Whether you prefer a Michigan-inspired tale of fiction or the gritty details of a real-life historical event, here’s a list of timely Michigan literature to keep you occupied all winter long.
MICHIGAN—While Ernest Hemingway may have been first to put Michigan on the literary map, his “Nick Adams” stories aren’t the only tales set in the Mitten.
Black Bottom Saints
By Alice Randall
In the 1930s and 1940s, more than a hundred thousand African Americans called Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood home. The neighborhood was an epicenter of Black culture and music, but it was also fraught with poverty. The city demolished it in the early 1960s as part of an urban renewal project to make way for the construction of I-375.
Black Bottom Saints blends history and fiction to tell the fictional autobiography of real-life Detroit legend Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson. Ziggy Johnson was a journalist, nightclub emcee, and founder of the Ziggy Johnson School of Theater. In Randall’s novel, Ziggy Johnson is writing his memoirs while dying in a hospital. He uses each chapter to talk about a “saint” he knew in the community, and to tell their story.
The novel is a reimagining, but Alice Randall spent seven years researching before writing the book. She also grew up in Detroit and was a student of the Ziggy Johnson School of Theater. Though she currently lives in Nashville, “Black Bottom Saints” is Randall’s vision of her childhood home of Detroit.
Buy “Black Bottom Saints” online through McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, or at your favorite bookstore.
By Angeline Boulley
In her debut novel that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, Angeline Boulley weaves a tale of suspense involving a mixed race Indigenous protagonist, and is for both adult and YA readers. Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has struggles with her identity and fitting in, but her life is turned upside down when she witnesses the murder of a friend. Daunis finds herself in the middle of an FBI investigation of a new drug. She must use her combined knowledge of both chemistry and Ojibwe traditional medicine to unravel the mystery.
Author Angeline Boulley is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and a graduate of Central Michigan University. Soon, you can see this Michigander’s work on your Netflix startup screen—the television rights to “Firekeeper’s Daughter” were recently purchased by Higher Ground, a production company owned by Barack and Michelle Obama, and a Netflix series is in the works.
Buy “Firekeeper’s Daughter” online through Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, or at your favorite bookstore.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter: My 36 Years in the Senate
By Carl Levin
From 1979 to 2015, the late US Senator Carl Levin made history as the longest-serving senator in Michigan history. In this autobiography, Levin chronicles his political career from his early years in Detroit and time spent on the Detroit City Council. Stories told in the book’s 17 chapters include Levin’s anger at unfair housing practices in Detroit and how it inspired him to make the government work better. Within the memoir, Levin models political integrity and endeavors to convince readers to consider the responsibility of elected officials.
Buy “Getting to the Heart of the Matter” online through the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, or at your favorite bookstore.
Standpipe: Delivering Water in Flint
By David Hardin
When the Flint Water Crisis occurred in 2014, the Michigan town of Flint was thrust into the national spotlight. With it came assumptions about Flint, as Americans responded emotionally to the emerging crisis. As the response to government decisions became more intense, the human element of the crisis started to become lost. Michigan author David Hardin seeks to address this directly through “Standpipe.” Combining elements of a memoir and an essay collection, “Standpipe” is based on David Hardin’s personal journey as a Red Cross volunteer delivering emergency water. A set of vignettes documents the collective grief of a community and the efforts to heal.
Buy “Standpipe” online through Fenton’s Open Book in Fenton, or at your favorite bookstore.
The Mason House
By T. Marie Bertineau
Michiganders know living in the Upper Peninsula is definitely an experience all its own. Even more so when you are a woman of Indigenous descent processing your grief. In this memoir, T. Marie Bertineau recalls her grandmother’s home in the Keweenaw Peninsula, the place she always felt safe throughout her unstable childhood. After her grandmother’s death, Bertineau wrestles with the grief of losing her loved ones while also recounting family dysfunction and poverty in her childhood. The memoir is an emotional journey that weaves the love of a community in a series of complex feelings and memories.
Buy “The Mason House” online through Snowbound Books in Marquette, or at your favorite bookstore.
By John Wemlinger
Michigan author John Wemlinger evokes the romance of Romeo and Juliet with a Michigan twist in “The Cut.” Alvin and Lydia are star-crossed Northern Michigan lovers in the summer of 1870, kept apart by the machinations of Michigan’s lumber industry. When a sawmill’s dam floods acreage of farmland, Alvin and his fellow farmers become at odds with the lumber industry, for which Lydia’s father is an engineer. Alvin and Lydia’s love must survive the tumultuous environmental and historical changes of the era.
