My parents have been vacationing in Door County, Wisconsin since the early 1970s, and throughout my childhood, my sister and I would accompany them to this quaint, picturesque peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan. Even as hordes of tourists descend upon the rural county, with its cherry orchards and fishing hamlets, high end boutiques and fancy restaurants, it retains vestiges of its historical, hardscrabble past. Over the years, I’ve read a few books featuring Door County, usually read while relaxing around a campfire or a windswept coastline, having just eaten a comforting soup or slice of pie from local restaurants. On these early fall days, when we would typically cross state lines to spend a weekend away, I might think back on times spent in this “Cape Cod” of the Midwest. Sadly, what I have read so far has rarely really complimented that nostalgic feeling of visiting the area.
Old Peninsula Days, for instance, a reprint of a 1959 edition, picked up at a used book sale sometime ago (it’s original owner having purchased it at one of said boutiques twenty years earlier) was one such disappoint. I was a bit skeptical of its veracity from the start and I can’t say it really holds up as the definitive historical account of the region.
Consisting of a series of vignettes in a vague chronology, Old Peninsula Days features interesting backgrounds for the history of the Peninsula and the surrounding Great Lakes region, from its original inhabitants, to its place in the conflict between various western powers, to the Belgian and Scandinavian immigrants who settled it to farm and fish. Much of it, based on oral history collected by Norwegian born Hjalmar R. Holand, appears entirely apocryphal, almost tall tale like- a Norwegian and Irish neighbor’s increasingly cruel and elaborate practical jokes played on each other, various tales of people surviving nights cast adrift on floating slabs of ice on the lake. However, these occasionally amusing or riveting stories could not balance the many issues Holand has as a historian.
I first encountered the author in his role as proselytizer and advocate of the Kensington Rune Stone, the intriguing little conundrum of Minnesota lore- see more here. Of course, in (?) his rather fervent defense he created a myth around the stone that has little bearing on reality. Here, he writes of his adopted homeland and the towns and landmarks found there with the same breathless authority to be found in his other, more outre writing. Not a professional historian, his account is full of convenient hyperbole and moralizing, bigotry and trite declarations.
The most obvious and troublesome issue in Old Peninsula Days was its persistent, awful racism. Few chapters went by without some disparaging remark or insult to one ethnic group or another, even where you might least expect it. Though one can expect differing cultural mores and attitudes from people writing through their own background and time period, Holand’s writing seemed extreme and bizarrely rampant even for its day. Even the academic mainstream of the late ‘50’s were rarely so openly racist as this. The indigenous peoples who inhabited the Great Lakes region before Europeans came out the worst. Holand, though occasionally sympathetic to indigenous people being ill treated by settlers, consistently depicts them as primitive savages, using that very word numerous times, and even proclaiming that an appreciation of the natural splendors of the peninsula was impossible to them. Rarely did he pass up any excuse to insult or belittle these groups, and it quickly became painful to read.
Finally, Holand’s writing is often stilted and affected, not exactly pleasant reading for a relaxing camping trip, and I can’t recommend Old Peninsula Days. There are other sources that offer the same tales and historical accounts in a much more pleasant manner.
One such resource is Ghosts of Door County, a slim, gentle collection of regional ghostly tales. While not the most interesting or even spine-tingling collection, the unique settings of the Lake Michigan shoreline and woods of the Door County Peninsula, and its changing seasons, make it a much better choice for a campfire read. There’s just something about the quaint and charming villages and woods, especially on a moonlit night that lends itself to ghost stories. Similar themes are explored here as in the former book; people lost on flows of ice, fishers and farmers on hard times, lonely cemeteries. On the other hand, there isn’t anything too groundbreaking about the ghost stories included, and it would not offer much for anyone unfamiliar with Door County.
Speaking of ghosts and Door County, “The Vanishing Season,” by Jodi Lynn Anderson, a young adult novel set there, promised an intriguing, eerie story, but sadly, it turned out to be quite disappointing. It is true that the vividly drawn setting added a lot of atmosphere to the ultimately empty novel. .
The Vanishing Season follows 16 year old Maggie, whose family has fallen on hard times and are forced to move into a dilapidated inherited vacation house on the tip of the peninsula. Maggie, a serious, staid girl, is apprehensive about the move but soon meets her neighbors, Pauline, a wealthy, beautiful, quirky girl who seems refreshingly unpretentious and childlike, and Pauline’s childhood friend Liam, the gentle eccentric outdoorsy boy who loves woodworking. The two soon help Maggie adjust to her new surroundings and she even begins to think of it as home. It is evident pretty early that there will be a love triangle between the three, as Maggie soon finds Liam to be her first love, while he is smitten with Pauline, who sees him only as a friend and appears completely uninterested in romance.
Meanwhile, terror is being spread on the peninsula as a mysterious serial killer begins murdering young women and dumping their bodies in Lake Michigan, while at the same time a mysterious ghost-like entity watches the three teenagers and the killer, while trying to remember their reason for lingering. These asides became the most interesting part of the novel, but unfortunately neither the ghost nor the murders affect the characters or the plot in any tangible way, and they could be removed entirely with very little change in the proceedings.
While we get to know Maggie a little throughout the novel, I felt the characterizations of every other character were misleading and weak, if they got any characterization at all. Their actions often contradicted what we (or at least Maggie) thought they knew about them- is this because Maggie is a bad judge of character or because of poorly described characterizations? I think the latter, judging that aside from these three, nobody else gets more than a token identity- with cases such as Liam’s dad receiving just a handful of lines of dialogue. As the novel closed into it’s last few chapters I was like, “Hmm, they’re going to have to make a reveal pretty quick here,” but… the ending came out of nowhere and, though foreshadowed earlier, seem to render much of the proceedings pointless.
Beautiful writing and atmosphere coupled with a disappointingly meandering love triangle and a hasty, unsatisfying ending was not enough to make “The Vanishing Season” anything but a disappointing read.
Perhaps, one of these days, I’ll discover a book featuring Door County that actually does it justice!