I had two things I was excited about when I arrived in Michigan on my literature tour: re-reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I first read in high school, and something with deep, cold, icy, and snowy winter.
I was happy to experience both. As a bonus, Middlesex, which I read immediately after The Autobiography of Malcolm X, included a storyline in which one of the characters worked in the Nation (of Islam) Temple # 1 in Detroit: a temple that also appears in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and is clearly a major part of Detroit’s history.
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides, born Detroit 1960
Setting: 1960s Detroit and Grosse Pointe
Categories: Pulitzer winner, Literary fiction
Beginning in Greece with a brother and sister who fall in love with each other as they flee overseas to America while their city burns, Middlesex is the story of Calliope turned Cal: the hermaphroditic grandchild of Desdemona and Lefty, who grew up in a small village and didn’t know that intermarrying close relatives could have genetic consequences. They emigrate to Detroit in the 1920s, and this novel is a story of struggling to survive in a world and a society where you are on the bottom.
Mixed with their story of Old Word making its way to the New are also the stories of the Nation of Islam, with whom Desdemona found a job when her husband/brother’s speakeasy was rendered irrelevant by the end of Prohibition. The Nation of Islam “began to take shape in the midst of poverty-stricken Detroit,” and alongside the Greek assimilation is the story of the 1967 race riots of Detroit. And alongside those stories is the story of Calliope, who when she finally hears doctors throwing around words about her condition follows a trail of synonyms in the dictionary to arrive at “hermaphrodite… See synonyms at MONSTER.”
In terms of giving a sense of place, the parts of the book set in Michigan are marvelous, whether racing a bootlegging car across a frozen lake at night, barricaded behind Greek cafe doors during the race riots, smokestacks and car factories, or in the woods of the Upper Peninsula, Middlesex delivered on showing Michigan.
Now the Detroit River sped past and the city loomed. Lefty stared out at the motor cars parked like giant beetles at the curbsides. Smokestacks rose everywhere, cannons bombarding the atmosphere. There were red brick stacks and tall silver ones, stacks in regimental rows or all alone puffing meditatively away, a forest of smokestacks that dimmed the sunlight and then, all of a sudden, blocked it out completely.
Book: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Authors: Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Setting: 1950s-1960s Detroit and Harlem
“Detroit Red” was the Michigan-born Harlem hustler Malcolm Little who, after years of thought and avid reading during his prison sentence, reformed, cleaned himself up, and became a follower of Elijah Muhammad and a minister of the Nation of Islam. When he was released from prison, he replaced his surname with the letter X to indicate he didn’t know his true African name. He rejected the surname associated with the white slave owners of his ancestors, and went by the name Malcolm X for the remainder of his life.
Malcolm X named himself the angriest black man in America. He spoke bald, uncomfortable truths about the black man’s plight and the real circumstances of ghettos and why they exist. He spoke of beatings, and prejudices, and keeping blacks in menial service roles and certain parts of town, and of the suspicion a black person suffers anytime they’re not in the right role or the right part of town. He advocated for blacks to protect themselves against the violence — the beatings, lynchings, lashings — of white men, and was called violent for that.
His story is a potent, fearless telling of the what the African-American people have suffered the past 400 years, and how utterly ridiculous and insensitive it is for a privileged white person to say, “They just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, those lazy, good-for-nothings living off the system.” The white man has no idea what it’s like to navigate the American landscape — finding a job, getting an education at a good school, living in a decent neighborhood, or even just walking down the street — in black skin.
This is an important book. However, as a woman, it enraged me to see Malcolm X treat women the same way he complained of the white man treating blacks: beating them, forbidding education, thinking he knows what’s best for them, keeping them in “their place.” And he didn’t even see it. How will we ever progress with this kind of blindness?
Book: Winter Study
Author: Nevada Barr, worked as a Park Ranger on Isle Royale in Michigan
Setting: winter on Isle Royale, an island National Park in Lake Superior
I did not keep notes on this book, but I remember it had everything I wanted by the time I had gotten through the heft of the previous two Michigan books. It gave me Michigan winter on frozen Lake Superior, in a closed-for-the-winter National Park where the only inhabitants have conflicts of interest regarding the wolf population on the island. I didn’t have to think, I just got to sit back and ride the words.
I’m finding again and again that it is the mysteries that have the best sense of place, and Winter Study was no exception. If you want a good page turner to curl up by the fire with, and you want snow, ice, wolves, science mixing with politics and ego, and a murder on an isolated island that is cut off from the rest of the world during winter, then this is a book for you.
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.