Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Love Song: Frankfort, Michigan, an essay by Lee Zacharias, author of Across the Great Lake

It can be a magical experience to read historical fiction that captures the essence of a place from long ago. In today's guest post, Lee Zacharias writes eloquently about the setting for her new novel and the reasons why she chose it. Coincidentally, Frankfort happens to be a place where I've traveled many times; I look forward to revisiting it by reading Across the Great Lake, which is published today by the University of Wisconsin Press.


Love Song: Frankfort, Michigan
Lee Zacharias

In many ways my new novel, Across the Great Lake, is a love song to a time and place. The setting is more than backdrop. It is the long-lost beloved, the place my narrator Fern yearns for. In fact, the novel began with place; I knew the setting before I knew any of the characters or their stories, that beautiful northwestern Michigan town with its shady streets, gracious old houses, Lake Michigan's crystal-clear water, the pristine beach, steep bluff beyond, most of all the haunting call of the foghorn, now long gone.

But it would be wrong to say I invented the characters simply to populate the novel. They and their stories grew out of that place, just as we are all formed, one way or another, by the places we come from. As Eudora Welty said in her essay "Place in Fiction," it does far more than "furnish a plausible abode for the novel's world of feeling," it "is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction..." Location serves to make the characters real.

My narrator, Fern, behaves the way she does and feels the way she feels, because of where she comes from, high on a hill above the loveliest of lovely streets in a town that sits on the opposite side of its harbor from what was still in the 1930s the industrial hub of Benzie County, the infinitely less lovely village of Elberta that is home to the apprentice deckhand, Alv, and many of the other sailors. The Frankfort of my novel is the domain of officers, Elberta the realm of iron workers, switch operators, and ordinary sea men.

I visited Frankfort once as a girl, a girl who grew up at the southern end of the lake, among the steel mills and oil refineries of Indiana's Calumet region. No one swam at our beach, which was often littered with dead alewives. The water was polluted. And so when I saw Frankfort I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. To live there would be like living inside a sunlit picture post card.

Lighthouse, Frankfort, Michigan (photo: Mark Johnson)

My reality was a sky dreary with smoke from the mills, a treeless lower middle class street lined with the cramped tract houses that had replaced the fouled prairie. I fell in love with Frankfort because I recognized Elberta, its railyard and asphalt tanks near the beach that stored petroleum products from a refinery no more than ten miles from my house, those tanks that gave the village a distinctive gassy odor. Our feelings about place are as much a part of us as the color of our eyes or shape of our toes, and I hated where I lived and longed to escape.

And so when I was twelve Frankfort became the locus of my other life, the fantasy I wished to live instead of the all-too-real world that seemed to drag out the sentence of childhood and adolescence that bound me to Hammond. In Frankfort I would be able to walk wherever I wanted to go. In Hammond I played in the school band, and every time the director called an evening rehearsal I had to ask for a ride from my father, who always let me know what at inconvenience it was. In Frankfort, I would be one of the teens playing volleyball on the beach instead the awkward pubescent ridiculed by the neighborhood boys. In Frankfort I would be free, not just of Hammond but of myself. Such, I imagined, is the power of place.

And yet Fern is no princess in my fairy tale other life. Tragic things happen to her. She is responsible for another. Though she belongs to a class my teenaged self aspired to, her unconscious sense of privilege contributes to the harm that will haunt the rest of her years, that will transform a lively, adventurous little girl into a woman incapable of fully engaging with her adult life. For her childhood is synonymous with the place that exile denies her. She yearns for Frankfort because it is hers. And as I wrote I yearned with her, but the reason I yearned for Frankfort and the lake my own father once sailed was because they had never been mine. The only way I could claim any part of them was to inhabit her, to write her story as if it were memoir.


photo credit: Traci Arney
Lee Zacharias is the author of a collection of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It Through the Night; three novels, Across the Great Lake, Lessons, and At Random; and a collection of personal essays, The Only Sounds We Make. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, North Carolina's Sir Walter Raleigh Award, Southern Humanities Review's Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, Prairie Schooner's Glenna Luschei Award, and a Silver Medal in Creative Nonfiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (the IPPYs).

Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and been recognized by The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essay, which reprinted her essay "Buzzards" in its 2008 edition. She taught at the University of Arkansas, Princeton University, and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English, as well as many conferences, most recently the Wildacres Writers Workshop. Find her online at http://leezacharias.com.


  1. What a lovely meditation on place. It's so true that we are all formed by the places we come from, and good characters are too! This book sounds intriguing.

  2. I enjoyed this lyrical, poignant essay and would love to read your novel, Lee.

  3. I agree - I'll be putting an order in for it shortly!