Early on, he says that his problem writing the book was the water itself, and how it shaped everything in the Great Lakes region: "I wanted to take hold of the immediate world, see it independent of the names we give it, then give it name. But I couldn't grasp it." He organizes his thoughts and his book by going out on the water on boat crews — on a racing sailboat, in a canoe for a voyageur reenactment, and finally on a restored schooner. The time on the water, moving down the Lakes, all the way to the Erie Canal and the Atlantic Ocean, becomes the narrative line from which Dennis hangs extraordinary amounts of information about the history of the region and its natural phenomena, politics, and environmental successes and challenges, and a lifetime of personal recollections.
One unforgettable memory is of the young Jerry Dennis watching two fishermen whose boat capsized in a Lake Michigan storm only 100 feet off the beach at Empire. Although the whole town tried to save them, they couldn't. The boy "made eye contact with one of them. He was heavy and gray, the age of my grandfather. He could have been our insurance man or the guy who delivered our bottled gas. He seemed apologetic. I kept expecting him to smile at me and shrug."
Jerry Dennis reads from The Living Great Lakes at Nicola's Books on Monday, May 19.
[Originally published in May, 2003.]