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Staff Picks: Books

The Poisoning of Michigan

The environmental history of Michigan in the twentieth century (and beyond) has been one characterized by intermittent disasters with wide-ranging implications for the health and well-being of its citizens. One need only examine the Environmental Protection Agency’s maps of Superfund sites (specially-designated toxic waste remediation locations) in Michigan to better understand the current scope of the problems.

We have seen recent examples play out over the last year including the Flint water crisis and the discovery of water contamination stemming from a decommissioned Air Force Base in Oscoda. Citizens of Kalamazoo will be well-aware of the Allied Paper Mill / Portage Creek / Kalamazoo River Superfund PCB remediation process that has dominated the environmental consciousness of Kalamazoo and Allegan counties since the early 1990s - not to mention the subsequent Enbridge oil spill.

As alarming as these scenarios have been, the effects and general contamination produced by each could be described as relatively localized, at least in comparison to a 1973 disaster which resulted in the poisoning of the general population (approximately 9 million individuals) of Michigan through compromised dairy products. This is the subject of The Poisoning of Michigan by Joyce Egginton.

Egginton begins by summarizing the broad strokes of the accident, which began at the Michigan Chemical Corporation where a variety of industrial chemicals were produced. Among these were Nutrimaster, an additive for livestock feed which was shown to increase milk production in dairy cows and have other beneficial effects, and Firemaster, a polybrominated biphenyl (a type of chemical very similar to PCBs) that was being used at the time as a top-notch industrial fire-retardant. The chemicals were nearly indistinguishable to the naked eye, and a paper shortage had led to some extremely questionable techniques being implemented to label the 50-pound brown paper bags in which both Nutrimaster and Firemaster were shipped.

The outcome of this unconscionable confluence of circumstances was that in the Spring of 1973 a truck driver delivered several thousand pounds of Firemaster to the largest agricultural feed plant in Michigan where it was unknowingly combined with livestock feed, dispersed to more than 5,000 farms all over the state and fed to a variety of farm animals for nearly a year before being positively identified.

Egginton goes on to discuss in great detail the efforts of a handful of individuals, including a dairy farmer with a chemistry degree, who worked to pinpoint the cause of what followed: cows lost weight precipitously, milk production plummeted, chickens were born with tumors, animals in general refused to eat and perished. Similar outcomes awaited humans who consumed the products produced by those animals to the degree that a measurable decline in the athletic prowess of Michigan sports teams was noted during the years of peak contamination. All of this took place within an atmosphere which Egginton describes as one characterized by bureaucratic denial, industrial indifference, and the isolation of the afflicted.

Even when viewed alongside such well-known environmental disasters as Love Canal, which would be brought to light five years later, the degree of contamination stemming from the accident remains unparalleled in the United States. Occasionally the event is revisited by the media, and the ongoing effects are measured and discussed, but proportional to its impact, it seems to have become a little-known chapter in the environmental and agricultural history of Michigan.


No Ordinary Sound

I highly recommend No Ordinary Sound by Denise Lewis Patrick.  The story introduces Melody Ellison, the latest addition to the American Girl historical dolls line BeForever.  Reading it transported me back to my childhood growing up in Detroit during the 1960s.  It is a wonderful read and I was so impressed with all the authentic references to the city and the time period.

Melody is a talented 9-year-old who loves to sing.  Her story unfolds as she tries to balance her youthful dreams with the harsh realities of growing up during the Civil Rights Era.  After Melody is chosen to sing a solo at her church recital, she experiences set-backs at home, in her community, and in her country.

The author has written a true classic here.  I can't wait for the Melody Ellison doll to debut this summer.  I just might find myself standing in line at a mall somewhere.  


A Story for Black History Month!

Sean and Sonya Hollins released their new book Benjamin Losford and his Handy Dandy Clippers on February 9, 2016. Their book release was at a Black History Month program at the Powell Branch that evening.

This true story is about a runaway slave named Abraham Losford. Abraham made it as far as Canada and later traveled back down to settle in Howell, Michigan. He opened the first barber shop in Howell cutting hair with the clippers he used as a slave. After establishing his business he headed back down south to get his wife and kids. His wife had passed away but he was able to return with his son, Benjamin. He taught Benjamin his trade and later past his clippers off to Benjamin so he could become a next generation barber. Benjamin used his father’s handy dandy clippers and opened his shop in Edmore, Michigan.

