Wednesday, March 2, 2011

'A grain of Great Lakes sand'

My favorite debate rages on at Michigan Radio and Mittenlit: which books rule the Michigan literary world? I could sooner choose a favorite star in the heavens. I love these articles because each one reveals at least one Michigan author I hadn't heard of before.

At some point during my reading career, my focus shifted from exploration of the unknown--Steinbeck's California, Brontë's England, Coetzee's South Africa, Kundera's Prague, Tolstoy's Russia--to investigation of the familiar. I got my first taste of knowing doubly the thing I was reading when, in middle school, I was swallowed whole by The Virgin Suicides, a novel set in my hometown. I'm sure this story of innocence and innocence lost resonates with many an adolescent girl, but there was something especially arresting about a world that mirrored mine not only in mind but also in matter. I read a passage about kids fooling around in the Village, a local shopping district, as I was walking through the Village on the way to my friend's house. My hands were so cold that day, but if I wore mittens I couldn't turn the pages, so I cradled the book in one arm while warming the other hand's fingers in my pocket, and then switched. It was gray and wet from rain, and I nearly dropped the book in a puddle when my eyes passed over "The Village" in print. My home leapt off and back on the page, hop-scotching between the local and the universal, and the effect was jarring.

Michigan poet Marc Sheehan characterizes the value of the local story in this way:
Most of the writers I am drawn to are grounded in a particular place and make that place universal. Michigan writers as different as the poet Theodore Roethke and novelist/poet/nonfiction writer Jim Harrison have done that.

Day-to-day the challenge is, paraphrasing William Blake, to see the world in a grain of Great Lakes sand.

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