everyday, day-to-day living that was not presumptious in any way. You got up, you had a job to do, you did it, you came home and went to bed. In Central Ohio there aren’t as many models of difference or otherness as in a big city.

 GLR: So you get those models, as a kid, from books instead?

JB: Yes! Books can be really abstract and out there. Like, I’m on track in a really clear way, or I’m in outer space, or I’m inside a whale. (Laughs)

 GLR You said that having the book come out makes you feel a little more connected to the poetry community, and people have great stuff to say, do you feel like you fit in with a school of writers? Are people doing same things that you relate to?

JB: This notion of poetry schools and affiliations, hanging out with poets has helped me to understand that I can be obsessed with what I am, that I don’t need to worry about how it connects to ideas about poetry, and that strangely enough that brings me closer to the conversations that they’re having rather than if I made some theorist move to situate myself.

 GLR: It sounds like that allows you to commit to your own voice whether it snaps into place with someone else’s dogma.

JB: Yes. Part of my teaching is getting students to listen to their own concerns, pay attention to those and figure out what they’re curious about to broaden that conversation and understand “I am a part of this conversation and I want to know how this works.” My journey as a poet has strangely been to become more conscious of what I’m particularly doing so I can see the way my work resonates with what other poets are doing, rather than the other way around.

 GLR: You’re publishing fiction, too. Did you study both?Autoplay

JB: I did! I’ve always written poetry and fiction. I’ve always loved writing. I taught myself to read from Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” I have that book memorized still, I performed those poems. I won a second grade talent show for performing “Paul Bunyan” in overalls and a flannel shirt… there was a grainy picture in the Mount Vernon News.

Anyway, I got an MFA in poetry and went on to do a PhD in Fiction at University of Illinois Chicago. A lot of places where they have Creative Writing PhDs, writing is separated from lit studies. At UIC there are workshops but there’s a huge literature component. So I have graduate degrees in both.

 GLR:  I saw on the University of Michigan website that one of your interests is Women’s Studies. Let’s talk about that in terms of AUTOPLAY, because you have some delightful and tough girl and women characters here.

JB: That idea of being set up in an established system, a daily thing that you’re supposed to take for granted and not question, is something that can be really devastating when you’re not in a position of power.

GLR: Like, to be told “you’re a girl, here’s your girl things, go do girl activities”

JB: Right. Or these are things you just have to put up with, these are realities of your life as a woman or girl. And then trying to imagine outside of that is double challenging. I think the poems in here where girls, mostly, are experiencing some kind of violence whether it’s sexual or an uneasy kind of familial structure. Giving voice to that tension really concerns me. Thinking about, how do you live in a small town or place with expectations on how power in relationships is supposed to go.

GLR: Tell me about the process of putting AUTOPLAY together. A lot of the poems have appeared in journals, and I know the title changed, and I heard you say at a reading at Literati Books in Ann Arbor that an editor suggested you add more poems.

JB: It’s hard for me to say how long I’ve been working on this book, because I’m not sure how long it has been this book and when it was an earlier, different project.

The earliest poems in there are the persona poems, I’ve always been attracted to that form. So there’s one in there about Alice in Wonderland, one about Pinocchio. Those are older pieces, then skipping some time to about four years ago my brother graduated from Ohio State and John Glenn was the speaker. At that point I was really thinking about astronauts, and I was sitting in the stadium, trying to amuse myself as graduation went on and on, and I was thinking about the phrase “Astronaut Ohio.” I came up with that phrase and concept at my brother’s graduation, listening to John Glenn, and it was at that moment that I really understood what kind of collection I was writing and that it was much more about place than I thought.

Those earlier poems with Pinocchio and Alice were sort of place-less, their stories from two different countries.

GLR: The finished book is very rooted in place.

JB: That was an important shift for me. And that was how I got the original title, Astronaut Ohio. Then I changed it because editors really liked the collection, but said a title about Ohio was too specific. It seems strange because we experience place in a literal way but also in a psychological way that’s much more united across different localities. While I see this book as being about Ohio, in the shorthand, I also see it as being about a more general place where you’re trying to see more options and having a difficult time bring those options and your reality together.

The magical jumps that all human beings are capable of fascinate me, and fill me with a lot of hope, the ways we create and recreate things.

 GLR: A lot of these characters seem like they’re looking to get away or they’re looking for more? I think that translates to anyone who’s grown up in a small town worldwide, grown up with expectations. You might not have a Big Boy in town, you might not have the same regional touchstones, but the need for more translates.

JB Christina Olson was my editor and she was really helpful with this work. She had suggestions about reordering some of the poems at the end of the book, and asking me for more. I added three poems – two are erasures, the only two of that form in the collection.

The end poem was originally “Astronaut Ohio,” which I think is an inspirational poem because it’s, like, “I’m gonna get out of this galaxy! I’m gonna do whatever!” I am so interested in those moments, but there’s always something that pulls us back down or tethers us. The last poem now is an acknowledgement of that as well.

