Driving north for a week’s retreat in one of the places I love most—the Keweenaw Peninsula, a peninsula on a peninsula, in the U.P. of Michigan—I packed a bag of books as travel companions. I’ve had an insatiable love of traveling since earliest childhood, and for me, taking books along that in some way reflect on the new world to explore, in some way deepen my experience and help me to understand a place and its inhabitants, is a part of the adventure. I once lived in the Keweenaw, so this is not a trip to discover something entirely new. This is, however, a journey to understand a place, and my place in it, on a deeper level.
And so, among my companion books is this slim-as-an-envelope-stuffed-with-a-love-letter book of stories by ex-Yooper, Jeff Vande Zande. Can one be an ex-Yooper? Yooper is a term Upper Peninsula people use to affectionately describe themselves and indicate their close ties to this northern land. Someone who lives in the Lower Peninsula, that great mitten-shaped part of the state of Michigan that most people think about when considering Michigan, is known as a Troll. You know, someone who lives below the bridge. And the bridge—that would be the five-mile long expanse of steel that connects the two peninsulas, the Mackinac Bridge. Vande Zande is now a “troll,” as am I (sigh). But that he knows and keeps his Yooper roots, I quickly find, is evident in The Bridge.
Settled into my Keweenaw cabin, fireplace stoked, I open up this collection of three stories. The first story is flash fiction, not even two full pages, titled, “Have You Seen Us?” It is a quick glimpse of father and adult child, crossing the bridge, considering a camping spot, but more, considering the connection a bridge provides. A bridge connects two pieces of land, but a bridge is also that connecting thread between people.
Next, a longer story that is the title piece for this threesome, “The Bridge.” Once again, we are looking at steel bridge juxtaposed against the bridges built and sometimes broken between family members: Mitch and Susan and alienated son, Jimmy. Mom Susan urges Dad Mitch to try harder to connect with his son, and Mitch can think of only one way that he knows how to reach out across this generational gap—by taking his son to see the Mackinac Bridge.
“The long stretch of the bridge sent a charge up his spine. He followed it with his eyes from the shore. The south causeway worked its way up the gradually rising piers until it came to the first anchorage pier. Pier 17. It had been years since he’d read seriously about the bridge. From pier 17 his eyes followed the steady arc of the deck and the cables shot back down toward the deck and the center of the bridge. Here the structure looked as though it rested against a mirror, as the cables rose skyward again toward the second tower and the deck began its descent toward the north side causeway and eventually into the bright lighting of the tollbooths. After that it was nothing but the darkness of the Upper Peninsula. He looked underneath the bridge, where the rough water of the straits broke high and ghostly white against the pilings of the piers.”
Awed by this great and powerful structure, cognizant of its history, Mitch presents it to young Jimmy. “What do you think?” he asks. “Big,” replies Jimmy. And with such masterly use of dialogue, almost painfully realistic (who of us have not had such conversations in which one tries to convey depth of feeling while the other remains bland and bored?), Vande Zande manages to tell a story of missed connection. He balances both sides so expertly, that at one moment the reader feels the ache of the father, the very next, the ache of the son. Both, after all, long for connection, but simply do not know how to create it.
The third story is “White Out,” and with this grand finale, Vande Zande accomplishes the rare feat of being able to write cross-gender, that is, a male writer writing with a female voice. Few pull it off; Vande Zande makes it work. The main character of this story is Jackie, a young woman who lives in the Upper Peninsula and, yes, longs for connection. Her family scattered and broken apart, some still living in the U.P., some elsewhere, she has created a life for herself that leaves her longing for substance. Night after night, she sleeps with men with whom she makes a casual, physical connection, but comes up empty on intimacy, or true connection.
“In the smoky light of the bar, leaning against a table, shouting over the music, different men reminded Jackie of her father, big and unafraid. With some she would start relationships, but they never lasted more than a couple of months. She would soon reason that the man was not really a man, not what she imagined a man should be. Many of the men had drinking problems and spent most of their nights in the bar. Others were unemployed. Some lived with their parents. Others cheated on her. One had proposed to her after only two weeks of dating, but girlfriends told her that kind of desperation could only mean bad news.”
Finally, Jackie wakes up one morning too many to an empty bed, last night’s aimless lover gone, and she feels empty and used. Unable to bear her own company any longer, she decides to drive into the winter night to visit one family member after another. Back and forth she goes, at one moment thinking about connecting with her sister in Marquette, then her mother, remarried and now living in Ohio. She thinks about running away from her life and going to Detroit, that great metropolis in lower Michigan, but realizes Detroit has nothing to offer—it’s just “someplace else.”
The winter night has its own say, and as so often happens in the Upper Peninsula, she is forced to stop driving during a white out. Jackie has to wait out the storm at a gas station and convenience store, where she passes the time with the woman running the place with her husband, who also longs to be somewhere else. Once again, Vande Zande shows his mastery of dialogue, choosing just the right words to convey two personalities, very much U.P., very much female, very much lost within their own lives.
One evening of reading by the fire in my U.P cabin, and it was time well spent. I put the little book down on the coffee table and watched the flames, thinking about life that is unique to this place apart, yet in other ways the same as everywhere: people longing for connection, looking for bridges that will help them to know themselves less alone in the world.
~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet