Andrea Reads America: Michigan

Andrea Reads America Michigan book map
Andrea Reads America: Michigan

I had two things I was excited about when I arrived in Michigan on my literature tour: re-reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I first read in high school, and something with deep, cold, icy, and snowy winter.

I was happy to experience both. As a bonus, Middlesex, which I read immediately after The Autobiography of Malcolm X, included a storyline in which one of the characters worked in the Nation (of Islam) Temple # 1 in Detroit: a temple that also appears in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and is clearly a major part of Detroit’s history.

Middlesex book cover by Jeffrey Eugenides Book: Middlesex
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides, born Detroit 1960
Setting: 1960s Detroit and Grosse Pointe
Categories: Pulitzer winner, Literary fiction

Beginning in Greece with a brother and sister who fall in love with each other as they flee overseas to America while their city burns, Middlesex is the story of Calliope turned Cal: the hermaphroditic grandchild of Desdemona and Lefty, who grew up in a small village and didn’t know that intermarrying close relatives could have genetic consequences. They emigrate to Detroit in the 1920s, and this novel is a story of struggling to survive in a world and a society where you are on the bottom.

Mixed with their story of Old Word making its way to the New are also the stories of the Nation of Islam, with whom Desdemona found a job when her husband/brother’s speakeasy was rendered irrelevant by the end of Prohibition. The Nation of Islam “began to take shape in the midst of poverty-stricken Detroit,” and alongside the Greek assimilation is the story of the 1967 race riots of Detroit. And alongside those stories is the story of Calliope, who when she finally hears doctors throwing around words about her condition follows a trail of synonyms in the dictionary to arrive at “hermaphrodite… See synonyms at MONSTER.”

In terms of giving a sense of place, the parts of the book set in Michigan are marvelous, whether racing a bootlegging car across a frozen lake at night, barricaded behind Greek cafe doors during the race riots, smokestacks and car factories, or in the woods of the Upper Peninsula, Middlesex delivered on showing Michigan.

Now the Detroit River sped past and the city loomed. Lefty stared out at the motor cars parked like giant beetles at the curbsides. Smokestacks rose everywhere, cannons bombarding the atmosphere. There were red brick stacks and tall silver ones, stacks in regimental rows or all alone puffing meditatively away, a forest of smokestacks that dimmed the sunlight and then, all of a sudden, blocked it out completely.

The Autobiography of Malcom X book cover Book: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Authors: Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Setting: 1950s-1960s Detroit and Harlem
Categories: Biography

“Detroit Red” was the Michigan-born Harlem hustler Malcolm Little who, after years of thought and avid reading during his prison sentence, reformed, cleaned himself up, and became a follower of Elijah Muhammad and a minister of the Nation of Islam. When he was released from prison, he replaced his surname with the letter X to indicate he didn’t know his true African name. He rejected the surname associated with the white slave owners of his ancestors, and went by the name Malcolm X for the remainder of his life.

Malcolm X named himself the angriest black man in America. He spoke bald, uncomfortable truths about the black man’s plight and the real circumstances of ghettos and why they exist. He spoke of beatings, and prejudices, and keeping blacks in menial service roles and certain parts of town, and of the suspicion a black person suffers anytime they’re not in the right role or the right part of town. He advocated for blacks to protect themselves against the violence — the beatings, lynchings, lashings — of white men, and was called violent for that.

His story is a potent, fearless telling of the what the African-American people have suffered the past 400 years, and how utterly ridiculous and insensitive it is for a privileged white person to say, “They just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, those lazy, good-for-nothings living off the system.” The white man has no idea what it’s like to navigate the American landscape — finding a job, getting an education at a good school, living in a decent neighborhood, or even just walking down the street — in black skin.

This is an important book. However, as a woman, it enraged me to see Malcolm X treat women the same way he complained of the white man treating blacks: beating them, forbidding education, thinking he knows what’s best for them, keeping them in “their place.” And he didn’t even see it. How will we ever progress with this kind of blindness?

Winter Study book cover by Nevada Barr Book: Winter Study
Author: Nevada Barr, worked as a Park Ranger on Isle Royale in Michigan
Setting: winter on Isle Royale, an island National Park in Lake Superior
Categories: Mystery

I did not keep notes on this book, but I remember it had everything I wanted by the time I had gotten through the heft of the previous two Michigan books. It gave me Michigan winter on frozen Lake Superior, in a closed-for-the-winter National Park where the only inhabitants have conflicts of interest regarding the wolf population on the island. I didn’t have to think, I just got to sit back and ride the words.

I’m finding again and again that it is the mysteries that have the best sense of place, and Winter Study was no exception. If you want a good page turner to curl up by the fire with, and you want snow, ice, wolves, science mixing with politics and ego, and a murder on an isolated island that is cut off from the rest of the world during winter, then this is a book for you.

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.

Guest post: Remembering Zelda

Map: Michigan, setting of “Remembering Zelda” by Carol Sanford

This is a guest post from Carol Sanford who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Michigan. Enjoy!

“Her? She was very strange. Down right weird.”

That’s what one of our classmates recently said about Zelda as a child. He thought of her as withdrawn, even implied mental illness. For seven years he and others who lived south on Shepherd Road had walked with Zelda to and from our country school, a mile each way. That’s a lot of time spent. My house was a mile east of school on Nine Mile Road, and I only knew Zelda during school hours. She was an Indian, which meant we lived separate lives. My parents didn’t think much of several local Indians—nobody said Native American then–and that somehow carried over to all Indians. That I liked her so much was my secret.

How could Zelda be weird without me knowing it?