GLR: You bring us back to earth with an object. It’s an object that’s full of possibility but it’s also a thing you can hold in your hand, it’s not trying to fit all of your future and longing for adventure – it is a totally different note to end on. Either, “I’m blasting off, or on land.”

JB: But still surrounded by water! It’s actually not my most realist poem, either (laughs).

I see things I’m obsessed with recur in different ways through different genres… I used to think that I was really sporadic with my tastes and knowledge base. I worried I wasn’t connecting anything, but now when I think about my writing I worry “maybe somebody is gong to notice that I am writing about the same thing over and over again.” Obviously neither one of those is true, but I may have a central thing I can’t stop writing about.

GLR: Yet you’ll always find new ways to look at the obsession, and new research. If the longing for adventure is the sun in your mental solar system, you’ll find all sorts of different things orbiting it.

JB: I like the idea of orbits. I was at the natural history museum on campus the other day. They have a big piece of meteorite, or a cast or whatever, that you can touch. I’d like to think it’s a real meteorite that I’m touching.

You can fine Julie’s book at the Midwestern Gothic website. 

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Isle Royale, Michigan: I was an Unexpected Visitor




This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

Isle Royale pokes out of Lake Superior in waves of layered rock that curve deep under the lake and emerge again 45 miles away as the Keweenaw Peninsula.  These slanted rock layers create fingers of stony ridges pointing northeast.  It takes a long ferry ride through Superior’s moody waters or an expensive hop on a seaplane to reach this rustic and least visited National Park. On my only visit to the island, I chose the ferry from Copper Harbor, a tiny tourist town at the northern curve of the peninsula. I didn’t really expect to see any wolves or moose during my one night stay. I wouldn’t have time to hike into the undisturbed interior, the regular stomping grounds for those people-shy species.

Approaching the island after three hours on the choppy lake felt something like that first panoramic view of Jurassic Park.  When I remember it now, the theme song plays in my head. Free standing towers of eroded rusty rock guard the main island like a long string of sentries, each with a tuft of pine growing precariously from its flat top. Something here feels prehistoric and I almost expected to see the long neck of a Brachiosaurus to emerge from the tree line.  Maybe it’s the thick undergrowth or the 612 species of lichens tinting the wind-scoured rocks in furry greens and oranges.

After setting up camp at the Rock Harbor Campground, I headed out for my first hike, a four-mile loop along this “finger” of rock to Suzy’s Cave.  The weather in early September was idyllic for someone used to six months of winter; late season sun and temperatures in the 60s without the black flies and mosquitoes that plague hikers earlier in the season.

I’d been on the trail for less than half a mile, Superior peeking through the trees every now and then, when I decided it was already too warm for a hoodie.  I was leaning down to stuff it into my backpack when some small noise made me glance around. It took me a couple of seconds to figure out that the odd brown shape behind some brush was a bull moose staring right at me from less than ten yards away.

I flashed back to the Forest Service Ranger who forced on us all of the dos and don’ts as we left the ferry.  Don’t drink the water without boiling it first, don’t worry about bears (there aren’t any), and if you find yourself in a potentially dangerous confrontation with a moose, find a large object to hide behind.  The logic being that a moose, although huge and powerful, is not particularly agile—they can’t dodge around obstacles to charge you.  I noted a couple of lichen draped trees just off the trail, but otherwise, I was frozen.  I did note that his larger furry ears (which would have been adorable in more controlled circumstances) were pointed forward rather than laid back. Just like with a horse, this was a good sign.

It was probably only a few seconds before the moose shrugged me off and went back to browsing.  I probably should have ducked behind a nice big tree or boulder until he went away, but I didn’t.  I discovered I was shaking when I leaned down to pull my camera out of my backpack. I was terrified.  I was also exhilarated. I’d been hiking the U.P. for years and had yet to see a moose. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.MOOSE

My camera makes small noises, clicks and beeps, but he couldn’t have cared less.  He turned to check on me a couple of times during the ten minutes or so that I trailed him as he munched casually from one shrub or another, and each time I froze until my heart started beating again.  When I looked at the pictures later, they were almost all blurry because my hands never did stop shaking.

Despite his size, and the wide rack of antlers, he moved through the forest quietly and precisely, almost gracefully. I calmed down enough to recognize that I was sharing this time and space with an animal that we consider “wild.” It’s something few people get to experience.  It wasn’t just a fox darting off into the woods, or a glimpse of an eagle’s white feathers.  We had decided together, in whatever basic way, that we were okay sharing this space. I’m not anthropomorphizing.  It’s not like we shook on it or anything. I get that he was there in spite of me. Still, in those moments, he decided that maybe I was okay. I guess I made the same decision about him.

