Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Michigan Book Review: 'The Lake, the River, and the Other Lake'

I hold no special love for northern Michigan. Unlike many Metro Detroiters, my family didn't summer in a quaintly rustic cottage on a too-clear inland lake, where we could become seasonal regulars at the local ice cream parlor or roam the untouched woods or baste our roasting hides with lake water in between bouts on the water-skis. For people who did, their cottage Up North is the home-that's-better-than-home: the warmth without the heat, the road without the morning commute, the memories, often, without the baggage. Up North is the dream of what life could be. I can imagine the ache people experience for such places, though I do not specifically know it myself.

It is this ache for the essence of fictional Weneshkeen and towns like it that draws together the stories in Steve Amick's "The Lake, the River, and the Other Lake." Mercifully, none of the characters seek soft-focused nostalgia in Weneshkeen, though it would have been easy to explore that route in a book about a summery Michigan town. No, the tales here are sharp and complex, and the characters are surprising.

One story follows Hubert vonBushberger, a cherry patriarch, as he reconciles his growing family--namely his son's new wife who used to be a migrant worker in his orchard--with a livelihood based on generations of tradition. (While it earns its emotions, this was actually the least realistic plot: the old guy, unimaginably, comes around whole-heartedly. I maintain he would have stewed in racist/classist/angry resentment until he died. Such cheery optimism is the exception, though, rather than the rule in this book.)

In the most humorous story, the crotchety Ojibwe/Vietnam vet Roger Drinkwater heroically battles, vandalizes, and generally tortures the jet skis and the people who drive them, for their sins against the serenity of Lake Weneshkeen (the "Other Lake") and Roger's morning swim. Roger's plight has all of the grandeur and comedy of Don Q, plus explosions.

There's a gruesome summertime fling between a sulky Oakland County boy and a troubled Chicago socialite; a no-nonsense deputy sheriff who aspires to write for David Letterman; a failing young businessman who has built an ostentatious getaway mansion that he can no longer afford; a girl from downstate who's spending the summer remembering how to love her immature dad. The most unexpected character evolves from Eugene Reecher, an older, intelligent reverend who recently lost his wife. He learns to use the Internet, and the life he had always known quickly unravels. Eugene's struggle is personal, dark, and beautiful--not the kind of thing you expect to confront in what might have been a beach read.

I read this book aloud to BCB while we were visiting the quiet of his own Up North, a cottage on Bois Blanc Island, over his birthday weekend. (My voice cracked a few times during Eugene's stories, and BCB had to take over.) It's not an airy book, and it will not weave seamlessly into sandy, sunny days of summertime leisure. But I can think of no better place to read "The Lake, the River, and the Other Lake" than at someone's home-that's-better-than-home in northern Michigan.


  1. The Michigan Beer & Book Club is discussing reading this for February. http://www.meetup.com/Michigan-Beer-Book-Club/events/91745272/

  2. Contrarian View: I read it when I worked at RH (we published it) and remember being bored and disappointed. I thought it was sentimental.

  3. Maybe you just hate the finer things in life, G$.

  4. Erika, I truly love reading your writing. Please post it more often! <3