Michigan's lions and tigers and bears
by Sally Mitani
From the September, 2011 issue
v Keith Taylor usually reviews books here, but he also writes them, mostly poetry and short fiction. He and fellow poet and fiction writer Laura Kasischke gathered together some Michigan writers and asked each to contribute a ghost story. The result is Ghost Writers (Wayne State University Press). Subtitled Contemporary Michigan Literature, it's part of a Michigan-focused series, which makes it less likely that this dazzling collection will show up on the New York Times bestseller list, but it sure makes it all the more tantalizing to us locals.
Editors Taylor and Kasischke explain in their preface that they believe a good ghost story always revolves around a place, but the place can be a park or a field or a house, not necessarily a recognizable Michigan landscape. So while all of these stories are set in Michigan, some are more securely so than others. Some are out of the Twilight Zone; some interpret "ghost" more loosely. Most are fiction, but a few are taken from life. All are beautifully written. As poets, the editors are clearly suckers for musical language and nicely ordered words.
Kasischke doesn't mention a place at all in her "Ghost Anecdote," though if she needed one to go with the dope smoking and the Christians, she nicely describes my hometown, Kalamazoo, in the 1970s. You can tell Kasischke is a poet. Only a poet could so finely distill a Christian teen meeting into: "There were some Bible verses, and a lot more hugging, the smell of cookies getting overcooked on an aluminum pan, and then the music."
A few other standouts do capture an indelible geographical essence, including Taylor's own "The Man at the Edge," a story addressing race and mostly set in Detroit. The race it addresses isn't blackness but whiteness--especially in a startling scene, set in the DIA, that addresses whiteness, not in relief against blackness, but through the contemplation of a Brueghel painting. A tough, sinewy tale of hard work and
hard marriage ("Bitchathane," by Ann-Marie Oomen) deserves a permanent spot in the UP canon. In "Bones on Bois Blanc," Laura Hulthen Thomas tells a wonderfully classic ghost story, with plenty of spooky multigenerational family dysfunction, but she also hilariously evokes the trapped feeling of going insane in a marriage, with a husband who begins nearly every sentence with the teeth-knashingly predictable, "Looking at it rationally ..."
But the "Only in Michigan" prize goes to Steve Amick's "Not Even Lions and Tigers," a work of brilliant historical fiction. A bizarre corner of local history inspired this story, and it's so weird that it's incomprehensible without some external factual orientation. I read it with one hand on the book and the other on the Wikipedia entry for Harry Bennett, a real-life creep show I had never heard of.
Amick and several other contributors to Ghost Stories read from their stories at the U-M Residential College on September 29.
[Originally published in September, 2011.]
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