Our interaction ended when another solo hiker strode toward us from the other direction, oblivious to the wall of animal he was quickly approaching.  The ranger didn’t cover what to do in this situation. If I yelled to alert the other hiker, I might also startle the moose in his direction.  If I didn’t he could easily push the moose toward me. The lake was blocking a third side. Before I could decide, the moose bounded away from both of us.  And, yes, “bounded” is the right verb. I began to seriously doubt the ranger’s “lack of agility” argument.

I stopped for a few excited words with the other hiker and did the rest of my four-mile loop to the relatively unimpressive cave. Granted, I was distracted. Later that day I packed up my campsite and boarded the outbound ferry. As soon as I had cell phone reception, I started texting everyone in shouty caps, “OMG I SAW A MOOSE!!!”  Though I knew it couldn’t possibly do justice to the experience, that there was no way to really describe how it felt to be part of something primitive for even a few minutes, to feel like I was walking with, rather than running from something, rather than it running from me.

Rebecca lives and writes from Marquette, Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior, where she is also an associate poetry editor for Passages North. Before going back to school, she spent thirteen years working as a zookeeper. Once she was run over by a giraffe, which may suggest that she’s better suited to writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, Stone Highway Review, Calliope, Dunes Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Yellow Medicine Review, and Manifest West’s Different Roads Anthology. 

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South Manitou Island, Lake Michigan: The Return

Photo by Andrea Miehls.

Photo by Andrea Miehls


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

A hot summer day seemed perfect for the ferry ride to South Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore. A nice family outing was in store for my parents and me with my daughter, who in the mid-1980s was in first grade.

Temperature about 93. . . pretty boat ride departing from Leeland across Manitou Passage under lumpy, piled clouds. . .a swim in the warm, pellucid water. . .a hike to the lighthouse. Finally, a picnic lunch before the return ferry. The sky looked a bit darkish. Maybe rain?

Like a window shade yanked down, a navy blue sky unrolled from the western horizon and raced over us. The turquoise water turned grey. The boat began to hit waves—slap, slap, bounce, slap. South Manitou receded in the rain.

“The return trip will be quicker with the wind,” said a girl in a crew uniform with forced perkiness. She had come down the ladder to the lower deck where we sat.

Scanning the waves, I saw tornado-like dervishes of water dance not far away. “Water spouts,” the girl announced, as incredibly she pulled down one of the life jackets. My unease ratcheted up to fear.

“Will we need those?”

“One of the passengers is very disturbed,” she said and left.

Chaos had erupted over the lake. Thunder, lightening, and rain bombarded the boat and water began splashing below deck. It was the madness of the marching brooms with their buckets in Fantasia—like Mickey we were caught in a nightmare.

This couldn’t be happening to us! We’re good people for God’s sake, just out for a day on the lake!

Though acknowledging the danger truly terrified me, I put my daughter in her Garfield lifejacket. My elderly parents sat tight together resigned like couples in the ballroom on the Titanic. I glanced between the lifejackets overhead and another family bent in prayer. Should we go above deck where we might escape from a capsize or stay below out of the rain?

The delicious, friendly lake had by now broken into pieces. I watched waves the size of my garage race toward and behind us. It was as beautiful as it was terrible. Hikers standing on the stairs to the upper deck screamed as we crawled up the rollers and tipped down the other side, their hair and shirts plastered to their bodies.

“Look at that one! Hold on!” they yelled over the wind. I tried to pull my daughter to the stairs where it might be safer, but she refused.

Finally, we could see Pyramid Point in the haze, and we entered the slight shelter of Good Harbor Bay. It seemed we might make it. I held my daughter less tightly hoping that from here perhaps she would float to shore.

At the dock a small crowd watched for smaller boats to return, which we later learned all did, despite all the Mayday calls. Wet and weak, we stumbled off the boat giving thanks to the captain. In the rain my family trudged along the dock through Fish Town to the Blue Bird restaurant. A waitress took us in, offering drinks and the restroom for comfort. “You poor, poor people,” she clucked.

About ten years later, an article in the Traverse City Record Eagle about storms included reference to this mid-1980s storm as unusually fierce in a hot summer of bad weather. The captain quoted said he figured the passengers thought we might not make it. Whether he included himself in this opinion wasn’t entirely clear.

The treachery of the Manitou Passage was well known to commerce but was a favored shipping lane because it was shorter route to Chicago. In fact, so many wrecks occurred there that two life-saving stations were built in 1901, one at Sleeping Bear Point and one on South Manitou Island. Today, there’s no need to experience a storm first-hand to understand disaster and rescue. The Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum at Glen Haven has dramatic photos, early equipment, and re-enactments of rescue drills.

Over the years our Manitou trip became a family legend. During a thunderstorm somebody would always say, “How about a little trip to Manitou today?”

