If Walls Could Talk: Lake Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants

Now one of the most popular retirement area for Americans and Canadians, the Lake Chapala Region, nestled in a valley almost a mile high in Mexico’s Volcanic Axis,  has long been a draw for ex-pats and vacationers, lured by its almost perfect climate and beauty.

In his book If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants about Mexico‘s earliest international tourist destination (also available in Spanish), award-winning author Tony Burton shares his knowledge and interest in a region where he has spent more than two decades. Burton, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society who was born and educated in the United Kingdom, first visited Mexico in 1977. That visit was obviously a big success as he returned and for almost 18 years lived and worked full-time in Mexico as a writer, educator and ecotourism specialist.

He met his wife, Gwen Chan Burton who was a teacher of the deaf and then director at the Lakeside School for the Deaf in Jocotepec, one of the three main towns lining the shores of Lake Chapala. Though they now reside on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the Burtons continue to revisit Mexico regularly and he is currently editor-in-chief of MexConnect, Mexico’s top English-language online magazine.

The other two towns, each with its own distinctive vibe, are Ajijic and Chapala, native villages resettled by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s. “This book looks at how Chapala, a small nondescript fishing village in Jalisco, suddenly shot to international prominence at the end of the nineteenth century as one of North America’s earliest tourist resorts,” writes Burton. “Within twenty years, Chapala, tucked up against the hills embracing the northern shore of Mexico’s largest natural lake, was attracting the cream of Mexican and foreign society. Thus began Lake Chapala’s astonishing transformation into the vibrant international community it is now, so beloved of authors, artists and retirees.”

The book, organized as a walking tour, covers not only existing buildings but also pinpoints the spots where significant early buildings no longer stand but their histories still weave a story of the town. It’s only a partial guide, explains Burton, noting that an inventory prepared by the National Institute of Anthropology and History identified more than eighty such buildings in Chapala including many not easily visible from the road but hidden behind high walls and better viewed from the lake.

Among the famous people who lived in Chapala at some point in their careers was author D.H. Lawrence, probably best remembered for his risqué (at the time) novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

In 1923, Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, rented Casa de las Cuentas (House of Rosary Beads), a house that dates back to the 1800s. At the time, a one-story abode with a half-moon entrance and heavy wooden gates, it was located at 307 Calle Zaragoza, a street formerly known as Calle de la Pesquería (“Fishing street”) so named as it was where the local fishermen repaired their nets and hung them out to dry. It was while living on Calle Zaragoza that Lawrence wrote the first draft of The Plumed Serpent, published in 1926. The novel is described asthe story of a European woman’s self-annihilating plunge into the intrigues, passions, and pagan rituals of Mexico.”

Over the decades, after the Lawrences moved out, subsequent changes were made to Casa de las Cuentas including  the addition of a swimming pool in the mid-1950s when artist Roy MacNicol and his wife, Mary, owned the home.

While Lawrence’s writings were considered by some as scandalous, MacNicol’s life had its scandals as well. Burton describes him as “colorful” in that he was married multiple times and was involved in many escapades as well as lawsuits.

Mary, embracing the local culinary traditions including the use of flowers in cooking, authored Flower Cookery: The Art of Cooking With Flowers.

It wasn’t the work of a dilettante as reviews of her book such as this one on Amazon shows.

“Flower Cookery is recipes, but far more than recipes,” writes one reviewer. “The book is organized by the popular name of the flower in question. Each section is introduced with quotations from literature, philosophy, and poetry that feature the blossom. This is followed by the recipes, interwoven with mythology, stories, and aphorisms about the flower, the plant from which it grows, its symbolism, and the culture or society in which humans discovered the value of the plant or blossom. The recipes include original favorites as well as recipes collected from historical sources and contemporary sources around the world. Here is just the tiniest sampling of the riches in the book.”

Burton shares her Christmas Cheer recipe from when she lived at Casa de las Cuentas.

