The Side Road Columnist: Observations from an Upper Michigan Author by Sharon M. Kennedy

Review by Mack Hassler

“It’s who you are when time’s up that matters.”
Obituary for Anne Perry, NY Times, 4/13/23

Non-fiction, investigative reporting, and autobiography are so important to me for lively and vital UP literature.  Sharon Kennedy, who has lived and worked “above the bridge” but not quite into Canada for most of her seven decades of life. works hard at those sorts of texts. God willing, as she writes her columns as a good Roman Catholic evoking mothers, fathers, a divorced spouse, and much country living just below the Sault Locks where the bugs are thick, she has miles to go and books yet to write before the Anne Perry epigraph to this review kicks in. (I happen to love reading the New York Times obituaries as a unique form of non-fiction.) In this new collection of Kennedy’s journalism, however, I searched for an effect in her writing that she promised but did not provide.  She dedicates her book of short essays to a couple “who made and continue to make the tragedy of the past months bearable” p. v    Further, her editors at Modern History Press claim on the back cover of the book that her skill at writing “terse columns” makes her a “writer for our times.”

The more than 107 columns taken from her newspaper work in The SideRoad Columnist are, indeed, easy to read, amusing, even poignant and authentic about her life in the UP.   What I do not find is the development of work on the “tragedy” mentioned in the dedication to the book.  She includes lovely and poignant essays on the deaths of a newborn cow that the mother seems to notice and a dog’s death. But these are not recent.  Also, the passing of several fathers are treated well (one is the Dad of her divorced husband).  What I was eager to find as I read was more “investigative reporting” on the clear Yooper meaning of such topics rather than just “terseness.”  Henry David Thoreau, who was hardly a “Yooper” but was a penetrating non-fiction writer, has some wonderful passages about “chaos and Old Night” in his piece “Ktaadn—  “This is that Earth of which we have heard, made of Chaos and Old Night.”  He is writing about a trip he made to Maine.  Thoreau is usually much more mild-mannered about Nature, but he is never “terse.”

On the other hand, as she promises in her dedication, Kennedy is driven in making this book by the darker and inevitable “sisu” nature of life in the UP.   But like a good card player, she chooses to hold the hand she is dealt close to her breast.  So this collection this time is a pleasant read.  All her readers can enjoy this game of cards she plays with us even as we know how serious it is.  She seems to be holding a lot of trump cards.   She is a very good writer.  We look for even more autobiographical work from her as her work opens up more to the potential of this mode of work.  Now is the time to play her trump cards before the game is over.  I look for that from her.

The Side Road Columnist: Observations from an Upper Michigan Author, by Sharon M. Kennedy (Modern History Press, Ann Arbor, 2023), 162 pages, paper, $18.95

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