Joyce Hicks retired from Valparaiso University, twelve miles from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Much of her fiction centers on the lives of older people and has appeared in Passager, Uncharted Frontier, Still Crazy, Literary Mama, and others. Since her debut novel Escape from Assisted Living appeared in 2014, she has been at work on a sequel. Her love of Lake Michigan, especially in storms, has long competed with her fondness for upstate New York, her childhood home. Find her online at

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Michigan Bestseller list for February 2015

Station11For February 2015, the largest rise on the Michigan Bestseller List was Alison DeCamp’s My Near-Death Adventures.  Link’s Wicked Takes the Witness Stand has its fourth consecutive month on the Michigan Bestseller List.

1) Alison DeCamp—My Near-Death Adventures (99% True) (Crown Books for Young Readers)

2) Mario Impemba—If These Walls Could Talk: Detroit Tigers (Triumph Books)

3) Jim Harrison—The Big Seven (Grove Press) [last month #2]

4) Mardi Link—Wicked Takes the Witness Stand: A Tale of Murder and Twisted Deceit in Northern Michigan (University of Michigan Press) [last month #1; 4th month on the list]

5) john a. powell—Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society (Indiana University Press)

6) Patrick Evans—Grand Rapids Beer: An Intoxicating History of River City Brewing (The History Press)

7) Emily St. John Mandel—Station Eleven: A Novel (Knopf)

8) Charles Baxter—There’s Something I Want You to Do: stories (Pantheon)

9) Jerry Dennis—The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (St. Martin’s Griffin) [last month #6]

10) John Green—Looking for Alaska (Speak) [last month #3]

11) Richelle Mead—The Ruby Circle: A Bloodlines Novel (Razorbill/Penguin Books USA)

12) Josh Malerman—Bird Box (Ecco)

13) Kate Bassett—Words and Their Meanings (Flux)

14) Debbie Diesen—The Pout-Pout Fish (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

15) Tom Daldin, Jim Edelman, and Eric Tremonti—Under the Radar Michigan: The First 50 (Scribe Publishing Company)

The Michigan Bestseller List includes 14 participating bookstores: Bay Leaf Used & Rare Books (79 State Rd, Newaygo;, Between the Covers (106 E. Main St., Harbor Springs,, Blue Frog Books (3615 E. Grand River, Howell;, Bookbug (3019 Oakland Dr, Kalamazoo;, Book World Marquette (136 W Washington St., Marquette;, Falling Rock Café & Bookstore (104 E Munising Ave, Munising;, Kazoo Books (407 N Clarendon St., Kalamazoo; 2413 Parkview, Kalamazoo;, Nicola’s Books (2513 Jackson Ave, Ann Arbor;, North Wind Books (601 Quincy St, Hancock;, Saturn Booksellers (133 W Main St, Gaylord;, and Schuler Books & Music (1982 W Grand River Ave, Okemos; 2660 28th Street SE, Grand Rapids; 2820 Towne Center Blvd, Lansing;


1) Tom Daldin, Jim Edelman, and Eric Tremonti—Under the Radar Michigan: The First 50 (Scribe Publishing Company)

2) Charlie LeDuff—Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Books) [last month #1; 8th month on the list]

3) Joseph Heywood—Harder Ground: More Woods Cop Stories (Lyons Press)

4) Sonny Longtine—Murder in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (The History Press)

5) Emily St. John Mandel—Station Eleven: A Novel (Knopf)

6) Josh Malerman—Bird Box (Ecco)

7) Bob Cary—Born to Pull: The Glory of Sled Dogs (University of Minnesota Press)

8) Mikel B. Classen—Teddy Roosevelt & the Marquette Libel Trial (The History Press)

9) Robert F. Jones—The Run to Gitche Gumee, A Novel (Skyhorse Publishing) [last month #3]

10) Michael Schumacher—November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913 (University of Minnesota Press)

The Upper Peninsula Bestseller List for February 2015 includes 4 participating bookstores: Book World Marquette (136 W Washington St., Marquette;, Falling Rock Café & Bookstore (104 E Munising Ave, Munising;, North Wind Books (601 Quincy St, Hancock;, and Snowbound Books (118 N 3rd St, Marquette;

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Bestseller spotlight: Ellen Airgood

Ellen_AirgoodEllen Airgood’s 2012 novel South of Superior has come in at numerous slots on the Michigan bestseller list over the past few months.

Tell us a little about your book and how it came to be?

When I started writing South of Superior, I wanted to convey a sense of place–the  place I’ve lived and worked for the last twenty four years, a small village on the shore of Lake Superior–more than almost anything.  I wanted to evoke the mood and spirit of the Upper Peninsula.  It’s a fascinating, beautiful, hardscrabble place, a rare place.  I hoped to share that.  I began work on the novel on a sleety day in April, 2004, and after at least twelve major revisions, in the spring of 2010 my wonderful agent phoned to say that the Penguin Group’s Riverhead Books wanted to publish the novel.

What is your background? Specifically, what are your ties to the Great Lakes region?

