Author Jerry Dennis
Knowledge of the Lakes
by Keith Taylor
Jerry Dennis is an essayist with a clear and direct style who writes as engagingly as anyone about the northern Michigan landscape. Canoeing Michigan Rivers, which Dennis wrote with Craig Date, has been the best guide to our rivers for a couple of decades now. I have always taken it with me when I head north, just in case I have a day or two to follow one of the streams they write about. I've even used their description of the Huron River to follow it all the way from Milford to Lake Erie.
I enjoy Dennis, as a writer, on several levels. He writes about places I'm interested in, with an intimate knowledge of their history, geology, and biology, and of the people who lived in them. The personal essays that appeared a couple of years ago in the coffee-table book Leelanau: A Portrait of Place in Photographs and Text showed that his knowledge was not only intimate but also passionate.
So I was very excited when I heard about Dennis's new book, The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas. For quite a while, I have wanted a book that brought the human and natural history of this region together in an accessible way. As I suspected he would, Dennis succeeds wonderfully.
Early on, he says that his problem writing the book was the water itself, and how it shaped everything in the Great Lakes region: "I wanted to take hold of the immediate world, see it independent of the names we give it, then give it name. But I couldn't grasp it." He organizes his thoughts and his book by going out on the water on boat crews - on a racing sailboat, in a canoe for a voyageur reenactment, and finally on a restored schooner. The time on the water, moving down the Lakes, all the way to the Erie Canal and the Atlantic Ocean, becomes the narrative
line from which Dennis hangs extraordinary amounts of information about the history of the region and its natural phenomena, politics, and environmental successes and challenges, and a lifetime of personal recollections.
One unforgettable memory is of the young Jerry Dennis watching two fishermen whose boat capsized in a Lake Michigan storm only 100 feet off the beach at Empire. Although the whole town tried to save them, they couldn't. The boy "made eye contact with one of them. He was heavy and gray, the age of my grandfather. He could have been our insurance man or the guy who delivered our bottled gas. He seemed apologetic. I kept expecting him to smile at me and shrug."
Jerry Dennis reads from The Living Great Lakes at Nicola's Books on Monday, May 19.
[Originally published in May, 2003.]