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Review by Bernadette Quist of the book Across the Lake by Lee Zacharias
Author Lee Zacharias adeptly captures the mind and voice of both a five-year-old girl and an eighty-year-old woman — sometimes on the same page. Mostly, we hear from sassy, ahead-of-her-time Fern who goes on the trip of a lifetime with her mostly illusive freighter-captain father. He takes her to work with him on his Lake Michigan railcar ferry when her mother becomes too ill to care for her. Fern’s father is gone most of the time, but on one sadly memorable trip, he makes the decision to take her with him. The child’s observations as the only girl aboard are inquisitive, delightful, funny, and laugh-out-loud joyful.
Zacharias’ research is also impressive. She lists over forty books and sources as part of her dig into Lake Michigan railroad car-ferries, the ethnicity of northern Michigan settlers, port towns, weather patterns, early-childhood education on the Great Lakes, and more! It’s clear that she poured herself into this book, and her writing is beautiful.
Spilling her ample talents onto the page, however, led to a mixed read from the perspective of a person who knows little girls (having raised two girls of my own), yet virtually knows nothing about freighters crossing icy Lake Michigan. While Zacharias completely nails the mostly endearing stream of consciousness in the mind of her young protagonist, sometimes that stream turns into a river of a sentence that runs on for nearly half a page. At the same time, there were brilliant, compact observations throughout. For instance, this description of Fern’s stepmother spoke volumes in just a few words: “She was a woman of enormous energy, but no passion.”
Fern’s memorable journey across the vast water between Frankfort, MI and Wisconsin includes human interest and interaction with the older, all-male cast of characters, ghost ships, the father she idolized, and a love of her childhood home that is glorious. “What I am saying is that winter in Michigan,” says Zacharias, “is not the unendurable, runny-nosed aching shiver people elsewhere in the country imagine, all goose bumps and an extended huddle around a woodstove, drinking toddies from cups that chatter on their saucers and pining for spring. We went outside. We explored the woods on show shoes and cross-country skis.
“You would be surprised,” she continues, “at the number of seniors who pass on the palm trees and endless summer to retire back to Frankfort, no matter where they have spent their adult years or how long they have been gone.”
Passages of dialogue like the following brought the human scenes to playful life. “Tell you a secret,” says one shipman to Fern, “Keeping your nose out of other people’s business gives it a chance to grow.” There are many sailor observations that tickled me. This and the authentic research made for a mostly interesting read; but unfamiliar, unexplained terms like “bosun,” “snow wasset,” “companionways,” “chadburn,” “windrow,” “sanchions,” and “jump the clump” were sprinkled throughout, sometimes multiple terms per sentence, and were just a bit too distracting to me personally.
I marked an equal number of “joy” and “annoy” pages in this book, and I attribute this to Zacharias’ talent for writing. At the same time, I felt an impatience with being so overwhelmed by references to things I wasn’t familiar with and didn’t care enough about to look up every few pages.
I love Lake Michigan, the setting, the ideas, getting to know Fern, her ghost, her quirks, her pain, and how she dealt with the blows life had dealt her; but I hit some rough patches with this novel. Die-hard Michiganders and Great Lakes junkies will enjoy the book, but if you’re not that into historic freighters, you might want to try something else.
Lee Zacharias is the author of four previous books, including The Only Sounds We Make and Lessons, a Book of the Month Club selection. Her work has appeared in the Best American Essays series. Born in Chicago and raised in Hammond, Indiana, she is professor emerita of English at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
Bernadette Quist is a book lover on several levels. Having been a book printer for the past 20 years, she now works with Adair Graphic Communications in
Dexter, MI. She is also an avid reader, listener, and occasional reviewer of select titles. She has also been writing songs and singing them since she was a kid. She is pursuing her own dream deferred — writing, playing, and recording music in addition to helping authors and publishers print and promote their own books and magazines. For more information or to request a price quote, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.