Kenjji, the illustrator of Benjamin Losford and his Handy Dandy Clippers, did a fantastic job of bringing the story to life.

At the program Sonya spoke about her career beginnings. Her interest in writing began in the 3rd grade. She had a fantastic teacher that lit a spark in her imagination the never waned. This teacher was her inspiration and later her mentor.

This is a great true story that really needed to be told.


Tallulah: Mermaid of the Great Lakes

According to ancient mythology, every mermaid has a special gemstone hidden somewhere in the sea. When the mermaid finds her gem, her tail becomes that color and she acquires her magical powers. And so begins our story of Tallulah.

Tallulah, the mermaid, realizes that she is different from the other mermaids in the ocean. She doesn’t look like the other young mermaids she lives with. Her tail doesn’t sparkle. Her tail is a dull gray. When all the other mermaids go on their quest to find their special gemstone Tallulah goes too. She searches every ocean and sea for a year but returns without a gem and her tail is still dull gray. The elder mermaid tells her that no ocean or sea holds her gem and to search no more. But then the old sea turtle asks if she has looked in the Great Lakes. Of course all the others say it is ridiculous, lakes don’t need mermaids. However the old turtle tells her these lakes are special and more beautiful than Tallulah can ever imagine. Turtle agrees to take her there and together they explores all the Great Lakes except for one – Lake Michigan. It is there that Tallulah discovers a sand castle with something oddly familiar on it. She finds a Petoskey Stone with it’s beautiful sunburst pattern – she finds her gemstone. Tallulah’s tail takes on the beautiful pattern of Petoskey Stones. Old Turtle tells her the Great Lakes have found their mermaid.

This is such a fun story because who doesn’t love mermaids. I had never heard the ancient myth about the Great Lakes and the Petoskey Stones until I read this book. The end panels have a simple map of the land with major cities and the 5 Great Lakes. Wouldn’t it be fun to share this story and have the special Petoskey Stones to show your listeners. I still love collecting the stones along the beach up north and now I can imagine Tallulah with her powers helping fisherman and freighters during storms and guarding the sunken treasures of the Great Lakes.


Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story

This portrait of Detroit in 1963 has been considered the turning point for the city’s decline.

David Maraniss writes of the early days of Motown, the Mustang, civil rights, larger-than-life figures including Henry Ford II; George Romney; Lee Iacocca; Walter Reuther; Berry Gordy; Martin Luther King; Rev CL Franklin, Aretha’s father, and even the bid to host the summer Olympics.

Although there is a focus on the music and auto industries of 1963 Detroit, the politics, culture, and lifestyle of the country with an emphasis on Detroit are covered in this very readable book. It explores the optimism of the times along with the signs of major problems to come.


The Georgia Peach is not so bruised.

 Many baseball fans have reluctantly considered Ty Cobb one of the greatest baseball players ever. I write “reluctantly” because he has been also thought of as a one of the most mean-spirited, violent, cruel and racist individuals to ever play the game. Author Charles Leerhsen set out on a monumental task of examining Cobb’s past to discover not only if the reputation is deserved, but also if the stories were even true. This amazingly well-researched biography debunks many of the myths that seem to form the basis of Cobb’s legacy. There is no proof that he ever sharpened his spikes on the dugout steps to scare opposing infielders. In fact, this is a lie that Cobb spent most of his life after baseball trying to disprove. Was Cobb an ultra-competitive, hard-nosed competitor? Most definitely. Was Cobb he a blood thirsty monster who would hurt other players and fans just to gain an advantage? No, he was the product of a time in which baseball was becoming “America’s pastime” and journalists were just beginning to learn to shine the spotlight on its stars. Cobb held the respect and admiration of many in the game up until his death. Leerhsen does a masterful job of washing away the dirt that covered the truth about Cobb. Fans of baseball will love this portrayal of baseball’s first superstar, a man so respected by other players that he was the first player elected to the Hall of Fame.

 


Last Call: Prohibition in Kalamazoo a Century Ago

On May 1st, 1915 — exactly 100 years ago today, Kalamazoo “went dry,” closing the doors on all of the saloons, bars, clubs and other public drinking establishments throughout the county. During the April 5th election that year, Kalamazoo voters had turned out in strong support of the “local option,” which would make it illegal to sell or manufacture distilled liquor, beer and wine after May 1st.

