A Nostalgic Lens: Photographs & Essays from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula By Peter Wurdock

Review by Victor R. Volkman

Cover of the book "A Nostalgic Lens: Photographs & Essays from Michigan's Upper Peninsula" by Peter Wurdock. It features two vintage cars crossing a large suspension bridge, likely the Mackinac Bridge. The background has a wooden plank texture.It’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime thing to pick up a book, find out it’s by an author your exact age and find so many parallels to your life growing up. “A Nostalgic Lens” by Peter Wurdock mirrors many of my own experiences growing up in the 1970s and living what I call “the summer cottage lifestyle”:  weeks of literally unsupervised play in the woods and water.  This autobiographic book is a seamless blend of evocative black-and-white photographs and prose that weaves back and forth between the 1970s and today in and around the town of Newberry, Michigan.  There’s a huge gap in the middle from 1984 until Wurdock moves to live year-round in the U.P. in November of 2020.

When Wurdock says Newberry, he really means the unincorporated community of Deer Park, along both the shores of Lake Superior and Muskallonge Lake, which is 27 miles north of Newberry.  Deer Park was yet another U.P. sawmill boomtown until 1903 when it closed down and took the town with it.  His allegiance to Newberry, rather than the slightly closer Grand Marais can be accounted for by his work for the Newberry News as a features writer. Wurdock has a broad background in communications including working as a record promoter of top country artists in the 1990s such as Detroit music legend Stewart Francke.  “A Nostalgic Lens” is actually his sixth book from Blue Boundary, a publishing company he founded.

Wurdock is perennially single, so the commentary around the days of his life revolves around not a partner but rather a series of elderly greyhound rescue dogs that he has grown to love like children. These are dogs who were supposed to make their livelihood on dog tracks for the benefit of gamblers and were sidelined by injuries, for one reason or another.  A small network of big-hearted greyhound fans swoops in to adopt these loyal and lovable creatures to prevent their otherwise inevitable euthanasia after retirement.  He brings the stories of these dogs, their quirks, interactions with folk on the streets of Newberry, and their eventual demises with clear prose and even clearer photography.

Far from a whim, Wurdock’s relocation takes place at the end of a long period of grieving beginning with the loss of his father in 2015 and becoming the caretaker for his mother’s slow decline from Alzheimer’s finally wrapping up in 2020.  Now at loose ends, he embraces his nostalgia by selling his house, packing up a U-Haul of all his life’s possessions, and taking the plunge into year-round residency in the late autumn.  Of course, the dead quiet of winter quickly sets in and Wurdock amuses himself by tuning into many hockey games on the AM band in the US and Canada. He has a Hallicrafters shortwave radio, like I remember learning how to master on summer nights at a cottage.

Wurdock’s prose often resembles a prose-poem, somewhere in the middle of prose and poetry. In this case (p. 20): it’s pretty much the latter:

“Time is a convincing villain.
It’s like a no interest, unlimited credit card where payments are not necessary until you can’t pay them.
Time is the greatest gift with a flawed design.
It is the fatal illness from which there is no cure.”

Wurdock’s lens wanders the landscape from main street of Newberry which recalls the bygone era of many of Michigan’s small towns to the “old, crumbling shacks” and “dilapidated and abandoned structures” he reaches by Jeep on an old two-track or subsequently on foot. Wisely, he obeys an internal shiver that warns him to keep out. Heaven knows what kind of injury you might sustain on a solo trip from such rural explorations.  His camera is also invariably attracted to railroad engines and stations, logging and other industrial remnants that dot the Newberry area and surely many other locales of the U.P.

Wurdock’s memoir roughly follows the seasons of a typical year, with asides along the way for the glories of the U.P’s extreme seasons. Along the way, like the reporter he is, he recounts memorable and colorful things in the life of Newberry such as the 44th Independence Day Parade and its quirky traditions including the “water wars” between firemen and teenagers with water balloons, or the demise of the proprietor of the Tahqua Land Theater as it struggled to meet the digital age of projection.  We learn about the importance of AM radio, such as the local station WNBY, to knit small communities together in land where cell service is iffy at best and people are on the move all day long.

Now let me close by indulging in a passage that recalls my youth spent in locales in Northern Michigan and on the north shore of Lake Erie:

Baloney sandwiches and Orange Crush fueled our afternoons. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Bit-O-Honey bars we bought from old Joe across the lake at the Northmere Store weren’t just a purchase; they were part of an adventure wince we had to take the boat to get there. Shooting pop bottles in the dump with BB guns was a challenge…. We either smelled like Coppertone, Banctine, or OFF. The fishing was always good and we discovered adolescent freedom in a fourteen-foot boat with a 5 horse motor.

OK, well maybe that passage only appeals to men of a “certain age”, but it did bring memories flooding back to me anyway.  “A Nostalgic Lens: Photographs & Essays from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” by Pete Wurdock is a wonderful survey of cottage life in decades gone by as well as a no-nonsense look at living year-round in one of our state’s northernmost outposts.  Whether you’ve spent just one summer in the U.P. or your whole life, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this pint-sized coffee-table book.  As for the book at your local bookseller or visit  blueboundarybooks.com

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