An inherent complication arises when writers (or editors or critics) consider the meaning of “place” in literature. It’s certainly true that an author is influenced by the geography and communities that shaped him. It’s equally true on another level that people are the same all over, filled crown to toe with the same hopes and fears. This issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review contains pieces that are accented by the flora and fauna and hardy inhabitants of the Great Lakes region. The contributors indeed communicate the unique feeling of being lost in the Minnesota prairie while tapping into the pathos that unites us all.
The issue begins on something of a sad note with Editor Jonathan Freedman’s kind eulogy for Gerald Shapiro, whose story “A Drunkard’s Walk” immediately follows. There’s something bittersweet about it after discovering its author so recently shuffled off this mortal coil. Shapiro’s story tracks the experience of Sherman Lampert, who recently lost his wife of thirty-five years in a freak accident. In an effort to connect with Barbara’s past, Sherman attends her high school reunion in her stead. Shapiro effectively blends Sherman’s life story with an account of the big night. Sadly, Shapiro’s friends and family learned the same lesson that Sherman does, that the randomness of the Drunkard’s Walk brings us both joy and misery. We are all like the narrator’s shooting star that “streaked across a black corner of the night sky above the city: a comet, perhaps, or a bit of space debris, an asteroid, just a fleeting pinprick of light, there and then gone in a breath.”
Adam Regn Arvidson’s “Lines on the Prairie” tracks the author’s search for the prairie bush clover, an endangered plant that seems to offer a bow to those intrepid enough to find a field lush with its stalks. Arvidson begins his story by briefly dramatizing the work of men such as James Nowlin who, at the behest of the federal government, carved an invisible grid into the wild prairie in preparation for the settlers who would populate the land. Arvidson’s search for the elegant prairie bush clover culminates in a reminder of the power of the natural world to inspire us, no matter how hard we try to bend it to our will.
As a devotee of the Bard, I fear that I’m somewhat biased in my appreciation for Jane Gillette’s short story, “Revenge.” The story depicts a strange, silent war between Harry and Miranda, two literature teachers at a small Jesuit university. Appropriately, their cold war is also a strange kind of romance. The story begins with a focus on Harry, who taught the college’s introductory Shakespeare class for years. Until, that is, Miranda arrived on the scene with her Yale Ph.D. and a dissertation just a breath away from becoming a revolutionary work in the field. Relegated to teaching freshman comp, Harry begins staging Shakespeare plays as part of his curriculum. Miranda’s appreciation of the plays is lofty and intellectual; Harry casts a spotlight on their primal vitality. Gillette gracefully carries the reader through Miranda’s journey, the kind of evolution that is shared by Gertrude and Lady Macbeth and Measure for Measure’s Vincentio. Once she looks within herself, Miranda at long last sees the true measure of her beauty and failure.
Destruction and renewal are also a theme to be found in Melissa Stein’s poem, “Low Bend.” It is occasionally necessary for farmers to burn the fields they wish to till, just as a child of the country must sometimes disavow her heritage in order to fulfill her dreams. No matter how far away we are from home, however, we will probably find ourselves in the same position as Stein’s somewhat homesick narrator:
But sometimes I think of myself rising, crosslegged,
above the creek, above the broom trees, shrieking louder
than any hellcat. I gather the old farmers in my ample arms
and squeeze them senseless. . . .
The pieces in this issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review illustrate one of the defining qualities of the Great Lakes region and its people. Both are characterized by a simple surface honesty accompanied by a complex and diverse passion that burns underneath.