sign up to get the latest updates from Barbara Stark-Nemon
  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

A Sense of Place in Michigan


A reader of my novel, Hard Cider, commented in a review that I had “deftly crafted descriptions that span all seasons as they move across the Great Lakes and lush forests and quaint towns of northwestern Michigan... providing an exquisite sense of place.” Comments such as this one, and the Foreword Reviews quote that “The novel soars with passages about upper Michigan’s unique beauty,” have provided some of the most rewarding moments of this book’s year-long life. I love the corner of the world where Hard Cider is set, and am grateful that I managed to transmit some of its magic in my novel.

I am often asked, and think myself, about other books that prompt in me the sense that the author provides a “masterful description of living on Lake Michigan,” or can evoke “the lyrical beauty of northern Michigan.” What other authors, and which other books make me feel that “The author does an excellent job of putting us right in the scene… readers will feel the crispness of the air, feel the crunch of the snow under their feet?”

So below is a short, undoubtedly incomplete list of books that struck me, as a reader and lover of the magic of Great Lakes country, with apt portrayals of that environment and the life associated with it. Check these out, with my hopes that you will enjoy them as I have...

South of Superior- Ellen Airgood. This book touched me because it hews to themes of tight-knit communities, and the importance of bonds, all set in the beauty of Michigan’s upper peninsula. I spent two summers working on the shores of Lake Superior and Airgood nails the beauty and the fierceness of the connections in small communities.

True North, Jim Harrison- I would advise anyone to read everything Jim Harrison has ever written, but in True North, the logging of Michigan’s upper peninsula is scrutinized in the context of a complicated family legacy. Harrison was a native of Michigan and writes of it with deep soul.

The Belle of Two Arbors- Paul Dimond’s engaging novel is set in Glen Arbor and Ann Arbor, Michigan- a similar split as occurs in Hard Cider. Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, this story is told from Belle’s perspective as poet, protectress, matriarch and muse. Fans of Robert Frost, Ted Roethke ,WH Auden and Emily Dickinson are in for a treat: Dimond skillfully weaves fictional characters into the well-researched histories of these poets in Michigan. Belle advocates to break barriers toward a more inclusive University in Ann Arbor, but she is always drawn north to her roots in Glenn Arbor, tending the family business and promoting the preservation of America’s premier National Lakeshore at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Bootstrapper From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm-Mardi Jo Link

This memoir about motherhood, survival and self-discovery takes place on a northern Michigan Farm and is told with humor and poignancy. It shares many themes with Hard Cider, not least of which is the fierce love of the land and the area. I still want to meet this author!

The Orphan Daughter- Cari Noga. This novel takes place right next door to the Leelanau Peninsula, and the descriptions of the orchards, the seasonal changes, and life on the land spoke to me, along with the theme of redefining family when shocking changes confront us.

Across the Great Lake-, Lee Zacharias. This novel reads like a powerful memoir imbued with exceptional literary art. Told alternately from the points of view of 5-year old Fern Halverson and the 85-year-old woman she will become, this story centers on a 1930s harsh winter journey across Lake Michigan on a railroad ferry captained by Fern’s father. During the passage Fern’s mother dies, a ghost ship is cited, and the ferry survives a horrendous winter storm. Fern’s adventurous, nonconformist character is cemented, even as she faces unbearable loss with a 5-year old’s mix of pathos and limited understanding. To share Zacharias’ love of this particular lakeshore only adds to the pure pleasure of this novel!

Season of Water and Ice - Donald Lystra. This spare, beautifully written novel also has themes of children surviving less-than-ideal circumstances, and a wonderful sense of place in western Michigan and I was deeply moved by the book.

Once Upon a River- Bonnie Jo Campbell- Set in western Michigan, this searing novel about a 15-year old’s loner life on a river is mostly about her perilous movement through experiences of survival, violence, fear, and conflict with those she meets along the way. Yet the river, almost a character itself, comes to life with Campbell’s descriptions. A staggering, deeply touching coming of age story.

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts- Caitlin Hamilton Summie. This finely wrought, intricately connected collection of ten stories illuminates the delicate, fraught paths to rest for the human spirit that we all must face. As a lifelong upper Midwesterner, who loves every last moment of long dark icy winters, big lake water, quiet towns and quieter forest, I met and fell in love with fellow travelers in Summie’s characters with this region (Wisconsin and Minnesota) and climate in their DNA. Wisdom brings the knowledge that loss and grief and ghosts are not always dead ends.

The Women of the Copper Country- Mary Doria Russel- This historical novel tells the story of Annie Clements, who led the 1913 rebellion against the copper mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s still on my TBR pile but I look forward to it as Russel is a favorite author (Doc and A Thread of Grace)….

What are your favorite Great Lakes books?