Christmas Cheer

10-12 squash blossoms with stems removed

2 eggs, beaten

2 to 3 tablespoons water

Flour, enough to thicken mixture about one tablespoon

Salt and pepper

1 cup neutral oil such as grapeseed, canola, or safflower

Wash and dry squash blossoms on paper towels, making sure to remove all the water. Mix remaining ingredients except oil to make a smooth batter. Place oil in a large, heavy skillet to 350-375°F. Dip blossoms in batter and fry in oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot.

As for the house, it was renovated again in the early 1980s and is now Quinta Quetzalcoatl, a lovely boutique hotel.

If Walls Could Talk is one of four books that Burton has written on the Lake Chapala region. The other three are Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: decades of change in a Mexican Village; Lake Chapala Through the Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales  (2008), and the recent Lake Chapala: A Postcard history. All are available as print and ebooks on Amazon.

The above maps, both copyrighted, show Chapala 1915 [lower map] and 1951 [upper map].

In all, he’s planning on adding several more to what he currently calls the Lake Chapala Quartet, these focusing on the writers and artists associated with the area.  I asked him  to describe the region so readers who have never been there can get an idea of what it is like, but it turns out the Burton is NOT a traveler who meticulously plots every moment of a trip before he arrives. Instead, he tells me that part of the fun when traveling is to not know in advance what places are like and instead to see and experience them for yourself.

“That said,” he continues, “the various villages and towns on the shores of Lake Chapala are all quite different in character. The town of Chapala, specifically, is a pretty large and bustling town. It is growing quite rapidly and has added several small high end boutique hotels in recent years, as well as some fine dining options to complement the more traditional shoreline ‘fish’ restaurants. The many old–100 years plus–buildings in Chapala give the town a historic ‘air’ where it is relatively easy to conjure up images of what it was like decades ago. By comparison, Ajijic, now the center of the foreign community on Lake Chapala, has virtually no old buildings and more of a village and artsy feel to it, though it also has very high quality accommodations and more fine restaurants than you can count.”

Other structures still standing include the Villa Tlalocan, completed in 1896 and described by a contemporary journalist as “the largest, costliest and most complete in Chapala… a happy minglement of the Swiss chalet, the Southern verandahed house of a prosperous planter and withal having an Italian suggestion. It is tastefully planned and is set amid grounds cultivated and adorned with flowers so easily grown in this paradisiacal climate where Frost touches not with his withering finger…”

Also still part of the landscape is Villa Niza. One of many buildings designed by Guillermo de Alba, the house, according to Burton, was built in 1919 and looks more American than European in style. Located at Hidalgo 250, it takes advantage of its setting on Lake Chapala and has a mirador (look out) atop the central tower of the structure, which affords sweeping panoramic views over the gardens and lake. De Alba’s strong geometric design boasts only minimal exterior ornamentation.

Burton, who specializes in non-fiction about Mexico, related to geography, history, travel, economics, ecology and natural history, has written several fascinating books about the history of the Lake Chapala region.

In If Walls Could Talk, Burton invites you to walk with him through time as you explore the city.

Santa Museum Hosting Story Teller and “Santa’s Daughter” by Mrs. Pat Koch Book Signing

On Saturday, December 3, 2022, at 1:00 pm Central time, guests are invited to gather in the historic Santa Claus Church where the spell-binding Susan Fowler will return to the site to give us her entertaining and interactive rendition of the classic tale Twas the Night Before Christmas. A Merry Memory Sketch souvenir illustration of the afternoon’s story will be available for each family. There is no charge to attend, however donations to help restore the historic church are happily accepted.

Immediately following the storytelling, Mrs. Patricia Koch, w will hold a book signing for her recently published book entitled Santa’s Daughter. Mrs. Koch’s nostalgic book shares stories about her hometown of Mariah Hill, her experiences at Santa Claus Land and memories of her dad, Santa Jim Yellig. Her goal, at age 91, is to preserve the history of the town of Santa Claus and the surrounding area. Mrs. Koch will be in the historic church to sign books, answer questions and chat with visitors. Mrs. Koch is being honored this year by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb with the 2022 Sachem Award, the state’s highest honor. She also has been inducted into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.

