In Deep Water
Huck Finn meets Moby Dick in Lee Zacharias’ delightful new novel
For a good wintertime read, lose yourself in the nautical-themed novel, Across the Great Lake by Lee Zacharias prize-winning author, longtime editor of The Greensboro Review and emerita professor at UNCG.
It’s the kind of book that immediately seizes the imagination. Part adventure in the vein of Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn, part ghost story, part tragedy filled with a motley assortment of characters, Across the Great Lake (University of Wisconsin Press) tells the remarkable odyssey of 5-year-old Fern Halvorsen. Told in first-person by an aging Fern, the book recounts the single most defining experience of her life: a trip in 1936 aboard The Manitou, a freighter ferrying railroad cars across the icy waters of Lake Michigan. Fern’s father is the boat’s captain, who has brought his daughter with him, as her mother lies dying back in their home in Frankfort, on Michigan’s northwest Lower Peninsula (distinct from the state’s Upper Peninsula, or UP, as Fern learns). With no one but her teddy bear, also named Manitou, for company, the plucky child protagonist explores the ship’s nooks and crannies, befriending a gentle deckhand named Alv and fraternizing with the crew along the way. In the following excerpt, young Fern sits in on a poker game among the raucous “black gang” who stoke the coal fires of the boat’s engine room, among other characters — and learns first-hand that The Manitou is haunted.
k Like Dick Butler, Nils was an oiler, one step above fireman, but I was confused because I didn’t know what a Yooper did on a ship, and Amund had to explain that he was a water tender, that was his job, but he was also a Yooper because he was from the UP. Supposedly the term is new, but sailors used it even before the Mackinac Bridge was built and the Yoopers started calling everyone who lived below the bridge, on the Lower Peninsula, trolls. Sitting at a table in the flicker playing cards the men called each other a lot of names, though no one seemed to mind. Nils picked me up and set me on his lap even though I was all sooty, but no one in the black gang cared about that, not as long as you washed your hands at one of the sinks along the bulwark between the flicker and the hold before you picked up your cards, because even after they washed up there was coal dust ground into the creases around their eyes and in the back of their necks and their wrists and knuckles. Nils showed me his cards and even let me hold them, making sure I pointed them straight up so no one else could see, and that’s how I learned to play poker. One of his fingernails was black and sort of bubbled up, but it wasn’t from the coal dust, it was from catching his hand in a hatch. Malley, the other water tender, was at the end of the table playing a sad song on his harmonica instead of cards. That was because his girlfriend wouldn’t marry him, Amund said, she didn’t want to marry a man who was at sea all the time. Nils, Malley, and Amund, all of the men in fact except Bosun and The Art & Soul of Greensboro