Review by Brad Gischia
“Perspective is where you stand and how you measure the world you pass through.” This line, in relation to the passage it was pulled from, is important. In relation to the work as a whole, this line perfectly shows what D.J. Williams has done in his most recent book.
Lake Effect: Life is Short. Drink the good Scotch first!, is a collection of essays by Williams, a U.P. native who finds that his perspective has definitively shaped who he is and everything he’s done in his life up to now.
I’ve found, that after reading many Upper Peninsula Memoirs, humorous anecdotes, etc., that they generally all follow a sort form. There are stories about living in the woods, about hunting and fishing, about the distinct separateness that makes Upper Peninsula natives so different from other people around the world. Often this involves comedic takes on the accent, the food, the attitude towards people “not from here” (of which there are many).
Often these stories play on a specific idea of how people who are not Yoopers see said natives. The results are not flattering to natives, even though they are often true.
This book is different.
Williams has a rambling story-telling style, much like Garrison Keillor, and he accents his stories with the bits of Upper Peninsula life that make you really know what it’s like to live there.
His experience is varied. He is the mayor of a small U.P. town. He was in the submarine Navy. He logged (pardon the pun) many hours in the northern woods making firewood and pulpwood. He’s got dogs and friends that he can and does write stories about. All of this adds up to the ability to capture the very essence of what it is to be a Yooper.
Williams tells stories about his time in the Navy, when he learned to navigate by the stars, how Japan was in the 70’s, and these stories form a solid foundation for how he looks at the problems that crop up throughout his life. The mortar that cements that foundation though, is his upbringing in the U.P. woods, when his dad and brothers cut wood for the residents of Grand Island.
It is a distinctly unique place to grow up, and Williams has captured it in the essays he’s written about going to camp and making firewood, about the act of making “mailbox armor”. These are specific in their nature but any Yooper will know exactly what he’s talking about, and any non-Yooper will know shortly.
There are parts here though, that make it more than a Upper Peninsula-centric book. It’s the setting for the majority of the stories for certain, and its influence is felt in each other setting, but it’s the personal stories that make it easily readable to anyone.
Stories about Williams’ father, and the way he rebuilt a motor for a car they got for free from a collapsed storage building, and how understanding his father’s enemies helped him to reconcile his own demons.
The stories about his dogs are touching. Charlie Bear, a mixed breed collie, has several pages devoted to him, some heartbreaking and some funny and all relatable to anyone who has ever loved a four-footed canine.
The book is actually best summed up by a quote from the same chapter that I started this review with, on perspective. “I guess your perspective is reflected in the sum of your experience, the breadth of your knowledge and the depth of your passion.”
Williams’s experience and breadth of knowledge are wide, and the depth of his passion for the land he grew up in and returned to, is deep.