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Book Review: Words from the Woods

Years ago, my childhood friend Susan, a blond, broad cheekboned Finnish girl (like many in her native Copper Country), told me about their tradition of taking saunas followed by a bracing dip in the frigid Great Lake. Her family had moved from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to my metro Detroit neighborhood.

One of my last contacts with her, after they had returned to their Keweenaw kin, came in the form of a letter she wrote in ink on birch bark, rolled scroll-like, stamped and, yes, delivered to my house by the USPS.

Her note arrived as evidence of a place — wild and remote — whose tree limbs, like arms, drew my playmate back into its embrace.

A new book “Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” edited by Ronald Riekki (Michigan State University Press, $24.95), seemed to me like another birch-bark note from the other side of the Mighty Mac bridge.

The anthology of short stories, essays, and poems brings together a collection of diverse voices, whose writing highlights Michigan’s often-mysterious northernmost reaches.

Contributors to “Here” include such established names as Bonnie Jo Campbell, Anne Sexton, Caitlin Horrocks, Roxane Gay, and Gloria Whelan, as well as newcomers, Native American writers, and authors from the past.

In the book’s introduction, Alison Swan notes, “In general, life in the U.P. is not for the faint of heart or anyone married to comfort.”

Why, then, do the U.P.’s approximately 300,000 residents stay? Who are the stalwart denizens of the forested region that’s larger than Switzerland? The stories in “Here” offer perspective on remote poverty, the pride of survival, a connection to the land, wild beauty, and the innate desire to walk paths ancestors once trod.

Although I’m not a fan of gender-segregated books or exhibits, “Here” makes the point for reading Northern Michigan voices other than the notable Jim Harrison, John Voelker, and Ernest Hemingway.

The collected female voices are strong, angry, sexual, loyal, yearning, defiant. Their topics are men, women, the land, the water, and the weather. Among the most haunting of the pieces is poet Catie Rosemurgy’s “Lake Superior Confesses to the Shore of Keweenaw Bay,” in which the lake speaks in a voice that’s ominous, voracious, grasping, amoral.

She writes: “I hope to drag a common loon, a common goldeneye, a blue-winged teal, any solid piece of sky, down inside me to mark the place where my heart would be.”

And: “Shipwrecks I’ve hired in secret caress a hundred feet of me at a time.”

“An ore boat has been touching me in the same place for eighteen years.”

In her short story “The Sleep,” Caitlin Horrocks puts forth a scenario in which the residents of a dwindling community hibernate during the oppressive winter.

And on four poetic pages, Ellen Airgood’s essay, “Winter Wind,” describes an almost animate force that’s “full of power and without desire,” unrelenting.

“I can hear the breath of the windigo whistling down the chimney, whispering to me,” she writes. (In Native American folklore, windigo is an ice-coated giant.)

Airgood successfully conveys the housebound claustrophobia of bleak winters. The wind, she writes: “is disappearing every moment and replacing itself. It seems to come from every direction and from nowhere.”

The house, is a “haven and a cage … the only ship we have to sail across this Lake Superior winter.”

Although the U.P. is certainly a popular travel destination, this is no Fodor’s vacation guide. Instead, the book’s somewhat unpolished quality has a freshness, a slightly raw appeal that’s appropriate to its rugged subject. Overall, “Here” evokes in the reader a longing for a place apart from the madding crowd, where, as Rosemurgy described it, wind “licked the sky clean” and people had their “pulses tucked in gloves.”

As the writers say, the U.P. is a place where wild raspberries “taste of perfume” after sleeping with snow, where Lake Superior is “a black hole in the darkness,” and where Copenhagen snuff-can lids are used to make jingle dresses for powwow dances.

The stories in “Here” go well beyond the weather-ravaged and the wild. There’s drug addiction, as told by Bonnie Jo Campbell; romance set against a backdrop of academia, race and personal sorrow, in Roxane Gay’s “North Country;” and sorrow, as in Gloria Whelan’s tale of a displaced Yooper living in an upscale, “scrubbed clean” Detroit suburb, where a coyote embodies a young man’s longing for home.

In the reverse of Whelan’s character, when I was 13 and on a family vacation along the Superior shore, I peered through the passenger window at teens socializing in a Grand Marais diner and wondered what it was like to live in such a place.

“Here” helps answer that question while never betraying the elusive mystery of place.

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