Also at no charge, families are invited to visit the museum, check in with Santa in his Museum Office, browse the gift shop, write letters to Santa in the historic Post Office, view the 12-foot Santa Claus Mural and the 22 foot Santa Claus Statue.

The Santa Claus Museum & Village is a not-for-profit organization which not only seeks to preserve the history of the town of Santa Claus but also to perpetuate the tradition of answering thousands of children’s letters to Santa. The Museum & Village are open daily Monday through Thursday from 10 am – 2 pm and Friday through Sunday 9 am to 4 pm, closed Christmas Day. The Santa Claus Museum & Village is located just south of Holiday World at 69 State Road 245 in Santa Claus, Indiana. For questions or further information, please call the Santa Claus Museum at 812-544-2434. And for more holiday ideas in the town of Santa Claus, click here.

Traveling Through Time and Around the Globe

The quote from Jean Batton, an early female aviator was the inspiration for Maggie Shipstead to write “Great Circle” about a female aviatrix who disappears in Antarctica in the last century and a modern day movie being made about her.

In 1914, Marian Graves and her twin brother, James, are among the last to be saved when the Josephina Eterna sinks in the North Atlantic. With their father in prison and their mother gone, the two babies are bundled off to live with their Uncle Wallace, an artist in Missoula, Montana. Wallace, preoccupied with his painting, lets the kids run wild, and while James is a sweet-natured child, Marian is a daredevil who revels in the freedom to do what she wants.

That helps explain her attraction to the lifestyle of barnstorming aviators and her decision at 14 to drop out of school to learn to fly.

Fast forward a century. Actress Hadley Baxter, whose Hollywood stardom is somewhat diminished, is starring in a movie about the disappearance of Marian Graves in Antarctica.

The story of these two women takes us back and forth from past to present and around the globe in Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle” (Vintage Books 2021; $24).

The disappearance of a woman aviator is familiar. After all, movies and articles are still being written about Amelia Earhart, whose plane vanished in the Pacific Ocean in 1937. But there are many other female pilots from the early and mid-1900s, though they’re exploits are mostly forgotten now. Writing “Great Circle” required Shipstead to research and travel to give the book its authenticity. She visited the Arctic five times and Antarctica twice.

Why so many times, I asked Shipstead.

“I’m drawn to those regions by some weird instinct,” she said. “I think a lot of people are. But I’ve also been lucky to keep getting opportunities to go. Polar travel has become a bit of my specialty, so I’ve been sent on assignment to Alaska, the New Zealand subantarctic, Antarctica, the Canadian high Arctic twice, Greenland twice. I did an artist residency on a ship in Svalbard. In a way, one thing kept leading to another, and I have no complaints.”

The inspiration for “Great Circle” came to her in New Zealand. She was between books and a story line for her next novel that she had thought looked promising, wasn’t. In the airport, she saw the statue of early aviator Jean Batton, its base inscribed with her quote “I was destined to be a wanderer.”

She knew she had her book.

Given how much she has traveled, I wondered if Shipstead was destined to be a wanderer.

“Destined is probably strong,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in travel, but my life could have taken lots of twists and turns that would have precluded traveling as much as I have. Really, this book turbocharged my traveling because, A, I was motivated to get to more and farther flung places in the name of research, and B, it took so long to write the book that I had the chance to start writing for travel magazines.”

I next asked if she ever considered becoming a pilot given her interest in the subject.

“Never,” was her response. “My brother used to fly C-130s in the Air Force and wanted to be a pilot from childhood, so that was always his territory.”

This article originally appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.

2022 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Books and Drama

This year’s Pulitzer Prize winners.

It’s the 106th year honoring excellence in journalism and the arts. http://Pulitzer.org. #Pulitzer

Fiction

The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, by Joshua Cohen (New York Review Books)

A mordant, linguistically deft historical novel about the ambiguities of the Jewish-American experience, presenting ideas and disputes as volatile as its tightly-wound plot.

