Tuesday 28 May 2013

Book Reviewsday Tuesday: The Living Great Lakes

          "Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
in the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams;
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her..."
               -Gordon Lightfoot

          The Great Lakes are, collectively,  trillions of gallons of freshwater awesome.  Superlatives are the descriptive standard-  biggest, longest, deepest, largest, best, most.  
    These Lakes of ours are epic. 

     Some in-your-face Lakes trivia:

    The coastline length  of the Lakes exceeds the lengths of the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines of the United States.  Combined.

    The surface area of the Lakes exceeds the states of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.  Combined.

    The Lakes encompass two countries and  straddle two time zones.

     The Great Lakes contain 5% of the standing fresh water on the entire planet.

     Individually,  the five lakes bear little resemblance, one to another, and if it wasn't for the tie of shared waterflow, one would be hard pressed to create any sort of logical connection.
         Without shared water, what possible commonality could  deep cold Superior and shallow, warm Erie share, being  separated by hundreds of miles and five degrees of latitude?

       This vast scope and individuality are what make a narrative condensation of the Lakes such a daunting task, and why it runs the risk of resulting in a tome written in the spirit of the Jain/Buddhist/Hindu parable of the blind men seeing an elephant:
     The small picture is captured while the whole is discarded, the scale lost, distorted or just plain ignored.

      Which may be why few writers have attempted the task.  It is Micheneresque in scale,  and Michener has sailed across the bar.

       Jerry Dennis took on the challenge.

      And conquered it.

       The result, The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas , is a solid success that sets the standard.

                                                            -cover image courtesy of  McMillan Publishing


          Five Lakes, each with her own unique geology, ecology, politics, geography, history, climate, sociology, economy and hydrology.

         Enough for five hefty textbooks that nobody would want to read.

        How the hell does a writer capture each Lake, and further capture the Lakes as a whole?

         Dennis went sailing, and this narrative device transforms what could have been a dry academic compendium of facts into a compelling and enjoyable read.

          The author signed on as crew on the delivery of the Malabar, a ferro-cement sightseeing schooner being relocated from Lake Michigan to Maine.  This journey allows us to see the Lakes through the author's eyes, and each port of call and waypoint is the prompt for an anecdote, a history lesson, a flashback to an event in the author's past, or an interview with a local character, like Long Point's  now-deceased beach comber/historian Dave Stone.

       Jerry Dennis grew up on the Lakes, lives on the Lakes, has sailed and fished and swum and dived and camped and canoed on the Lakes, and his love and his background shows.  He gets it.

      He gets that the only way to tell the tale of the Lakes  is to travel them, and let the tale tell itself. Set the scene, weave in the facts and the statistics that fill in the background of the Lake at hand, and then get out of the way.

    We hear from the Malabar's  delivery skipper, on his first extended trip through the "sweetwater seas."  We are introduced to sailors racing from Chicago to Mackinac.We go canoeing with outfitters on Superior's north shore.  We meet the engineer on a lake freighter, dreaming of the day he can retire and sail off on a sailboat of his own.

     Through them, we get to know each Lake- where they have been in the past, where they are today, how they got here and what the future may hold.

      There's the rare editorial glitch, like the repeated misspelling of Port Colborne, but the errors are minor and easily forgiven,  in light of the overall high quality of the storytelling.

      The research for last week's post prompted me to re-read "The Living Great Lakes."  Originally published in 2004, it is still relevant, and still a great read.

     If you live on the Lakes, this is an enjoyably thorough, knowledgeable overview of the lakes we call home.

     If you don't live on the Lakes, "The Living Great Lakes" may make you wish you do.

     Pick up a copy to read aboard this summer.

"Talk the Dock!"



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