The Last Huck   By J.D. Austin

Review by Deborah K. Frontiera

Book cover for "the last huck" by j.d. austin featuring an impressionistic painting of three people walking in a misty, wooded landscape, highlighted by the mention of it being one of the most impressive debut novels of the decade.In J.D. Austin’s The Last Huck, two brothers, Nick and Jacob (who is in prison during the main time of the story) and a cousin, Pete, are faced with the necessity of selling the last bit of family land in Upper Michigan’s Houghton County. They were raised in that area and their relationship is more of three brothers than two brothers and a cousin. Like many young people in the area, they left for jobs in other places. Pete lived in the state of New York for a time. Jacob and Nick went to Chicago and then Milwaukee, where Pete also ended up. None of them want to sell the land with its log cabin, orchards, and forest land, but they are out of options. Now in their mid to late twenties, and having spent years freewheeling and partying, they must face the fact that its time to leave the Peter Pan life behind and grow up.

Written in several points of view: Nick and Pete, and near the end Jacob, as well as some family friends, the reader comes to understand the strong and weak points of each personality as Nick and Pete make one last road trip—“Huck”—from Milwaukee to the Upper Peninsula so sell and say goodbye to the land of their boyhood. Pete is in a bad position financially having lost his job as a result of the 2008 crash, and he has medical bills piling up because his young son has Leukemia. Nick has never settled down, and Jacob landed in jail after killing someone in a drunken brawl. For all their faults, they also have redeeming qualities and display the problems of many young people across the U.P., and not just “boys”.

A man with long hair and glasses stands outdoors, wearing a black t-shirt with a faint smile. trees and suburban houses are visible in the background.

J.D. Austin

Another aspect of the book are the stories of the men’s Finnish ancestors who came to the U.P. as miners in the early 1900s. These stories are told in well-labeled chapters from the tales told to Nick and Pete as kids. The author did his homework well for these historically set chapters. While we might romanticize the Copper Boom Days, we also must remember that our immigrant great-grandparents were far from perfect people. Peter Pan Syndrome has been around for many generations. But those past generations made it through, grew up and became stable families who raised their children to follow in their footsteps. Nick and Pete have that background—if they could do it, we can do it!

As this reviewer began reading the book, she had an attitude—how can someone who has only lived in the U.P. for a few years “get” us? But J. D. Austin does! He’s at the same stage of life as his characters, for one thing. He’s “hucked” around the U.P., worked several jobs, none of them great, and gotten along toward finding his own dream. His descriptions of the area are accurate to a tee. A reader from the area will recognize intersections and businesses. Readers not from the area will find a true sense of “place” in the setting.

Here’s one example from pages 30 and 31 when a family friend goes into the farmhouse or camp to open it up for the arrival of Nick and Pete:

On the southern wall hung three pairs of snowshoes on separate nails … the shelves on the western wall, merely two-by-sixes on brackets, were bare of the things they once held: photographs, guns, tools and implements, cans and bottles, unlaminated maps with rings left by coffee cups or beer cans … In the northwest corner was the cooking area, the only intact piece of the old farmhouse. There was a ceramic basin … inside which were stacked three white plastic plates and three red plastic cups on top of a frying pan. Inside the cups were three sets of utensils. … Though several small green apples lingered from the trees, the rest of the orchard was dying from neglect. The leaves on the blueberry bushes were curled at the edges and cracked under the slightest pressure. Every bud and leaf with any life left in it below chest height had been eaten by the rabbits and the deer. At a distance, Jim could see sprigs of chokecherry sprouted up in the lingonberry patch, boxing out the blueberries as it continued to spread outward. The fence sagged in several places where the snow had weighted it down …

Many passages like this in The Last Huck make a reader see and hear the surroundings and feel the emotion of an area and its people struggling to survive in tough economic times. Such descriptions help readers understand the circumstances of the characters and their dilemma as nostalgia and reality collide. Journey with Nick and Pete and Huck through this family saga and understand their decisions. Yet, beneath the problems, lies that Finnish Sisu, that determination to keep going forward.

The Last Huck
By J.D. Austin
ISBN 978-1-61599-805-0,
Modern History Press, Ann Arbor MI, 2024, PB ret. $21.95

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