Finalists

Monkey Boy, by Francisco Goldman (Grove Press)

Palmares, by Gayl Jones (Beacon Press)

Drama

Fat Ham, by James Ijames

A funny, poignant play that deftly transposes “Hamlet” to a family barbecue in the American South to grapple with questions of identity, kinship, responsibility, and honesty.

Finalists

Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, by Kristina Wong

Selling Kabul, by Sylvia Khoury

History

Covered with Night, by Nicole Eustace (Liveright/Norton)

A gripping account of Indigenous justice in early America, and how the aftermath of a settler’s murder of a Native American man led to the oldest continuously recognized treaty in the United States.

Cuba: An American History, by Ada Ferrer (Scribner)

An original and compelling history, spanning five centuries, of the island that became an obsession for many presidents and policy makers, transforming how we think about the U.S. in Latin America, and Cuba in American society.

Finalists:

Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction, by Kate Masur (W. W. Norton & Company)

Biography

Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, by the late Winfred Rembert as told to Erin I. Kelly (Bloomsbury)

A searing first-person illustrated account of an artist’s life during the 1950s and 1960s in an unreconstructed corner of the deep South–an account of abuse, endurance, imagination, and aesthetic transformation.

Finalists

Pessoa: A Biography, by Richard Zenith (Liveright/Norton)

The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine, by Janice P. Nimura (W. W. Norton & Company)

Poetry

frank: sonnets, by Diane Seuss (Graywolf Press)

A virtuosic collection that inventively expands the sonnet form to confront the messy contradictions of contemporary America, including the beauty and the difficulty of working-class life in the Rust Belt.

Finalists

Refractive Africa: Ballet of the Forgotten, by Will Alexander (New Directions)

Yellow Rain, by Mai Der Vang (Graywolf Press)

General Nonfiction

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City, by Andrea Elliott (Random House)

An affecting, deeply reported account of a girl who comes of age during New York City’s homeless crisis–a portrait of resilience amid institutional failure that successfully merges literary narrative with policy analysis.

Finalists

Home, Land, Security: Deradicalization and the Journey Back from Extremism, by Carla Power (One World/Random House)

The Family Roe: An American Story, by Joshua Prager (W. W. Norton & Company)

The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White

Karen White and I are talking about ghosts, particularly the ghosts haunting Melanie Middleton Trenholm in White’s latest novel, The Attic on Queen Street, the last in the series set in haunted Charleston, South Carolina.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” she asks.

Not really, I reply, but I also don’t like staying in places that are supposedly haunted when I’m by myself.

White feels the same way because, as we both agree, you just never know.

It’s then that her phone goes dead.

“I don’t what happened,” says White when she calls back. “My phone was charged and everything.”

Coincidence? Most likely. But still, it makes you wonder.

But phones going dead are the least of the problems for Melanie, a Charleston real estate agent with young twins, a husband who is deciding whether he wants to stay in the marriage, and a teenaged stepdaughter whose room is haunted. Indeed, the entire house on Tradd Street is haunted. Some of the ghosts are helpful, some are evil, and one is the ghost of a dog—which is fine as it gives Melanie’s dog a companion to play with. And to make matters worse, Melanie’s young daughter is already showing signs of being able to see ghosts.

Ghosts are such a problem that Melanie learned early on to sing ABBA songs loudly to drown out the sounds of the dead people trying to talk to her. But that only works sometimes and in this novel there’s plenty of evil for Melanie to deal with both living and dead. For starters there’s Marc Longo, who stole her husband’s manuscript and turned himself into a bestselling author. Longo is now heading a film crew in Melanie’s house while underhandedly trying to discover the diamonds he believes are hidden there. Melanie is also trying to aid a good friend in discovering who murdered her sister years ago—with the help of the cryptic messages the deceased sister keeps sending her way. And then there’s Jack, her handsome husband. They’re still in love but Jack is darned tired of Melanie always getting herself into deadly situations.

White first introduced us to Melanie in The House on Tradd Street in what was to be a two book series.

“But when it came out and was so popular, my publisher said let’s make it four,” says White. “This is the seventh and I’m really going to miss them.”