Smart and nice, that’s how I remember her. A girl not much different from me. My main memory of her, in fact now that I think of it, my only solid memory of her, is how we sat with our desks pushed together in order to color world outline maps. We were good students being rewarded for finishing an assignment early. I know for certain she enjoyed as much as I did swishing the tips of sharpened pastel colored pencils back and forth to make England, Europe, Russia and Africa—all in different colors—beautiful. It seemed that life could take us to one of those places someday. I don’t mean together.

Zelda wasn’t considered beautiful. If I squeeze my eyes half shut, she’s wearing a spotless white short-sleeved blouse and a dark blue skirt. She’s slim and broad-shouldered. Her dark brown face is set with high cheek bones, wide nose, small eyes. Her raven hair is braided, like mine, but long. She walks quietly.

It’s cliché to say memory is slippery. It is slippery. For many years now, without giving a thought to conversations Zelda and I may have had, I assumed we talked. Did we? It’s not likely one of us said, “What did you do Saturday?” or “Do you still play with dolls?” We may have said, “Let’s make South America light blue.” But I can’t recall a single word. And I don’t remember playing with her at recess. How I hope I did!

Thirty years ago I wrote a poem about sitting with Zelda to color world outline maps. Last year I wrote an essay about our country school, which for lack of use has deteriorated like a dead body and ought to be razed. Zelda is in the essay. When I write about her, she shines for me. I want her to go on shining. It seems impossible that she wasn’t who I thought she was when we were young. Were we friends or acquaintances?

Zelda died up north when she was in her forties, and someone told me she had married, divorced and was an alcoholic. I heard all this years later. My grief mixed with guilt. When consolidation swept like a plague over country schools in Michigan, she and I were sent as eighth graders to the same school in town, but soon lost track of each other. That’s how I used to think of it: We lost track. Actually I thrilled to the bigger school setting and the opportunities it offered me, and hardly gave Zelda a thought. Her picture is in our senior yearbook so maybe she graduated, but I think she probably dropped out. The classmates I’ve talked to aren’t sure.

I’m the one who ought to know.

Carol Sanford lives in the village of Sanford, Michigan, where she writes nonfiction, short stories and poetry and teaches memoir workshops. On line her work can be found at Ragazine, The Zodiac Review, and Newversenews.

Guest post: Mighty Misgivings

This is a guest post from Bill Milligan who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is the iconic Mackinac Bridge in Michigan. “Mighty Misgivings” first appeared in Traverse Magazine.

Whenever our family piled into our Buick and headed for the Upper Peninsula back in the 70s, I spent a considerable amount of time examining the plastic floor mats of the car— at least during the five or so minutes it took to scoot across the Mackinac Bridge. Not because I was afraid, but because that was the time I always chose to look for lost coins and gum wrappers under the seat.

Crossing the Straits was a rather intense experience for me no matter how much fudge I gulped for courage. It still is.

Our Michigan-Michigan border defines stark beauty: An expanse of cold, fresh water decisively breached by tons of concrete, steel, cable. On the southern shore you’re in the Lower Peninsula. On the northern shore you’re in the Upper Peninsula. There is no casual crossing of an imaginary line dissecting bean fields or a wooded hill sloping gently down into a town “just across the border.” The act is deliberate: no one accidentally stumbles into the Upper Peninsula or casually retreats back into the lower half.

Nowadays I can’t look at the floorboards because I’m usually driving when I cross the Bridge with my own family. My wife Kim, the passenger side passenger, wouldn’t be happy if I suddenly curled into a fetal position while pushing the gas pedal of our car. She believes that good driving involves watching the road, not rooting under the seat for coins and candy.

So I watch. Straight ahead. Hands at 10 and 2, knuckles white, back straight, the looming towers of the Mighty Mac centered in my steering wheel like giant bucks in the gun site of a scrawny kid in the advanced throes of buck fever.

I admit that ominous image can be a bit hard for a rational person to conjure up, especially on placid days splashed in blues, the ferries cutting white lines through the water and kids riding shotgun in RVs pointing excitedly at the boats “way down there.”

And it seems downright silly for me to braid my innards over this irrational trepidation, given that moms and children and grandmothers walk across the bridge every Labor Day. On purpose. But if you’re like me, and you know who you are, feeling a slight sense of tummy-tingling dread when crossing the Mighty Mac is normal.

That feeling has always lingered in me, a resilient bug not squashed by repetition or maturity. The quaint fudge shops, pastie outlets, and ferry docks that pin-prick the natural beauty of the Straits have a soothing effect of reassuring me that we are supposed to be there. And occasionally, if needed, engage in a bridge crossing.

Makes perfect sense. Humans made the fudge; humans made the bridge. It’s funny how fear gets my mind working in binary simplicities like that when faced with the reality that in order to get from here to there I have to hurl myself over the turbulent waters of the Mackinac Straits for several miles.

There have been moments on the Bridge when I wished to be on a ship flying a French flag over 250 years ago, even if that meant British cannons firing live rounds in my direction and having to wear chap-inducing pants. Of course, that wish only ever lasts a few minutes. It evaporates right about the time the toll booth attendant smiles and says “$2.50, please.”

At that point, through relief and self-chastisement, I’ll have a quick inner conversation with myself that pooh-poohs my thirty years of bridge-crossing uneasiness: silly me. What was I thinking? It is an inner conversation born of sincerity, an epiphany as well as a ritualistic revelation.

If I’m lucky, I might even possess, along with my new-found-but-never-staying courage, the exact token fare—no doubt the result of rooting under the seat for quarters on the trip over.

Bill Milligan teaches writing, literature, and communications at Bay College in Escanaba. You can email him at milligab@baycollege.edu.