The Long-Shining Waters, by Danielle Sosin, Milkweed Editions, 320 pages, $24.
Reviewed by LISA WALKER
Danielle Sosin’s first novel, which plumbs the lyrical depths of Lake Superior, won this year’s prestigious Milkweed National Fiction Prize. It’s an ambitious piece of fiction by this Duluth resident, not because the story line captures the fury of Superior — the storms and shipwrecks that are part of its legend — but rather the lake’s quiet, constant power that makes human drama so small in comparison.
The book follows three different women, living in very different times, along Superior’s coast. Although the lake never assumes the role of main character in these story lines, it’s a dominant presence, like a family member whose tempestuous nature rises up infrequently but unpredictably, and as a result possesses all of the power in the room.
These three women seem to have very little in common. Grey Rabbit, a 17th-century Ojibwe woman, lives in a tribal community with her sons, husband, and mother-in-law, just before the “white-faced man” paddles ashore. Her recurring dreams portend danger, and their peculiar unraveling makes her gravely ill until she takes her healing into her own hands.
Berit, a young woman living in 1902, struggles with the long absences of her fisherman husband. So far, the lake has been giving to this quiet, loving couple, and hasn’t flaunted its brutal strength. When tragedy befalls them, she becomes a numb, powerless witness to her life, able to move on only when she is ready.
And Nora, the flag-bearer of the novel, lives out a modern-day story in the year 2000. She has lost her husband, and the Schooner, the bar she’s owned in Superior, Wisc. The Schooner’s satisfying rituals and regular customers have kept her afloat. But that reality doesn’t last as long as she’d like, either; and Nora must come to discover a way through all the murkiness. As she road-trips around Lake Superior on a personal journey to discover what’s next, Nora seems to carry with her unconsciously the stories of Grey Rabbit and Berit.
But the narratives are indeed similar, and the lake that casts the land in shadow is still only part of the larger story. Lake Superior humbles these women and their families, but it also teaches them the truths we all need to learn again and again — that life is unpredictable. We can set out in our boats on a clear morning, intending to fish for our supper, but things happen. That was always the bargain; we just forgot that fact when life got so calm.
There’s another benefit from living in the presence of Lake Superior — it models the kind of deep, dark, life-preserving strength that the women need to acquire. Superior’s cold can keep a body intact for years. It can burnish an agate so it gleams. It holds passion, but dispassionately. It simply is.
Superior does assume a voice in The Long-Shining Waters. From below the surface, it calmly observes the happy and the tragic. It means nothing personal by the pain it sometimes causes.
Nora cruises around the big lake in her old Buick, stopping in bars that remind her of her beloved Schooner. She smokes and drinks and hangs out, eating French fries and meeting strangers who are oddly familiar, profoundly wise. She buys souvenirs for the granddaughter she adores, and ruminates about what went wrong between her and her daughter. When she gets back, she thinks, she will make amends.
Nora has dreams of her own, too — although less frightening than those of Grey Rabbit — but they make her wonder. She records long lists of items to report to the insurance company. Sometimes “California” appears on the pages of her notebook too — sounds like an awfully nice place, doesn’t it? After the trip around Superior, will she go there? Is that the place for her?
But these are just plans, and you know what becomes of those. Maybe yes, maybe no — that’s as far as we can go.
Lisa Walker has written for the Detroit Free Press and other publications in Michigan. She lives with her family in St. Paul.
(American Jewish World, 8.5.11)