Well, kind of, as White is continuing the theme of a haunted city and the Trenholm family, only with Melanie’s stepdaughter in the key role who has to deal with her only supernatural beings when she move  to New Orleans in a book due out this coming March called The Shop on Royal Street.

Interestingly, the Tradd Street series was originally going to be set in New Orleans. White went to Tulane University and in 2005 she was all set to go with her family back to New Orleans to do research for the first book when Hurricane Katrina hit.

“I knew that there was no way with all the catastrophic flooding, and deaths that I could write this story without having Katrina in it and this wasn’t that kind of book,” says White, who has authored 23 books,

Choosing Charleston made sense as White had ancestors who lived in Charleston in the late 1700s and family who had lived on Tradd Street. In ways, she says that when she visited, she felt the pull of genetic memory—a sensation of a past shared life.

“I smelled what they call pluff—which is rotted vegetation,” recalls White, “and I said oh doesn’t that smell so wonderful.”

Coincidence? Doubtful.

The Attic on Tradd Street is also available as an audiobook and electronically.

America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness

A Norwegian farm girl, her family so poor, they often went hungry, is seduced by a rich landowner’s son. But despite her dreams, he has no plans to make her his wife. Abandoned, she sees only one path forward or she’ll sink into the black hole of her family’s poverty. But her first goal is revenge and after the landowner’s son dies a horrid death amidst whispers of poison, she boards a boat and sails to America. Norway’s gain is America’s loss.

Her name changed through the years but after the mysterious deaths of two husbands, numerous men, women, and children, she goes down in his as Belle Gunness.  An entrepreneur whose business was murder, Gunness felt no qualms seducing men for their money and dispatching them with her axe—filling her farmland with her victims.

As her crimes were about to be discovered, her solid brick home burnt to the ground and workers battling the smoke and flames discovered the bodies of her three children and a woman without a head.  Was it Belle  or did she get away with one more murder, absconding with close to a million dollars. It’s a question the world has been asking since 1908.

America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness (Indiana University Press/Red Lightning Oct. 4, 2021; $20).

What people are saying about America’s Femme Fatale.

Ammeson uses astute research and punchy prose to chronicle Belle’s transformation from destitute farm girl to one of history’s most egregious female serial killers. . . . Compact and captivating, this salacious tale of murderous greed during the early twentieth century will be devoured quickly by true-crime fans.– Michelle Ross ― BOOKLIST / Amer Library Assn

It’s a mesmerizing cautionary tale I had to keep reading despite the late-night hour. . . . Ammeson writes narrative nonfiction with a sense of drama to propel us along the unbelievable.– Rita Kohn ― NUVO

America’s Femme Fatale is the detailed story of Belle Gunness, one of the nation’s most prolific mass murderers. Ammeson recounts the horrific events with dry wit and corrects many errors found in previous accounts. Gunness stands out in an infamous crowd because she was a woman; she killed men, women and children rather than choosing from among one narrow section of victimology; and her murders seem to have been rooted in greed rather than lust, the serial killer’s usual motive.– Keven McQueen, author of Murderous Acts: 100 Years of Crime in the Midwest

Jane Ammeson will be on Hoosier History Live talking to the show’s host Nelson Price about Belle Gunness. The show airs live from noon to 1 p.m. ET each Saturday on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis. Or stream audio live from anywhere during the show. For those who miss the show, it’ll be available by podcast as well.

A Blissful Feast: Celebrations of Family, Food, and History

“In our culture we have lost our connection to cooking,” says Teresa Lust, author of  A Blissful Feast, Culinary Adventures in Italy’s Piedmont, Maremma, and Le Marche ( Pegasus Books 2020; $19.19 Amazon hardcover price), The Readable Feast’s 2020 winner for Best Food Memoir.

Teresa Lust

Lust, who teaches Italian at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire and also cooking classes, grew up in an Italian-American family, learning to cook from her mother and grandmother whose recipes were written by hand on little notecards. Wanting to discover and delve into Italian cuisine because of its meaning to her, she learned to speak Italian and traveled through the country of her ancestors.