I was born in Caro, Michigan, and grew up on a small farm a few miles out of town.  I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and earned a B.S. in Natural Resources.  I worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Motor Vehicle Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor for a couple of years after I graduated, in the Air Programs Branch.  Then I took a fateful camping trip to the Upper Peninsula with my sister.  I met my husband on that trip–he owned a small cafe in Grand Marais, at the edge of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore–and six months later returned to marry him.

Describe your writing process?

My writing process is messy and slow.  It’s often agonizing.  I like to work in the morning, very early, when it’s quiet and the day hasn’t yet begun.  I will work whenever I can find the opportunity.  I put in long hours on every project–sometimes to its benefit, sometimes to its detriment.   Very rarely, I’ll hear a narrator’s voice in my head.  That was the case with my second novel, Prairie Evers.  I  was sitting on my bed, listening to the rain on our tin roof and Prairie Home Companion on the radio when a young girl’s voice said in my head, Folks said it could not be done, but I did it.  Writing is magic then, and I wish it was always that way, but it isn’t.  Often a small moment sparks a novel or story.  For South of Superior, the ideas that were milling around in my head came into focus when I received a postcard from my sister, an old black and white photo of two elderly women sitting on a lawn, leaned toward one another, talking.  For The Education of Ivy Blake, my third novel (due out this June), the image that kept me moving forward was of Ivy tugging on her braid, frowning, thinking.   I could see how brave and optimistic she was when she had every right not to be; I had to try and discover her fate.

Who is your favorite writer from the Great Lakes region? Why?

This is an unanswerable question!  Many names come to mind, and there’ll be as many I should have thought of and didn’t.

I admire Mildred Walker’s work a great deal.  (Her U.P. novel is Fireweed.)  I’m inspired by Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ferocious talent and heart.  I was fascinated and delighted by Ingrid Hill’s Ursula, Under.  I read Gordon Young’s memoir about growing up in Flint, Tear Down, with feeling–much of my family is from Flint–and pleasure.   Joseph Heywood is a great mentor and friend.  This is the tip of the iceberg, there isn’t time to list them all.  I’ll close by mentioning two short stories I reread recently and sort of wish I’d written:  Janice Repka’s “Tug” and  Jonathon Johnson’s “Notes from the End of my Occupational Life.”  (They’re both included in The Way North, Wayne State University’s 2013 anthology of new Upper Peninsula writing.)  Why are all these writers my favorites?  They’re unique, they’re inventive, they’re real without being bleak.


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Midlothian, Illinois: Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

Bachelors_grove“Located near the southwest suburb of Midlothian is the Rubio Woods Forest Preserve, an island of trees and shadows nestled in the urban sprawl of the Chicago area. The rambling refuge creates an illusion that it is secluded from the crowded city that threatens its borders, and perhaps it is. On the edge of the forest is a small graveyard that many believe may be the most haunted place in the region. The name of this cemetery is Bachelor’s Grove and this ramshackle burial ground may be infested with more ghosts than most can imagine.” —

The dashboard clock read 12:34 pm as we sped off on his tour of the weirdest places in Chicago: the Starr Hotel on Madison Avenue; Indian Boundary Park on the northwest side, to see the chickens with Beatle haircuts; and then the leaning tower of Niles, half the size of the real one, and in Niles.  We were speeding around so much it felt like one of those Italian jet-set movies, where the woman is wearing big sunglasses and a scarf and the guy drives a red sports car (except we were in an orange Rabbit).  Our last stop, a cemetery.

“Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery,” he announced, putting the car in park.  ”The most haunted cemetery in the entire Midwest.  Nobody’s been buried in it since the ’40′s, and it’s all overgrown and mysterious.  All the headstones have been moved, but nobody knows how.”

We got out and started up a gravel path that became less gravel and more dirt the farther we walked.  The cut grass became tall, prairie-type grass and shrubs, and little trees became bigger trees that obscured the hot sun.  The alternating patches of sunshine and shade that we were walking through, with him leading the way, made me a little dizzy.  I could hear birds high up in the trees, and bugs buzzing.

“This was the original entrance,” he said, as we passed between two worn-down pillars, “from the 1800′s.  This path we’re on was made by people just walking through.  That’s how many people have walked here.  Both living and dead — ha-ha!”

The overgrown grass made a dry sssh-ing sound as we walked past the half-hidden tombstones.  Some had been pushed over, others looked like a sledgehammer had demolished them.  I could hear the wind in the tops of the trees: like in movies when people walk through wheat fields at the height of summer, and the sun is all around but the wind is far away.  We walked silently for a while, stopping when he would point out bigger stones too heavy to push over.  We’d read the names, pause for a second, move on.  Then the path curved to the left, and when we came around we saw a big fallen tree with leaves still on it, blocking our way.

