John Smolens, a Marquette, Michigan writer, has written three novels set in the UP. The first, Cold, was about an escaped convict and his latest, Wolf’s Mouth, has to do with an Italian prisoner who escapes from a POW camp in Au Train, near Munising. Prisoners of war numbered 400,000 in camps across the U.S., and more than one camp existed in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. This well-written novel offers fascinating information about the camps and especially how they were run, but is also a thriller with insights into human nature.
The human nature insights start with Smolens’s first person narration through the successful creation of a young Italian officer’s view of America and the camp. His name Francesco Guiseppe Verdi comes from being a distant relative of the famous opera composer, though he has no musical talent himself. Au Train camp, unlike other camps doing farm labor, produced lumber, the prisoners: “driven by hunger, thirst, physical exertion, weariness. Time moved forward but remained stationary . . . .”
The camp prisoners are naïve about America. Frank, as he comes to call himself, knows where Boston is, because that’s where he disembarked in 1944 after being captured by the Allies, and having traveled farther than he ever had in Italy, has some sense of the vastness of the United States. The Au Train camp Kommandant, however, is sure that New York has been destroyed, and some prisoners think San Francisco is in Florida.
Being in an unfamiliar place inevitably brings feelings of homesickness: Frank finds the UP buildings uglier than Mussolini’s and is sure that “though the Allies were going to win the war, America could not last because it was built out of wood.” Though the Au Train camp is more comfortable than some across the States, Frank dislikes the 3.2% beer for its weakness and yearns for pasta over the constant diet of venison. Mostly he doesn’t understand why people stay in this forbidding country unless they have to.
“Wolf’s Mouth,” the novel’s title, derives from an Italian saying, the equivalent of our odd expression “break a leg” for wishing good luck on the stage. The wolf, however, also suggests vulnerability confronting the Nazi Kommandant Vogel—head of the camp—and the wilderness, which is all the prisoners know of America. It comes to mean a talisman of luck in the face of danger.
The danger and thriller part of this story begins when Frank runs away from the camp and his own planned execution by Vogel who devises the most horrific deaths for non-Nazis. He defines his fearful situation in a more universal perspective:
A weekday morning—everything was business as usual, but something about it reminded me of the deaf mutes. Body language spoke volumes. Nobody quite looked at anybody else . . . But we are all strange. No matter what life—or lives—we lead, we’re all strangers.
The odyssey he takes is fraught with danger. Frank knows he’s hunted also by the American INS; even when he settles he cannot relax. Freedom is not freedom, nor can he be himself. But in his terrors he is always insightful. The end of the story comes full circle to the woods of northern Michigan and to Frank’s beginning struggles. We see his vulnerability and fear in the extreme conditions of his life and escape.
In Wolf’s Mouth, Smolen gives a stock Nazi villain more basis in reality than usual, and the end of Vogel and his plans go beyond the stereotype. With a fresh setting to the Nazi story, this page-turner certainly offers much about Michigan. A good option for next year’s Michigan Read.