Monday, September 17, 2018

Across the Great Lake by Lee Zaharias

Across the Great Lake introduces Fern, a five-year-old girl on a winter voyage across Lake Michigan on a railroad car ferry in 1936. While her mother lies at home in bed after the death of her second child during childbirth, Fern’s father, the ship’s captain, takes her on the ship despite the risks of such a journey. Fern’s voice is one this reader will long remember. There are only a handful of books that feature such an authentic child’s voice. Zacharias captures the fear, joy, wonder, honesty, and imagination that inhabit childhood. Fern is precocious yet she’s in no way precious, cloying, or cute. She’s quite simply herself and that alone makes this a delightful novel. Still, that isn’t half of what this gem offers. It’s packed with the fascinating history of northern Michigan ferries, shipwrecks, icebreakers, and all things nautical. It also offers the best of literary novels with foreshadowing and pacing that roar toward the anticipated, yet haunting conclusion.

Chapters narrated by Fern as a widow in her eighties bring the reader back to the present and keep Fern’s childhood voice fresh. The adult Fern demonstrates the universality of looking back upon our lives while pondering our deficiencies. Zacharias has a masterful way of making the reader feel that she is Fern looking backward in time.

Fern’s description of the car deck and her reason for wanting to visit it shows her use of word pictures. (Note: Manitou is the stuffed bear she named for the Manitou islands and the name of her father's ship.) “What I wanted to see was the caboose. Sometimes when you watched a freight train go by, the man in the caboose would come out on the little platform in back and wave, and I thought I would like to stand on that platform and wave too. I could wave good-bye to all of the people in Frankfort who were going about their business just like always on a cold winter day, trying to dig out their cars or shoveling their steps or walking to the butcher or grocer or maybe just visiting. Billy Johnson might be making a snowman in the yard that was just the other side of the big wooded lot between our houses. Or maybe he was coming through the woods with his sled so he could ride down our long, steep driveway, and he might wonder where I was and why I didn’t come out to play, and he wouldn’t know that I was on a boat, that I was on a boat and a train both at the same time, and that I was going to sail all the way across the lake just as soon as we got out of the frozen harbor, and even Manitou, whom I had left in the observation room, got to go, and Billy didn’t.”

Fern’s five-year-old fascination with the time zone change in the middle of Green Bay makes her believe that it was “five o’clock and four o’clock at the same time because if the line ran right down the middle of the ship, it would be suppertime only on one side of the table.” When the bosun spoiled her fun by telling her that time didn’t change on a ship, she realized that “made sense because my father would wear his pocket watch out if he had to reset it every time the Manitou crossed the lake.”

Alv, a fourteen-year-old boy on his first journey, is another beautifully imagined character. He’s “different” and thus bullied by the crew, yet he’s kind and caring with Fern. He lives across the bay in Elberta which isn’t quite as nice as Frankfort where Fern lives. Later Fern realizes that perhaps their worlds weren’t that dissimilar having “the many colors of sand and sky and that transcendent stretch of sweetwater sea that lay between us and the edge of our world, most of all the rhythm of the waves coming home day after day, night after night, all that would have been there for him just as it was for me. For all I know he too might have remembered his childhood as happy.”

When the crew encounters severe weather and other difficulties, Zacharias makes the journey as exciting as that shown in the best of sea-faring adventure novels. This book is the real deal. The author is also an acclaimed photographer and her eye for detail shows in the word pictures she conjures.

Summing it Up: Across the Great Lake introduces Fern, a genuine character that readers will long remember. Fern’s voice will capture those longing for a literate, historical novel packed with action that offers enchanting characters and a poignant ending.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: GPR/PP/SN, BC

Publication date: September 18, 2018

Author Website:

What Others are Saying:

“One of the most intensely written and beautifully conceived novels to come my way in many a season. I will be thinking about these characters for a long, long time. Seldom have I read a story with so much life on every page. Zacharias is a master.”  Steve Yarbrough, author of The Unmade World

”Lee Zacharias is one of those profoundly rare writers, a natural. Her voice is one you can trust, and her characters are real, moving, and come from the experience of someone who knows what trouble human beings get themselves into.” Craig Nova, author of The Good Son

An astonishing novel of high intelligence and moral rigor. Lee Zacharias is a master. . . Like Harper Lee and Marilynne Robinson, Zacharias reminds us of the lasting power of childhood.” Elaine Neil Orr, author of Swimming Between Worlds