With little in the way of last-minute fanfare and without a single reported incident of public drunkenness, 65 local establishments cleared their shelves, drained their kegs, and closed their doors in order to meet the midnight, April 30 deadline. This included 39 saloons in the city of Kalamazoo, along with a handful of others in Schoolcraft and Vicksburg, plus the Kalamazoo Brewing Company, the last in Kalamazoo’s long line of pre-Prohibition brewers and distillers.

But Kalamazoo wasn’t the first county in the state to ban liquor sales. Anti-liquor sentiment had been “brewing” in Michigan since before the Civil War. Van Buren County led the way when it went dry in 1907, and by 1911, 39 counties had adopted local ordinances against alcohol. Michigan became the first state in the nation to go “dry” with a statewide ban on liquor sales in 1918, more than a year ahead of the nationwide federal ban on alcohol sales and consumption, the Eighteenth Amendment.

Kalamazoo Telegraph-Press, April 6, 1915

This all came to an end in December 1933 with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment and the repeal of Prohibition, but the effects of the prohibition movement lingered for decades. Kalamazoo restaurants were prohibited from selling liquor by the glass until 1964, and the sale of liquor before noon on Sunday was still against the law until 2011.

Now, of course, Kalamazoo has a thriving batch of craft brewers and distillers, and has since earned a solid reputation among beer lovers nationwide. So celebrate... check out The Michigan Beer Film, take a tour of Kalamazoo's beer culture with West Michigan Beer Tours, or earn your degree in sustainable craft brewing from the new KVCC-WMU joint venture. How things have changed. Cheers!


Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good

Here's a 2014 book that I probably would have passed by if I hadn't seen a review of it which told of the author's connection to Michigan. Subtitled 'A Memoir of Food & Love from an American Midwest Family,' it's a collection of brief stories and recipes by Kathleen Flinn, who grew up near Flint. The stories are about her rural upbringing as half Irish and half Swedish, but the food descriptions and recipes she includes would transcend several nationalities. Some of the recipes are for foods I grew up with as well, such as the apple crisp and oatmeal cookies. For a retrospective on Michigan rural culture and cuisine, try this one.


Don't Write In Library Books

Ander Monson is the most bizarre, versatile, prize-winningest writer who hails from Michigan that you have never heard about. He won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award for Other Electricities, the Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize for his poetry collection Vacationland, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book of criticism called Vanishing Point. If not for that last one, I would have had to add that the prizes he has won are just as unheard of as he is. 

 
I read Other Electricities several years ago which left me with a vivid impression of the mix of tenacious survivalism and self-destructiveness of the residents of the Upper Peninsula and the image of snowmobiles jumping snow banks out on to frozen Lake Superior; occasionally breaking through the ice and disappearing. 

 
His newest book, a collection of essays titled Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, comes out on February 3rd. Check it out and see what you think of Ander Monson and if you can resist writing in a library book about people writing in library books.


I Love You Just Enough

On the last day of school, Heather is looking forward to a summer helping her dad on their Hazel Ridge Farm. While pulling weeds in a field, she discovers a fuzzy, helpless, and frightened baby duckling, who somehow was separated from its family.

Heather wants to help the duckling by keeping it warm and well fed. Her dad tells her that “...the hardest thing that you will have to do is not to love him too much”. After explaining these words to his daughter, she replies that “ I think I can love him just enough”.

She calls her young charge Mr. Peet due to his “peet, peet, peet” vocalizations, and puts the little wood duck into an empty fish tank with a towel, heat lamp, and a screen cover. She then begins a daily ritual of scooping up dragonfly larvae, crayfish and other little pond dwellers which she feeds to him. Mr. Peet grows and begins to explore the house and the farm, and in time teaches himself how to fly.

Summer ends and Heather returns to her friends at school, while Mr. Peet finds friends of his own. The now grown duck comes to visit less often and Heather misses him greatly, but tearfully announces that he will be okay, “...because I loved him just enough”.

This book was written by Robbyn van Frankenhuyzen, and beautifully illustrated by her husband Gijsbert, (aka Nick), both of whom actually still live at Hazel Ridge Farm in Michigan. This narrative is a true account of the wild duck fostering experiences of one of their two daughters in the 1980’s. Through this and other stories, (many of which are in the KPL collection), they relate the adventures of wildlife rehabilitation and how they have cared for many injured and orphaned animals over the years.

I Love You Just Enough is a gratifying picture book that is just right for sharing with your children as the leaves turn to their fall colors.

Also, you can visit Hazel Ridge Farm online at www.hazelridgefarm.com.