“Must’ve been struck by lightning,” he said.  “Oh, yeah — look.”  He pointed at the blackened trunk to the right of the path.  As we came up on the tree, I looked to see if there was some way to walk around it, off the path, because I didn’t want to have to climb over it and make a fool of myself (and there wasn’t enough space to crawl underneath).  He just put one hand on the trunk and hopped nimbly right over it.  Then he turned around, waiting for me to follow.

“I’ll never be able to do that,” I said.  He just laughed a little and held out his hand.  I thought:  If I take it, how will I let go? Because there was only one thing that holding hands meant. But I had to take it, or walk around the tree, through the branches and high, tangled bushes, and that wasn’t an option.

“Just step up on the tree,” he said, “and then jump.”

“What if I fall?”

“I’ll catch you.”

“What if I fall backwards?”

“You won’t.  Just keep moving forward.”

He stuck his hand out farther.  This time I took it, and he guided me over.

“Sorry.  I’ve never been camping.”

“No need to apologize.”  He let go of my hand.  “You wanna keep goin’?”

“Of course.  Why wouldn’t I?”

There’s the most mysterious part of the place.”  In front of us was a lagoon, covered in bright green algae.  The path ended there.  Surrounding the lagoon was a chain-link fence, with a section cut and pulled back.  In the half-shade, half-sun, the pulled-back part looked like a sheer green veil.

“It’s the waters of Lethe,” he said. “If you drink from it, you’ll forget everything.  But there’s another river, and if you drink from that one you’ll remember everything.  Which would you choose?”

Our shoulders were almost touching.  I looked back at the pond.  I was nervous, didn’t want to look at him and wanted him to stop looking at me. But he kept looking, calmly, as if he were trying to communicate that he wasn’t going to touch me.  I wanted him to, and I didn’t.

“I think I would want to remember,” I shrugged.  ”What about you?”

“Hmm.  There are definitely some things I wish I could forget.”

There was something serious in his voice that wasn’t there before — something bad must’ve happened.  Well, he was eleven years older than me, and nothing had happened to me. Yet.  The day before, in journalism class, Sister Irene had told us to be aware of what we were doing today at 12:34 pm, because it was May 6, 1978, and the numbers would all add up: 12:34, 5/6. ’78.

“Were you in Vietnam?”

He laughed hard, and I got mad.

“Are you laughing at me?”

“No, I’m laughing next to you!  No, I wasn’t in Vietnam.”

That’s so funny?”

“Yeah, ’cause . . . never mind.  It’s not that interesting.”

“Hey, did you bring any drugs with you?”

He did a double-take, then laughed — again!  He’d laughed at me twice!

“Oh, fuck you,” I yelled, turning away.  I was going back to the car and that would be the end of —

But the stupid tree was in my way.

I stopped short; he crashed into me.  Then he was holding me, keeping me from falling.  Then he backed off.  And then I took a step toward him, and put my arms around his waist.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, and closed my eyes.

He’d picked me up at 12:34.  It was 5/6/’78.  I knew I’d want to remember that. One year later, he was dead.

Sharon Mesmer is the author of two short fiction collections, both from Hanging Loose Press, and a collection of fiction in French translation from Hachette. She is also the author of three poetry collections, with one forthcoming this fall. She teaches creative writing — fiction and poetry — at New York University and the New School. She has been a recipient of a Fulbright Specialist grant and two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. Four of her poems appear in the second edition of Postmodern Poetry: A Norton Anthology, published in 2012. 

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Michigan Bestseller list for January 2015

For January 2015, the largest rise on the Michigan Bestseller List was Harrison’s The Big Seven.  Link’s Wicked Takes the Witness Stand has its third consecutive month on the Michigan Bestseller List with its first time in the #1 slot.

Jerry_dennis1) Mardi Link–Wicked Takes the Witness Stand: A Tale of Murder and Twisted Deceit in Northern Michigan (University of Michigan Press) [last month #2]

2) Jim Harrison—The Big Seven (Grove Press)

3) John Green—Looking for Alaska (Speak)

4) Chris Van Allsburg—The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie (HMH Books for Young Readers) [last month #9]

5) Jon Milan—Grand River Avenue: From Detroit to Lake Michigan (Arcadia Publishing)

6) Jerry Dennis—The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (St. Martin’s Griffin) [last month #13]

7) Joshua G. Cohen—A Field Guide to the Natural Communities of Michigan (Michigan State University Press)

8) David D. Finney, Jr. and Judith L. McIntosh—Howell (Arcadia Publishing)

9) John Green—Paper Towns (Speak) [last month #11]

10) Melissa Gilbert—Prairie Tale: A Memoir (Gallery Books/Simon and Schuster)

11) Jim DuFresne—Explorer’s Guides: 50 Hikes in Michigan (Countryman Press/W. W. Norton & Company)

12) Denise Brennan-Nelson—Teach Me to Love (Sleeping Bear Press)

13) Martha Aladjem Bloomfield—Hmong Americans in Michigan (Michigan State University Press)