“I wanted to see and feel the connections to the traditions and geography of the regions,” says Lust, whose previous book,  Pass the Polenta: and Other Writings from the Kitchen, was praised by Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun and Julia Child.

Going deep, she visits relatives and meets the people of the regions’ small towns, going into their kitchens to watch as they prepare food. It’s a constant learning process about the intricacies not only of the broad regional cookery of Italy that many of us are familiar with—that of Florence, Naples, or Sicily but of such places as Maremma, an area in western central Italy bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea and Le Marche, a region sandwiched between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine Mountains.

“Italian food is very regional, and even in the regions its broken down by cities, and then gets smaller and smaller until each dish is an expression of oneself and it can be an affront and violation if others add ingredients or make changes,” she says. “There’s an integrity to the dish.”

It’s not the way we think of food here. Indeed, to me a recipe is to be altered by ingredients I have on hand so the idea of not changing is a thoughtful concept, one that I will think about. But then again, I’m not making family recipes dating back centuries and besides, old habits die hard. 

In Camerano, a town in Le Marche, an 80-year-old woman shows Lust how to hand-roll pasta with a three-foot rolling pin. In Manciano, she masters making Schiacciata  All’Uva, a grape flatbread with honey and rosemary that back home in New Hampshire takes her two days to complete.

But, Lust says, you only spend a few minutes in active work as if it were as easy as popping a frozen dinner into a microwave.

Intrigued by the food philosophy of the people she cooks with, she goes beyond recipe and its ingredients to their history and what they represent.

Acquacotta—such a beautiful word and beautiful dish–but then you find  out what it really means–cooked water and that it was born out of poverty made by people who had nothing,” Lust tells me when we chat on the phone.

In her description, acquacotta is a rustic soup that nourished generations of the area’s shepherds and cowhands. It’s her way of adding poetry to food and to people who take such pride in what they cook.

Lust includes recipes in her book, but this is not a glossy cookbook, but rather a lovely and thoughtful journey of rediscovering roots and meaning.

The two of us discuss growing up with ethnic relatives and how important the culture of the table was for us when young.  It does seem to be something that is missing from our daily lives and Lust is hoping to reconnect people to food and help them see the importance of  taking the time to bring friends and family to the table to enjoy a meal.

In the cooking classes she teaches she demonstrates how to make Italian food  and encourages participants to talk to her in Italian. She feels that she is helping forge an important connection that way.

“I have people contact me through the website who said they tried the gnocchi and though they never thought they could make it, they found it was easy for them,” she says with a touch of pride.

For more, visit www.teresalust.com

President Obama’s Annual List of Favorites

“As 2020 comes to a close, I wanted to share my annual lists of favorites,” Barack Obama, the 42nd President of the United States, tweeted to his 127.5 million followers. “I’ll start by sharing my favorite books this year, deliberately omitting what I think is a pretty good book – A Promised Land – by a certain 44th president. I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I did.”

Somehow, the President forgot to include adding one of my books to his list again. Well, there’s always next year.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Luster by Raven Leilani

Sharks in the time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Memorial Drive Natasha Trethewey
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Missionaries by Phil Klay
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Glass House by Emily St. John Mandel

The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America: Sixteen Teenagers on an Adventure of a Lifetime

In her last year of college, Lorraine Boissoneault, an avowed Francophile and writer who lives in Chicago, became interested in the French history of North America and the journey undertaken by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the first European to travel from Montreal to the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Her fascination with the great explorer led to a conversation with an underwater diver and thus to the story of La Salle’s Le Griffon (The Griffin), the first full-sized sailing ship on the upper Great Lakes which disappeared in 1679 with six crew members and a load of furs—also making it the first shipwreck in the Great Lakes. Luckily La Salle had disembarked before the ship made its final voyage. She also learned about a Reid Lewis, a French teacher who decided to re-enact La Salle’s trip, an eight-month, 3,300-mile expedition he undertook with 16 students and six teachers dressed in the period clothing from that time to celebrate the country’s Bicentennial.