Buy “The Cut” online through Horizon Books in Traverse City, or at your favorite bookstore.
The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch
By Miles Harvey
“The King of Confidence” tells a true historical Michigan tale relatively unknown even to Michiganders. For six years in the nineteenth century, James Jesse Strang was the self-proclaimed “king” of Beaver Island, an island within Michigan’s territory and situated in Lake Michigan. According to author Miles Harvey, Strang was an all-American con man. The historical figure appointed himself leader of the Mormon Church following the assassination of former church leader Joseph Smith. Thus, Beaver Island became the headquarters for the Mormon religion for a short time. “The King of Confidence” chronicles Strang’s duplicitous rise and eventual downfall as a religious cult leader. As readers have noticed, though the tale takes place over 150 years ago, the story itself is eerily modern.
Buy “The King of Confidence” online through The Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague, or at your favorite bookstore.
Day of Days
By John Smolens
One small community in Michigan holds the dark heritage of being the site of America’s deadliest school massacre. The 1927 Bath School Massacre claimed a total of 45 lives when school board treasurer Andrew Kehoe detonated explosives at Bath Consolidated School.
In “Day of Days,” Northern Michigan University professor and author John Smolens grapples with this troublesome piece of Michigan history through the eyes of protagonist and survivor Beatrice Marie Turcott. The fictional protagonist weaves a dark coming-of-age tale with the tragic Bath School Massacre.
Buy “Day of Days” online through Schuler Books in Okemos, Grand Rapids, and West Bloomfield or at your favorite bookstore.
You’re in the Wrong Place
By Joseph Harris
In art and culture, a Detroit setting often serves as a powerful thematic backdrop of contemporary American life. In “You’re in the Wrong Place,” twelve interconnected stories weave the emotional setting of Detroit suburbia through the journeys of several protagonists as they navigate new environs and new problems. These characters are all united as former employees of fictional industrial shop Dynamic Fabricating in Ferndale. The characters struggle to find purpose and money while simultaneously attempting to transcend beyond a place they cannot escape. Although Michigander Joseph Harris paints an emotionally evocative portrait of the Detroit metro, it is still a love letter to the city.
Buy “You’re in the Wrong Place” online through The Book Beat in Oak Park, or at your favorite bookstore.
The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, a Family, and the Land that Healed Them
By Dean Kuipers
Anyone who’s been to Michigan’s “up north” can likely attest to the healing power of nature. Dean Kuipers—a journalist and author known for his environmental writing—leans into that theme in this memoir, which is devoted to a peculiar time of his life spent at a hunting property with his father.
Kuipers’ distant father attempts to reunite his family through buying the land near Ludington. Against all odds, Kuipers and his brothers restore the old farm property. And in the process, they learn just how healing the land can be.
Buy “The Deer Camp” online through Grandpa’s Barn in Copper Harbor, or at your favorite bookstore.
RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music
Edited by Jim Daniels and M.L. Liebler
You’ve never seen a poetry book like this before. RESPECT is an anthology that celebrates Detroit’s music history with a collection of poems and lyrics across artists and genres. Modern lyrics from creative Michigander minds like Eminem and Jack White are juxtaposed alongside deep cut poetry from Rita Dove and Nikki Giovanni. With jazz, rap, classic rock, techno, and working class poetry all represented in one anthology, RESPECT shows the diverse creative history of Detroit.
The anthology’s two co-editors are both Michigander professors, with one currently teaching at Alma College and the other teaching at Wayne State University.
Buy “RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music” online through Pages Bookshop in Detroit, or at your favorite bookstore.
Private Love, Public School: Gay Teacher Under Fire
By Christine A. Yared
Gerry Crane’s story is important not just for Michigan history, but for LGBTQ+ history across the board. Christine A. Yared’s “Private Love, Public School” tells the tragic, cautionary, and true story of this music teacher at the Grand Rapids-area Byron Center High School. After marrying his husband, Gerry returned to work the next day to find himself ostracized by parents, colleagues, and the school board for his sexuality. What happened next was a frenzy of religious opinions influencing social and academic views of LGBTQ+ people. Yared provides a cogent argument and food for thought regarding the division of private lives within education.
Buy “Private Love, Public School” online through Books & Mortar in Grand Rapids, or at your favorite bookstore.
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