Monthly Archives: October 2017

“Wolf’s Mouth” by John Smolens

wolfsmouthJohn Smolens’ novel Wolf’s Mouth, Winner of a 2017 Michigan Notable Book Award, has been chosen as the novel for the first “One Book, One Community” event in the White Lake area by the Friends of the Montague Library and Friends of the White Lake Community Library. The “One Book, One Community” program encourages communities to read the same book and to come together to discuss it in a variety of settings (see below for a schedule of events). Dozens of similar programs have been sponsored nationwide.

The book is an excellent choice for a community-wide read because it offers something for everyone. Do you like suspense? Love stories? Historical fiction? War stories? Check, check, check, and check. And to top it off, it takes place in Michigan and by a Michigan author.

It is 1944, and Captain Francesco Verdi, an officer in the Italian army, has just been captured by the Allies and sent to Camp Au Train, a POW camp in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Braving the unfamiliar cold, he is assigned to chopping down trees with civilians and serving as captain of the camp’s soccer team. Verdi is one of few non-German POWs at the camp. Most of the Germans are happy to be away from the war front enjoying comfortable lodging, a good day’s work, and nutritious food. However, some of the captured Germans are die-hard Nazis who try to retain control even in captivity – epitomized in the story by the ruthless Kommandant Vogel. Under Vogel’s direction, some co-prisoners are tortured and even killed. When Vogel holds a mock trial and sentences Verdi to death, Verdi knows he can either choose to face his deadly fate or escape. With the help of a sympathizing Italian mother and daughter in town, he chooses the latter. By 1956, Verdi, now living undercover as Frank Green (Verdi is Italian for Green), is happily married to Claire (the daughter) and enjoying a middle-class life with his own business in Detroit. Later, an INS agent, who has been following Verdi, comes to warn him that Vogel is still at large and reeking revenge on those defectors from the Nazi cause in the past.

This sweeping story offers evocative settings: from the stark Upper Peninsula to bustling, heyday Detroit – with stops in Italy and Berlin. Wolf’s Mouth is a plot-driven novel that winds and weaves, covering a wide range of historical, geographical, and emotional ground. The book offers many themes to discuss: along with the obvious romance and violence there are the experiences of immigrants, survivors, and soldiers in peacetime; fate and the role an individual’s past plays in determining his future; revenge; and POW camps in Michigan. I found the latter eye-opening as the existence of POW camps in Michigan was something that was not taught in any history class I took growing up in Michigan. In fact, there were 6,000 POWs in Michigan during World War II with about 1,000 stationed in five camps the Upper Peninsula and the others located throughout the Lower Peninsula in camps as close as Allegan, Hart, and Sparta. Camp Au Train, featured in the story, actually was a camp.

Author John Smolens lives in Marquette, and is the director of Northern Michigan University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. He is an acclaimed author of one collection of stories and three novels.

The One Book, One Community events scheduled are:
• 7pm Wednesday, October 25 – Historical Presentation and White Lake Reminiscences, a presentation about WWII POW camps in the area by the Oceana Historical Society followed by local residents’ stories and reminiscences about life in the area during that era – at the Montague Library Lower Level
• 6pm Wednesday, November 1 – Book Discussion at The Book Nook & Java Shop
• 2-4pm Saturday, November 4 – Book Signing with Author John Smolens at The Book Nook & Java Shop
• 5pm Sunday, November 5 – Community Potluck followed by John Smolens presentation at 6:30 at Ferry Memorial Church

Copies of the Wolf’s Mouth are on sale for 20% off at The Book Nook & Java Shop all month. The Book Nook & Java Shop book club meets at 6pm the first Wednesday of every month and is open to everyone: wine, snacks, camaraderie and book discussions – a great combination all year long.

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“Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters

undergroundairlinesWith current headlines of NFL players kneeling for the national anthem and the continued momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, we in this country are confronted with old wounds from slavery that are far from healed. In Underground Airlines, Ben Winters paints a picture of modern America the same as it is today, save for one detail: slavery is legal in four states. In the history leading up to his story, Lincoln was shot before his inauguration and the Civil War never happened. To solve the dispute over slavery, a treaty was entered that allowed four Southern states to uphold the institution of forced servitude or, as it is euphemistically called, “People Bound by Labor.” They had the practice baked into the Constitution – forever protected. And, the slaves of the 21st century get an upgrade: they are corporate property, with the logos of the corporations branded onto their skin, marking their ownership.

The main character, Victor, is a bounty hunter who tracks fugitives for the United States Marshals Service. The people he’s chasing are escaped slaves. He has a complicated past: he also was an escaped slave who, when caught, was given the Faustian deal to exchange his soul for his freedom. The book reads like a noir mystery detective thriller. Victor is a cynical, private loner who reports his daily progress by telephone to a shadowy, yet ever-looming Mr. Bridge whom he has never met. Victor, who uses being black and a prior slave to his benefit, turns out to be a pro at his job – he has racked up more than 200 captures. On the current case, he infiltrates an abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines, but something about the case-file details seem off. The further he delves, the more irregularities he uncovers and the less he can trust the stakeholders around him. The case gets under his skin and starts to chip away at the thin veneer of indifference Victor has built up to shield himself from his conscience. He soon is haunted by visions of his youth in a Carolina slaughterhouse plantation along with the ghosts of the many run-aways he helped the Feds to catch. Mr. Bridge makes it known that his freedom depends on continuing to perform his duties – and a tracking device implanted in his spine makes the idea of escape impossible.

According to Ben Winters, in the Fall of 2013 he was searching for his next project. He kept thinking about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was fatally shot in Florida by George Zimmerman and other incidents of police violence against African-Americans. “Our country is still dealing with the legacy of slavery,” Mr. Winters said. “As I researched the subject, I realized I wanted to take this figurative idea that slavery is still with us, and make it literal.”

The novel was a finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize, the 2017 Southern Book Prize, the 2017 International Thriller Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. The book won the 2016 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.

Winters has written the pilot script for a television adaptation in the works.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, October 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 4 to discuss Underground Airlines at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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