As many of you know, I love to read. It is a rare week that I don’t read at least one book in that week. That habit has been with me for 58 years. While I’m in a lull in the action on Views from Sandhausen, my book designer Walt Shiel was kind enough to send me a copy of his novel based on historical fact, Devil in the North Woods. This gripping story is based in Northern Michigan, an area that I have vacationed in and around, during my (youth) family’s various vacations. The lure of the north woods, the clear clean waters of places like Crystal Lake, Beulah, Oscoda, Traverse City, Calumet, Michigan are quite a draw. It was worth it to get into the 68 degree water of Lake Huron, Michigan and Crystal Lakes. You could see small snails on the bottom, 20 feet down, as clearly as you could see them in the palm of your hand. Until we lived and walked in the Black Forest in Germany, it was the most impressive landscape of (mostly) pine forest that I ever experienced. These are beautiful magical places as long as the rains come regularly and the weather does not get too hot.
When pine forest is dry and the weather is hot, particularly near a land mass and a large body of water boundary, the weather can be unpredictable. Added to that threat, the only way to really prevent forest fires are to set vary controlled burns. You have to burn the underbrush beneath those tall pines or it will accumulate to the point that the least spark will cause it to detonate (and I use that word deliberately). These burns, particularly with changing wind currents can quickly get out of hand. What can occur then is Hell on Earth.
Devil in the North Woods is a story of a number of good, hard-working, simple pioneers, trying to earn their living in this remote and harsh environment – in 1908. That date caught my eye as that was the year that my Father was born. You already know why I focused on the area. Through Chapter 6, Mr. Shiel crafts a gently intertwining of half-dozen families. He does so with excellent character development, not only within the individual threads, but between the threads themselves. The danger slowly develops, but these pioneers trust in their God and always look on the optimistic side of things. They do so at their peril.
The terror of the fire and the way it impacts these families and threads, cause you to lose yourselves in the words on the pages, which flip all too fast. You cannot put this book down; you are digging a hole in the ground with your bleeding fingers, so that you might breath, as the crown fires take away all oxygen and rain fire everywhere. The pine tops do not just catch fire – they explode. They explode violently enough that 100 ft. tall pines shoot into the air like rockets. You are breathing the unbearably hot and smoke-filled air, feeling your damaged lungs degrade within you. Your throat closes, your mouth is parched and the weak simply give up. The tragedy of the Metz, MI fire is profound. The fire experience is not over done but it is described in such a way that you are struggling with your neighbors to survive.
The magic of this book, if my preceding recitation has not drawn you in, is that more than 60% of the book is seen through the eyes of children. The central character is Henry Hardies. He is a middle child in a very large family and Henry is a classic 10 year-old, in behavior and in emotion. Where he excels is his spirit. He is strong and focused beyond his years. All too often these historical fiction stories are from the viewpoint of the adults. Henry and the other children are the reason you can’t put this book down!
Not all survive, many you do not know their fate until the end. This is a story that you feel in your gut, and the lessons to be learned are on every page.
Perhaps it is because I lost my precious Lynn 200 days ago, but the anguish was palpable within my breast. At the end I drew strength from the lessons learned, and it has given me strength to go on with my life. Thank you Walt!