Reviewed by Hannah Brinza
Deborah Frontiera’s new book Superior Tapestry sets itself the task of weaving together the history of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Those of you familiar with Deborah’s work may recall her novella Midnight in the Pawn Shop, in which objects at the pawn shop come to life and tell their tales. Like this novella, Superior Tapestry is told from the point of view of objects and places throughout the beautiful Upper Peninsula.
Imagine the tales one might hear of the soldiering life from the kitchen hearth in the officer’s quarters at Fort Wilkins. Listen to a clay casino chip relay the struggles of opening the first Native American casino in Michigan’s history. Snuggle up with some hot cocoa and hear the homey rambling of a Finnish sauna hand-built by the family with rough-sawn planks and pine, cedar and spruce logs. And of course, no tapestry of the U.P’s history would be complete without a tale of the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald. This rendition is told from the perspective of the cleverly insightful ship’s bell. With her penchant for storytelling, Deborah Frontiera brings these objects to life and surrounds them with the people of the times.
One of my personal favorites is titled “One Piano’s Plinking” and shares the history of a player piano in the lumber town of Seney. A player piano is an instrument that plays a select tune simply by inserting a selected roll of music into the instrument and then pumping the pedals, an ideal instrument in a town where there aren’t many musicians. And there weren’t many musicians in Seney, a town reputed to be the “toughest town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where men out-cut, out-logged, out-fought and out-drank any other men in any known place.” But even this rough and tumble crowd needed a good source of entertainment. And the player piano had many stories to tell.
“Hey, Joe,” one of the best customers said, “how ‘bout I give it a whirl?”
“Sure, Mack,” the saloon-keeper said. He proceeded to show his best customer how to use this wonderful instrument.
Mac looked at the titles on the boxes and chose one he knew the words to. Soon, the whole place was singing “Oh My Darling, Clementine” off-key and on, tapping their feet, clapping hands and cheering loudly for more beer and whiskey.”
This book not only offers hours of entertaining anecdotes but it is also built on a very solid foundation of research. Deborah’s timelines are well-plotted and her characters stay true to their various time periods. The reader will enjoy learning about the geology of various rocks and minerals like copper in the region as well as a wide range of the different geographical features; the cliffs, the lakes and the trees. They will learn about the different customs of the Ojibwa tribe and how they built canoes out of birch bark to paddle along the great lake they called Gitchi Gumi. The reader will also learn about the “river hogs” of the great logging companies and the “skip cars” and “sunshine lamps” of mining operations.
All these tales carry the readers far back in time and capture the essence of each time and place as neatly as a photograph. These brief snapshots offer the reader a tantalizing window into a brief moment of history or display a time-lapse of a particular spot. Deborah Frontiera combines all of these bits and pieces of various cultures, time periods and walks of life to create a spectacular tapestry of history that is well worth the read.
Superior Tapestry: Weaving the Threads of Upper Michigan History
by Deborah K. Frontiera
Published by Modern History Press
paperback * hardcover * eBook * audiobook