Author touts U.P. literature during library visit

HOUGHTON – The Upper Peninsula has played a notable role in American literature, from Longfellow and some of the early work of Ernest Hemingway to the novels of Jim Harrison, one of the most prominent writers of the past several decades. But with the exception of John D. Voelker, who published “Anatomy of a Murder” under the pen name Robert Traver, very few well-known works were written by native Yoopers or longtime residents.

But according to Ron Riekki, a nationally-published novelist who was raised in Palmer and Negaunee, there’s plenty of great writing coming out of the Upper Peninsula. A few years ago, he began collecting and editing short fiction and poetry from U.P. authors to prove it. The resulting anthology, “The Way North,” proved his point when it was named a 2014 Michigan Notable Book by the Michigan Department of Education and the Library of Michigan.

Wednesday, Riekki visited the Portage Lake District Library to talk about the book and some of the U.P. writers it features.

“When I grew up, there were no great U.P. authors I knew of,” he remembered. “There was “Anatomy of a Murder,” but that was a different generation.”

After joining the military to escape a childhood marred by unemployment and alcoholism, he served in Desert Storm and then used military benefits to help earn several writing degrees.

From there, he came full circle back to the U.P., explored his roots in the novel, “U.P.,” and finally renewed his search for real Upper Peninsula literature.

“I wanted books that had U.P. literature to show who the great authors were,” he said. This time, with the perspective and training to help him in his hunt, he found plenty.

“The Way North” includes work by nationally successful crime novelist Steve Hamilton, as well as award winners Catie Rosemurgy, Jonathon Johnson, Keith Taylor and John Smolens. From Houghton, there’s poet and retired Michigan Technological University professor Randall R. Freisinger, with two poems, “Boating to the Dreamland Bar and Grill” and “At the Bishop Baraga Shrine.” Former Houghton resident Raymond Luczak is also featured with a pair of poems.

The Native American experience is also prominent. Sally R. Brunk, a Lac de Flambeau Ojibwa who was raised on the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community reservation, has a pair of poems in the anthology, and April Lindala, director of the Center for Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University, is featured with a story largely set over several years of Baraga Pow-wows.

Riekki said the response to “The Way North” has been tremendous, with the first two editions selling out almost immediately. He’s trying to capitalize on that interest with what he hopes will be a three-book set featuring historical U.P. literature. The first book, nearly complete, will feature all female writers.

The first widely-recognized U.P. author, he noted, was a Native American woman named Bamewawagezhikaquay, only sightly better known to the world as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Bamewawagezhikaquay, who wrote in the early 1800s, was a member of a historically prominent family, but her writing wasn’t widely recognized until recently.

“We don’t know the greats who are from here,” Riekki said. “She, and a lot of writers, are not just important to Michigan, but to literature as well.”

PLDL Community Programs Director Chris Alquist said she thinks it’s important for children in the area, especially, to realize there are successful local authors.

“It makes it real and immediate, and then they can try their hand at writing,” she said.

Alquist said the library makes an effort to display U.P. and Michigan work prominently, and that patrons are excited to find it on the shelves.

“They check it out and they love it,” she said.

She said PLDL has Riekki’s books, as well as those of Marquette-area author L.E. Kimball, who’s featured in the anthology. They also have books by local children’s author Boni Ashburn and the detective novels of Harley Sachs, a retired Michigan Technological University professor who lived in Houghton until just last year.

“Kimball has read here, and had a good response,” Alquist noted.