Interviewing the voyageurs as well as visiting places where La Salle had landed during the journey and reading original documents written in French (“nothing is ever quite the same in translation,” says Boissoneault), who wrote The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America: Sixteen Teenagers on an Adventure of a Lifetime (Pegasus 2016; $27.95).

“It’s amazing when you think of how much they could withstand,” she says, meaning both La Salle and Lewis’ crews.

Indeed, Lewis and his group of students and educators had to trudge over 500 miles of Midwestern landscape during one of the coldest winters on record in the 20th century, paddle in Voyageur canoes across the storm tossed and freezing Great Lakes and, in keeping with their pledge to emulate La Salle, start their campfires with flint and wood.

Of all the thousands of miles they retraced, Lewis’ voyageurs felt that Canada’s Georgian Bay on Lake Huron was most unchanged and therefore the closest they came to what La Salle would have experienced in terms of the water and landscape.     

“We’re fascinated by history but you can’t go back no matter how hard you want to,” says Boissoneault noting she can’t imagine seeing Chicago without civilization as La Salle would have done. “The past is unobtainable. Most poignant for me is their walk across the Midwest. They were doing the same thing La Salle did and wearing the same clothes but nothing was like how it would have been in La Salle’s day.”

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean’s newest book, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, $28), is about a fire and a library but like all things this New York Times bestselling author writes (The Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin), it’s so much more. A lover of libraries since she was very young, Orlean had been toying with the idea of writing about the subject when her son, then six-years-old, announced that his class assignment was to write about a city employee and instead of the typical fireman or policeman interview, he wanted to write about a librarian.Susan Orlean_credit Noah FecksSusan Orlean_credit Noah Fecks         Then, after moving to Los Angeles, Orlean was at the Los Angeles Central Public Library when the librarian opened a book, took a sniff and announced that you could still smell the smoke. Orlean asked if that was from a time when smoking was allowed. The answer was no, instead the aroma dated back to April 29, 1986 when an inferno blazed for seven hours, reaching 2500 degrees. It took half of the Los Angeles’s firefighting resources to extinguish the blaze and by then flames and water had destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000.
“It was the combination of all of these that gave me the final push; it was as if I was being nudged, repeatedly, to look at libraries and find a narrative about them to write,” says Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of seven books. “Learning about the fire was definitely the final nudge that made me sure this was the story I wanted to tell.”

But how to tell the story? For Orlean, who is obsessive about details and research—it took her almost as long to write the book as it did to rebuild the library—she had to figure out her focus.

“That’s exactly what the challenge was–it was a topic that was both broad and deep, with so much history and so many ways I could pursue it,” she says. “I finally decided to treat it as a browse through a library, with stops in different ‘departments’ of the story, such as the history, the fire, the present day, my own library memories. By visualizing the story that way I was able to move through the topic and engage as many aspects of it as I could.”

Her attention to details, both past and present is amazing and intriguing. We learn that Mary Foy, only 18, became the head of LAPL and also, because the fire was set by an arsonist, she delves into previous book burnings such as when in 213 B.C. Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered any history book he didn’t agree with be destroyed. The act, says Orlean, resulted in over four hundred scholars being buried alive.

In keeping with her compulsive exploration, Orlean even tried burning a book herself, just to see what happens and how it is done.

Asked to name her favorite library, Orlean mentions the Bertram Woods branch library in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

“That’s where I fell in love with libraries and became a passionate reader,” she says. “Of course, I’ll always feel a special attachment to the L.A. Public Library, because of the book, and it’s a great library to be in love with.”

Orlean also hopes people appreciate the gifts library give us.

“I want people to think about the nature of memory, both individual memory and common memory,” she says. “Our individual memories are as rich as a library, full of volumes of information and vignettes and fantasies. And our common memory is our libraries, where all the stories of our culture reside. I love reminding people of the value of both.”

Ifyougo:

What: Susan Orlean discusses her new book followed by a book signing.

When: November 13th at 6 pm

Where: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public Library, 400 S. State Street, Chicago IL

Cost: Free

FYI: (312) 747-4300; chipublib.org

 

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