14) Tobin T. Buhk—Poisoning the Pecks of Grand Rapids: The Scandalous 1916 Murder Plot (The History Press)

15) Denise Brennan-Nelson—Little Michigan (Sleeping Bear Press)

The January 2015 Michigan Bestseller List includes 15 participating bookstores: Bay Leaf Used & Rare Books (79 State Rd, Newaygo;, Between the Covers (106 E. Main St., Harbor Springs,, Blue Frog Books (3615 E. Grand River, Howell;, Bookbug (3019 Oakland Dr, Kalamazoo;, Book World Marquette (136 W Washington St., Marquette;, Falling Rock Café & Bookstore (104 E Munising Ave, Munising;, Kazoo Books (407 N Clarendon St., Kalamazoo; 2413 Parkview, Kalamazoo;, Nicola’s Books (2513 Jackson Ave, Ann Arbor;, North Wind Books (601 Quincy St, Hancock;, Saturn Booksellers (133 W Main St, Gaylord;, Schuler Books & Music (1982 W Grand River Ave, Okemos; 2660 28th Street SE, Grand Rapids; 2820 Towne Center Blvd, Lansing;, and Up North Books (3362 Interstate 75 Business Spur, Sault Ste. Marie;


For January 2015, the largest rise on the U.P. Bestseller List was Bassett’s Words and Their Meanings.  Airgood’s South of Superior and Archibald’s Northern Border have their eighth consecutive month on the U.P. Bestseller List.  Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit has its seventh consecutive month as the number one bestselling book for the Upper Peninsula.  (May 2015, Michigan State University Press releases Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

1) Charlie LeDuff—Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Books) [last month #1; 7th month at the #1 slot]

2) Joseph Heywood—Killing a Cold One (Lyons Press) [last month #3]

3) Robert F. Jones—Run to Gitche Gumee (Skyhorse Publishing) [last month #4]

4) Ellen Airgood—South of Superior (Riverhead Trade) [last month #6]

5) Kate Bassett–Words & their Meanings (Flux)

6) Bonnie Jo Campbell–Once Upon A River: a Novel (W. W. Norton & Company)

7) Jerome Pohlen—Oddball Michigan: A Guide to 450 Really Strange Places (Chicago Review Press)

8) Robert Archibald—Northern Border: History and Lore of the Upper Peninsula and Beyond (NMU Press) [last month #9]

9) Steve Hamilton—A Cold Day in Paradise (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press)

10) Robert Traver—Anatomy of a Murder (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Griffin)

The Upper Peninsula Bestseller List for January 2015  includes 5 participating bookstores: Book World Marquette (136 W Washington St., Marquette;, Falling Rock Café & Bookstore (104 E Munising Ave, Munising;, North Wind Books (601 Quincy St, Hancock;, Snowbound Books (118 N 3rd St, Marquette;, and Up North Books (3362 Interstate 75 Business Spur, Sault Ste. Marie;


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Bestseller spotlight: Tobin Buhk

Tobin Buhk is at #14 on the Michigan bestseller list for his true crime book Poisoning the Pecks of Grand Rapids. 

BuhkAuthorPhoto Tell us a little about your book and how it came to be?

Poisoning the Pecks of Grand Rapids details Arthur Warren Waite’s convoluted get-rich-quick scheme to do away with his in-laws and thus gain control of his wife’s inheritance. Waite first tried an ingenious stratagem to infect John and Hannah Peck with virulent diseases, but when this failed, he turned to the more reliable poison, arsenic. His plan began to fall apart when a telegram under the mysterious pseudonym “K. Adams” arrived in Grand Rapids and warned of possible foul play.

Although the case took place nearly a century ago, it remains one of the most fascinating and twisted cases in West Michigan history. Waite’s duplicity was incredibly complex. He told his wife that he spent his days conducting tricky oral surgery, but in fact, he ran around Manhattan procuring dangerous germs and spending afternoons at the Plaza with a married cabaret dancer.

What is your background? Specifically, what are your ties to the Great Lakes region?

I was born and raised in West Michigan, and I’ve spent the last twenty years as a teacher in the Grand Rapids area. My first two books—Cause of Death (Prometheus Books, 2007) and Skeletons in the Closet (Prometheus, 2008) were collaborations with the Kent County Medical Examiner, Dr. Stephen D. Cohle.

Describe your writing process?

When writing about a historic true crime, I try to recreate the events, so readers may eyewitness the crime, follow the police as they follow the clues, and listen in on the trial. Therefore, my writing process typically involves constructing a chronology of events. Once I’ve pinned down a timeline, I will begin to visualize the best way to tell the story. Sometimes this will lead to an outline, but most often, once I’ve decided on an approach and direction, I will begin drafting. My writing process then becomes like a pencil sketch. As I draft, I’m constantly adding some things while erasing others and re-rendering them.

Who is your favorite writer from the Great Lakes region? Why?

