Arts/Culture
1:52 pm
Mon October 3, 2011

My part of the country: Michigan on the Page

Well, summer's over.

Over the course of the last six months, Michigan on the Page has talked with a number of Michigan writers about who, what, why, and most importantly where they write about.

And we heard from writers who work in Southeast Michigan (Christopher T. Leland) and writers who live in Western Michigan (Patricia Clark, Marc Sheehan).

Today, we hear from novelist and short story writer Phillip Sterling about a novel about Michigan which is important to him, one that takes place in Northern Michigan, in Leelanau County.

The book that comes to mind when I think of an iconic Michigan novel is What I’m Going To Do, I Think by Larry Woiwode.

I first read the book when I was in graduate school, about the same age as the novel’s protagonist, Chris (who is a graduate student) and entering into a relationship that would end my first marriage.

Again, not unlike the novel. 

Add to that the fact that Woiwode places the story at a summer cottage not unlike the ones I summered at, in what is clearly Leelanau County (my teenage stomping grounds) described in precise and sensuous detail, and one can imagine the significance of that story to a burgeoning writer from Traverse City.

Up until then--the early 1970s--it never occurred to me that the denizens of literary taste (or achievement) would be interested in a book that took place in my part of the country.  And yet, parts of Woiwode’s book had first appeared in The New Yorker.

While I had studied regionalism in my American Literature courses in college, much of it had centered on the South (Faulkner), the Southwest (Steinbeck), the Transcendentalists of New England, the New York School, or San Francisco.

The literary Midwest was less clearly defined. Often it was located in or around Chicago (Bellow) or the wind-swept, hardscrabble farming communities of Ohio, Indiana, or Iowa.

As a result, Woiwode’s novel inspired me.  Not only did I think (at the time) that I was capable of rendering the unique, geographical nature of Northwest Lower Peninsula with as much lyrical beauty as Woiwode; I was also thinking that I could do it better, inasmuch as I was native to the area while Woiwode was only a tourist (splitting his time between New York and North Dakota).

I also felt that some of the character descriptions were ingenuous, even bordering on the stereotypical.  Which, in some odd way, makes me think of it as distinctly Michigan

Michigan is geographically unique.  A quick look at even the clumsiest map of North America reveals the state’s unusual topography, it’s shape defined by shores.  What I’m Going To Do, I Think is a novel of shores, both literal and figurative.  Chris and Ellen are spending their honeymoon at Ellen’s family’s summer home, since the newlyweds can’t afford to do anything else. 

The property sits on a bluff that overlooks an isolated stretch of Lake Michigan beach; it’s on the edge.  In one direction is water as far as you can see; in the other direction is (somewhat) wild forest--woods to become lost in, creatures to confront--and then, farther inland, the hardscrabble farms of man’s attempt to tame both land and weather.  It is a place of terrible beauty, and it is in his confrontation of such shores or edges that Chris comes to terms with himself.

Throughout the novel, Chris is on edge as well, between elements:  not only between land and water, but between certainty and introspection, between the wilderness of being single and the settlement of marriage, between the independence of youth and the responsibilities of adulthood, between, even, sexual pleasure and devotional love. 

The weeks they spend at the house is a time of transition for Chris and Ellen, a honeymoon in more ways that one.  They entered into the marriage as the result of an unexpected pregnancy, and there are significant unknowns.  There are consequences.  Their marriage is a castle in the sand. 

Will it be nothing more than a summer romance?

In What I’m Going To Do, I Think, Chris’s interactions with these shores--physical, geographical, psychological, emotional--at times as a way to try and understand what he is feeling--an intentional exploration--at times a method of damage control--speak to me in familiar and frightening ways.

Even some of the minor incidents that take place in the novel, as when Chris’s wedding band slips off and is lost in Lake Michigan, I continue to find eerily similar to my own experience.  Even forty years later.

Phillip Sterling is the author of In Which Brief Stories Are Told and four collections of poetry.

He is a founding coordinator of the Literature In Person (LIP) Reading Series at Ferris State University, where he has taught for many years.

-Brian Short