Review by Mack Hassler
I like a book that has resonance. Both fiction and non-fiction, whether history or memoir or journalism, can contain good resonance. Further, in my opinion, the best echo or resonance is with faith or philosophic issues. Therefore, to select two titles from what was at the time a regional literature even a State literature, Thoreau’s Walden and Melville’s Moby Dick possess a nice resonance. Walden is much more than just a nature and camping book, and Moby Dick reaches far beyond an adventure and sailing and hunting book. So Off the Hook, I think, is not just a book of humor and fishing lore. It is a funny read, and it is in the tradition of tongue-in-cheek humor that the UP seems to inspire such as the work of Rich Hill and of Terri Martin. But Besonen, also, captures much of the poignant mystery in predation. She fishes to put food on the table, and she and her Finn husband feed their many grandchildren with a lot of Brookies and Lake Trout and venison. But let me try to explain what I read as resonance in these amusing foragings, which I think is at the heart of her work.
The L’Anse Sentinel (bad writing to place two “the” articles next to one another) where these columns were a regular feature for over two decades, is buried deep away from the “big” cities in the UP. Some of the columns deal wonderfully with the culture and languages of this remote area; and the book includes maps of the Watton area and of Worm Lake. Most of the local leaders are Finn, some Swede, some French. The fishing lake has a French name “Vermilac.” Besonen has some funny columns on the stubborn culture and language habits. Once she was through journalism school near Chicago all she wanted to do was to get a job up North so she could fish since her mother and father and brothers would come North each summer when she was young. A determined and serious person, she hooked a job; she hooked a great husband from a large Finn family, had three children and three times as many grandchildren. A very impressive generative life. I have interviewed her about her work and her Faith in an effort to dig for what I call “resonance” because my wife and I had become very best friends with the Besonen clan and because I always search for meaning in writing. The interviews had to be mostly via email since my wife passed away about the time Besonen was collecting these columns for the book, Like a good predator (she and all the Besonens hunt as well as fish and usually feed themselves from what they kill), she is tricky in an interview, uses fancy lures. And she insists there is nothing deep in her writing:
“…the only depth my book has is a mention of 260 plus feet where we fish on Keweenaw Bay. I fish deep but am otherwise pretty shallow.” (a recent interview)
Fishing itself is a fine symbol for deep life meanings. Jesus uses fishing often in this way. Besonen is casting a deceptive lure to hook her readers. I think she does this all along and is pretty good at it. Always tying lures. Except for one little note by me about her teaching us and inspiring us, all the promotional material displayed on the book by the publisher talks mostly about the hoots and hollers. This seems to be a key genre for UP writers One of my favorite columns in the book comes near the end and is titled “Reporting for Duty” (pp. 157-159). It is about her father who fought all over Europe carrying a rifle in World War II. Besonen found a packet of his letters home and writes a beautiful column quoting a lot from the letters. My wife and I read it first in the Sentinel several years ago and loved it. He talks about some of his old girlfriends, none of whom was Besonen’s mother and jokes a lot. The point is he does not want to worry and upset the people at home. Besonen is great on his tone and says she knows why the packet stayed hidden in the basement. So read this collection for the hoots and hollers. But know that Besonen is following her Faith and know that she is a fisher of men. I argue that she packs a lot of resonance into these short pieces in Off the Hook: Off-Beat Reporter’s Tales from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She set out just to fish and to work as a photojournalist. I think she has developed into a canny writer.
Off the Hook: Off-Beat Reporters Tales from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, by Nancy Besonen (Modern History Press, Ann Arbor, 2023, 180 pages, paper, $21.95.