I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven as part of the Great Michigan Read program sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council. The idea of the program is to get the entire state, from young adults to senior citizens, reading one book. Their mission is to make “literature more accessible and appealing while also encouraging residents to learn more about our state and individual identities.” St. John Mandel’s book has been lauded as one of the best books of 2014 by a long list of the people in the know, and she has definitely earned that praise.
I remember the first time I read a quick synopsis of Station Eleven. Three things jumped out at me: Michigan, post-apocalyptic, and traveling Shakespeare troupe and orchestra. I couldn’t imagine how those things would work in the same book, so I put it on my “must-read” list. Surprisingly, St. John Mandel manages to deftly combine these three concepts—and a multitude more—in her novel.
The book begins in Toronto in the present as Arthur Leander, an aging actor, dies on the stage during a production of King Lear. It is Arthur who ultimately connects all of the other people in the book, although that’s easy to lose sight of as the narrative zooms off in various directions. Readers are quickly carried off into a post-apocalyptic world where a flu virus has killed somewhere around 99% of the world’s population. Those who have survived, including a traveling Shakespeare troupe who lives by the motto “Survival is insufficient,” must try to put the pieces of civilization back together.
While I loved St. John Mandel’s book, I’m not sure it quite reaches the status of a “Michigan” book—or even a Midwest one, for that matter. Yes, the book is set in Michigan. The Shakespeare troupe and orchestra as well as the other characters in the novel travel along the Michigan shoreline. The book mentions cities like “New” Petoskey and Mackinaw City, and there’s even a discussion of the collapse of the Mackinac Bridge. However, those seem like convenient places pulled from a map rather than integral to the plot. The novel could have been set just about anywhere without hurting the narrative. Okay, so I’m being picky (especially since the Great Michigan Read program doesn’t require a book be set in Michigan), but I wish she’d made me feel like I was in a post-apocalyptic Michigan right along with the characters. Maybe now that she’s spent several weeks wandering the state for Great Michigan Read events, St. John Mandel’s next book really will be a “Michigan” one.
Previous Great Michigan Read Titles:
2013-2014: Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg
2011-2012: Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder During the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle
2009-2010: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen
2007-2008: The Nick Adams Stories: Ernest Hemingway