Review: Freshwater Boys

Freshwater Boys Adam Schuitema

I love the opportunity to read books by Michigan authors. To that end, Adam Schuitema‘s book Freshwater Boys delivers. The settings of this collection of short stories are local west Michigan towns, and the characters remind me of the men, women, and children I meet every time I leave my front door. The first story, “New Era,” opens with his characters having breakfast at the Trailside Restaurant in New Era, a place I’ve gone for breakfast many times. As I read “Deer Run,” I found myself thinking about the last time I drove along East Beltline in Grand Rapids. To say that Schuitema has a keen sense of place is an understatement.

Freshwater Boys is a collection of eleven stories, each a close study of a moment in the lives of a different male character. Readers see young boys posturing for one another, adult men navigating relationships while maintaining a sense of self, and old men pulled by the tides of tradition.

Interestingly, although I love the role the lakes and dunes and forests of Michigan play in the book, my favorite story had little to do with Michigan. It’s a story that could have easily been set in just about any locale. “Curbside” begins with a couple returning from a vacation out west. The story begins with the main character thinking about the missed opportunities of the trip, the way expectations don’t quite line up with how things play out. Schuitema includes one of my favorite descriptions from the book when he writes, “We ruined it the first afternoon there with a huge, wildfire kind of argument that started small and accidental and consumed the rest of the day.” Anyone with a significant other can relate. After far too long in the car—far too long together—the couple pulls up to their home to find one of those roadside memorials with a cross, flowers, photos, and balloons at the curb. A neighbor informs them of an accident that occurred in front of their home while they were away. There’s something about the juxtaposition of small annoyances with this major loss that made this story poignant.

While I didn’t find myself always pulled into the stories in Freshwater Boys, I loved the opportunity to read about an area I know and love.

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An Opportunity to Remember: The Loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Since I’ve been writing a novel that takes place in the shadow of Lake Superior in the years between 1975 and 1995, it seems only fitting that I commemorate the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald today, the 39th anniversary of the ship’s loss. This is a solemn day for Michiganders, as we remember the many who have lost their lives on our lakes throughout the years.

If you’re in the Detroit area, the Detroit Free Press has announced a commemoration for tonight:

The evening’s activities are to begin with a lantern vigil at the Edmund Fitzgerald anchor, followed by a performance by Great Lakes balladeer Lee Murdock and an honor guard escort of a memorial wreath to the Detroit River for receipt by a flotilla of Great Lakes vessels.

Edmund Fitzgerald
Photo from Detroit Free Press, November 10, 2014
My novel is not about the Fitz itself, but not coincidentally the action begins on the same night the great ship disappeared from radar. As a Michigan resident and someone who has seen many of these giant ships traverse the Great Lakes, it’s hard for me not to be affected by the thought that such a large ship could sink below the water so easily. That idea haunts me–and surfaces in interesting ways in my writing.
Surprisingly, even though this was considered one of the worst maritime losses in Great Lakes history, few people remember much about the Edmund Fitzgerald these days. No such disasters have occurred on the Great Lakes in my lifetime, so many people find it hard to believe that the waters of the Great Lakes could have produced enough force to take the lives of somewhere between 25 and 30,000 people over recorded history.
Tragedies like the loss of the S.S. Fitzgerald affect the collective memory of a region (thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 ballad, maybe even a country in the case of the Fitz) but are sadly often lost to time. After a generation or two, few remember the events of that night that seemed so terrible except for family members and history buffs.
Perhaps that fading from our collective memories is the greatest loss of all. Perhaps that is why I write, bringing the events and people of the past into sharper focus for readers. Today, I will remember the men who died on November 10, 1975, in the icy waters of Lake Superior–and the many others who have also perished in service on the Great Lakes.
What moments in your regional history do you consider important to commemorate? What will you keep alive through your writing?

The Up North State of Mind

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The calendar in front of me says that summer officially begins on June 21st, but here in Michigan, the real start to summer has to be Memorial Day weekend. Although Mother Nature may not always be in agreement (truthfully, she’s RARELY in agreement, sending snow, rain, wind, and freezing temps for Memorial Day many years), hundreds of thousands of Michiganders greet the Memorial Day holiday with open arms, open windows, and full campers.

I remember once reading one of those “You know you’re from Michigan if…” forwarded email messages that contained the gem “You know you’re from Michigan if you go ‘Up North’ for every possible holiday.” Okay, so I’m not sure I fully agree with that, but a true Michigander would definitely head north for all the major summer holidays: Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. Since Memorial Day is the first of those holidays, the harbinger of summer after a too-long winter, the chance to escape to the Great North of Michigan is too much to resist.

I was once asked by a friend at grad school way down in Ohio just where “up north” is in Michigan. That’s a tough one to answer—even with my trusty map.

Most people would probably assume “up north” refers to the cardinal direction North, literally getting in a car and driving northward. Now, don’t get me wrong. On Memorial Day weekend, people in Michigan DEFINITELY pack their cars, load the campers, stock the boats and hit the road. If you’ve ever accidentally ended up on I75 headed north on a holiday weekend—okay, any weekend in the summer—you might think the entire population of the state is migrating northward. Every campground from West Branch northward seems to fill to capacity by Friday night, and the familiar acrid smell of campfires wafts as far away as Ohio, I’m sure. If you’re not headed north, you’re probably laughing at those who are, sitting on lawn chairs in your driveway watching the endless line of traffic, taking part in this ritual of “heading north” even without leaving your own house.
Who wouldn’t like to escape every now and then? Who wouldn’t want a little “up north” every now and then? I’m of the mindset, though, that “up north” is about something much more than a direction. For me, going up north is all about escapism—a chance to get away from the daily grind and reconnect with family, friends, nature…. Remember that old 80s’ haircut the mullet? The saying that went along with the look was something like “Business in the front; party in the back.” “Up north” for me is a lot like that haircut: Work hard down here during the week; head north to play harder during the weekend.

What’s your favorite “up north” memory—whether you’re from Michigan or not?