A Sense of Place

An excerpt from Paul Dimond’s in-depth interview with Jorie from Jorie Loves a Story: Conversations with the Bookish, June 8, 2017.

Q: The landscape inside the novel is of little outside knowledge to those who neither have visited Michigan nor contemplated visiting the state. How did you want to entreat readers to understand the landscape as a part of the cultural heritage of the area being discussed? How did you make it feel as tangible as you did, as a living presence of where someone ‘could have’ lived?

A: For a historical novel to be authentic and engaging, the setting in place and time must come alive for the reader. Consider O’Brian’s “little wooden world” on the HMS Surprise sailing the high seas to distant parts of the world between 1800 and 1814, or the settings of the historical novels of Stegner and Doig in several of the most isolated and least populated places in the Rocky Mountain west in the late 1800’s through the 1950s. These three authors crafted the setting and time so that every reader becomes a part of the different landscape and understands how its geography, geology, weather, history, relationships and man-made structures shape the characters, events and plot of the novel.  

Consider Belle’s two arbors, one an isolated but glorious peninsula jutting out into a Great Lake, the other a major university striving to become great in its academics, arts, architecture, and athletics. The descriptions, details, and changes in both settings over three decades must engage the reader in “being there” with Belle and her cast of allies and antagonists. For example, up north that’s why the primary antagonist Sven Surtr is not an enemy to be fought to the death; although a more recent immigrant, he’s trying to make a living with the Day family in this unique landscape as much as Belle, Pip, David and their families. They disagree as to means, and do engage in a few pitched battles, but over time they learn from one another and eventually join forces. In her last years, Belle joins with Pip and David, Ruthie and Angel, to begin the two-decade struggle that will eventually lead to the opening of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the recognition of the Grand Travers Band of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians and this tip of the little finger of Michigan’s mitten jutting out into Lake Michigan being recognized as one of America’s most beautiful places.

In contrast, the primary antagonist downstate, Ned Strait, represents such an archetype of bias in academia that Belle (and Nym’s other enemies and objects of disdain) try to avoid, undercut, get around, remove or outlive him. Only in her last days does Belle finally realize that Ned Strait has aged into a blowhard relic of the past, no longer a threat to the future of the English Department generally and creative writing in particular as the University pushed him out with an early retirement. It might well take several more decades to open Michigan to all who are qualified, but at least Nym could no longer dominate any woman student nor look down his nose at any creative writer on the faculty or in the classroom.