I’m particularly fond of Elmore Leonard and the way that he is able to capture the essence of his characters.


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Traverse City, Michigan: Original Winter


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“There are three things you need to survive winter here,” Lynda said, yanking the zipper of her puffy down coat up to her chin. We were walking along Front Street in Traverse City, making our way back to the office after our lunch break. A snowy north wind was blasting off the bay, and we both winced as the little granules stung our faces.

She continued: “One: A good pair of cross-country skis. Two: A membership to the Park Place Hotel pool; they’ve got a hot tub. And three,” — we scooted into the office foyer, cheeks flaming, and stomped the snow from our boots — “a plane ticket somewhere warm for a week in February. Trust me, you’ll want to get outta here by then.”

It was December 2007, my first year with a career job, my first year Up North. I’d arrived in time to see the trilliums in May and had spent the summer well, if the sand still in my car’s floor mats was any indication. Autumn had been beautiful but brief, and the locals I’d met by then were full of wisdom and warnings about the long, cold, dark days ahead: Invest in snow tires. Get a warmer coat. Show up early to the annual ski swap for the best deals.

A co-worker even explained the trick to peeing outside while wearing ski gear if nature called while I was on the cross-country trails. She looked ridiculous pantomiming it to me in her business-casual attire, substituting her office’s door frame for a tree, but even though we were giggling, inside my head I was solemnly filing the image away with all the other tips.

In the flat and clay-soiled southeastern corner of the state, where I’m originally from, people love to hate winter. They don’t know how to drive in snow, much less skillfully pee in it. They throw up their hands at the weatherman’s predictions and complain about the cold, the roads, the endless cloud cover. Back in April, when I announced I’d landed a new job and was moving to Traverse City, my friends had laughed at my snowy fate. “Good luck with that whole winter thing!”

I didn’t need luck. Maybe I needed a better coat or to regularly peel off all the layers and soak in a hot tub, but “that whole winter thing” was part of the reason I wanted to live Up North in the first place. As a kid growing up in the suburbs, I’d had a hunch that our Detroit winters were more like a facsimile of what winter was supposed to be. The light snow dustings that would snarl traffic then melt a day later: these were Xeroxed copies, faint and gray, of the real thing. I wanted the original, with its message clearly legible in the deep drifts, deep cold, deep quiet: You are alive. I was moving Up North for a job, sure, but also in search of a life that reflected, not rejected, the natural world. I wanted to live where all the seasons had an equal place at the table, where the seam between civilization and the elements was blurred, like the bay’s horizon when lake effect snow rolls in.

I didn’t get the snow tires that year but I did invest in cross-country skis. Honestly, my first time out on the trail was more misery than magic: I fell every few feet, until finally I clicked out of the skis in frustration and hoofed it back to the trailhead, blistered heels burning in my spiffy new boots. But by the time I got to my car, a light snow was falling and evening had settled in. All was hushed and lovely. It was pretty hard to stay upset.

Despite the fact that I never really got the hang of skiing, always windmilling into at least one big face-plant per outing, I was still grateful for the places my skis took me that first winter: out into cathedrals of red pine, across whipped-cream meadows that turned lavender when dusk fell, through hills where bare trees looked like brushstrokes against the oyster-shell sky. The sounds of snow sifting through branches or waves of crushed ice rolling in the bay — they were exciting and new. But even the familiar murmur of the heat kicking on in my crummy apartment, when I was home and thawing out after each adventure, took on a different significance. It was the sound of contentment.

I didn’t buy that ticket to somewhere warm in February or even March, by which time the city’s plows were running out of places to push the mountains of snow. Sure, there would be Florida-bound mid-winter getaways in subsequent years, because my friend was right: When you live in a place where there’s snow on the ground for up to six month, you need skis, hot tub access, and every once in awhile, a damn break. But that first winter? I marinated in the solitude and kept hitting the trails and reveled in what I felt was the making of a badge of honor. Here was winter, the original. And I was right there with it, earning my stripes as a Northerner, shedding my downstate skin and buttoning up into a puffy down coat of my own.

It’s been seven years since my first winter Up North. I hear the Park Place isn’t offering pool memberships anymore, which is just as well for me; I live downstate again now, having moved for another adventure, and I’ve long since passed my skis to another Northern newbie. People down here ask me if I miss the Traverse City summers. Sure, I say, thinking of my once-sandy floor mats. But the truth is, I miss the winters just as much. I try to explain it to my friends here, describing the particular beauty of a winter beach, the way the wind whips the sand and snow together until the shoreline is as crackly and caramel-colored as crème brûlée. An Up North winter is not the glinting-white, unyielding edge of a knife, as people down here seem to believe; it is the cold, soft, silver bowl of a spoon. It feeds us, if we want to be fed.

Emily Bingham is a writer and editor living in Ann Arbor. She’s also co-creator of Found Michigan a small-batch screenprinting studio that celebrates Michigan life and lore.

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