Why I Write About Marquette
The following essay is the preface to My Marquette, to be released this week.
WHY I WRITE ABOUT MARQUETTE
Where do you come up with your ideas? What made you decide to write about Marquette? Ever since Iron Pioneers was first published, my readers continually ask me these questions.
My answer is that having been born and raised in Marquette, and being so enculturated into the city’s history and its people, as an author I simply cannot not write about it. The best advice a writer is given is “Write what you know” and if I know any place, it is my hometown, where I and generations of my ancestors have lived. I am unable to remember the first time I saw St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Old Savings Bank, or Presque Isle Park. They have always been there, always been a part of my conscious world—always actively influenced my imagination.
My earliest memories include my grandfather telling me about Marquette’s past, stories I never forgot that made me wonder what it was like to grow up in this town in the early twentieth century, when automobiles were still a novelty, long before television, in days when my grandpa would get a quarter to scrub the kitchen floor, and he would use that quarter to treat himself and a friend to a silent movie at the Delft Theatre and still have change left over for snacks.
Since I was eight years old, I knew I wanted to write stories, and growing up in a town where my family had lived so long, hearing story after story about the past, I wanted to write down those stories and make the past come alive for people. While in college, I became interested in family history. I learned then that the earliest branch of my family came to Marquette in 1849, the year the village was founded, and my family has lived in Marquette ever since. As I learned more about my ancestors and Marquette’s history, I could not help but imagine what it would have been like for a person to come by schooner across Lake Superior in 1849, to see only a wilderness where a village was to be built, and what it was like after two decades of struggling to build that town, to see it destroyed by fire in 1868, only to spring up again, grander than before. And what of the winters? Feet and feet of snow, and no snowblowers or modern snowplows. What an amazing courage and determination the pioneers had to carry on each day in the nineteenth century. In my novels, I tried to recreate the early settlers’ experiences so readers would understand and appreciate their courage and draw their own strength from the examples of those mighty pioneers.
The scene in Iron Pioneers that I feel best demonstrates The Marquette Trilogy’s themes of courage and survival is when Molly and Patrick talk about why they left Ireland to come to America. Their discussion reflects the tales of many immigrants who came to Marquette—some like Patrick to escape religious or political oppression—some like Molly, to avoid poverty and suffering. Molly’s daughter, Kathy, after overhearing her mother relate how her ancestors had starved during the Irish potato famine, and knowing that others around the world are far from as fortunate as her, asks her future husband what the past and her ancestors should mean to her.
“How can we live in America, knowing that others are suffering?” Kathy asked.
“By appreciating our good fortune and being happy.”
“Happy?” she asked, feeling it impossible after years of living under her stepfather’s oppression, after the suffering her mother had known. She feared to be happy from fear it would not last.
“Yes, happy,” said Patrick. “All those people who suffered would want us to be happy, to live and marry and have children who will not know such pain. We are the extensions of our parents and grandparents and all those brave people; we’re a continuation of their spirits, and our happiness helps to validate their struggles, to give meaning to their lives.”
He only understood this truth as he spoke it, as he suddenly believed the world could be a wonderful place; that everything could work out for the best. He felt like an old Celtic bard who foresaw a hopeful future capable of washing away past grief.
I wrote my trilogy as a tribute to those pioneers who built Marquette, and those like them in every community who built this nation despite the difficulties they faced. Whether a person has ever visited Marquette should not determine whether they find enjoyment or inspiration from the history of this fine city. The story of Marquette is the story of the American Dream, of dreams for a better future and the struggles to achieve that dream, the hopes and fears of countless American generations of immigrants seeking a better world, and how some achieved it, some failed, and some persevered without giving up. Based on the pioneers’ examples, my novels have hopefully inspired readers with the courage to endure their own trials and overcome them. To give people that courage, and to hear how much my novels have resonated with them, has made the many lonely hours of writing all worthwhile.
In writing about Marquette, I knew I wanted to capture the magic of one particular place and allow readers to travel there and come to know it as well as I did. I have lived in Marquette all my life except six years when I foolishly thought I would find a better life elsewhere, only to feel exiled. While I was away, Marquette celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1999, and that same year, I, homesick, decided to write about its history.
I had written other novels, but never satisfied with them, I had left them unpublished. When I began writing Iron Pioneers and its sequels, although I knew the task would be monumental, I finally felt I had found my voice, the books I was actually born to write.
I wrote about the outdoors—the wild, thick forests, the temperate, green-leaved splendid summers of blueberry picking and daring to enter Lake Superior’s cool waters, the roar of the winter wind, the blizzards that leave behind snowbanks that must be shoveled, and ultimately, the sense of peace one feels among so much natural beauty. I wrote about Marquette’s history, for I could not imagine a more inspiring story than the American Dream played out in a quest to build an industrial empire along Lake Superior, of an iron discovery that produced more wealth than the California Gold Rush, of a mined product that helped to win major wars and change the world. And I wrote about the change and decline of that iron industry, how it affected the people who lived in Marquette, sometimes fulfilling, often destroying their dreams.
Mostly, however, I wrote about life in a small town, of the relationships between people in a community. Many people think small towns are quiet and dull because they lack the fast-paced lifestyle of metropolitan areas. But small towns have a greater and more personal drama. Willa Cather, author of O Pioneers and one of my greatest influences—my title Iron Pioneers is partly a tribute to her—best described the relationships in small towns in a passage I used as the front quote for Narrow Lives:
In little towns, lives roll along so close to one another; loves and hates beat about, their wings almost touching. On the sidewalks along which everybody comes and goes, you must, if you walk abroad at all, at some time pass within a few inches of the man who cheated and betrayed you, or the woman you desire more than anything else in the world. Her skirt brushes against you. You say good-morning and go on. It is a close shave. Out in the world the escapes are not so narrow. — Lucy Gayheart
Relationships are complex in small towns, the layers of social networks dizzying; in the intertwining family trees and the friendships of my characters, I tried to capture this reality. A love affair or a conflict between friends can be of mammoth proportions in the history of a small town—as important to its inhabitants as a world war is on a national or international scale. It was that personal connection to each person and place that one feels living in a small town that I wanted to capture in my fiction.
I have felt lonely in large cities, walking down streets where not a face is familiar, where no one notices you. In Marquette, although it has grown to where I can go into a store without seeing a familiar face, I know if I stop to speak to any stranger for a minute and name a few friends or acquaintances, the stranger and I will know someone in common. We are only separated by a degree or two in our little city of twenty thousand people.
Living your entire life in the same place breeds familiarity. Even if I see no one I know when I walk about Marquette, the city is rich with memories and history for me. It is an indescribable comfort to enter the downtown post office and recall that my grandfather helped to build it during the Great Depression. I can walk down Washington Street and see the stone in the sidewalk marking where the Marquette Opera House once stood, where my grandfather proposed to my grandmother before it burned down in the great fire and blizzard of 1938. The First Methodist Church has a stained glass memorial window to honor my ancestral aunt and uncle, Delivan and Pamelia Bishop, who were among its founders in the 1850s. I look out onto Iron Bay and imagine what my ancestors must have felt when they first arrived on its shore. My readers tell me, because of my novels, they now walk about Marquette, equally imagining what life was like here for the generations before them—to me, that is the ultimate compliment to my work—that it has made my readers imaginative and interested in history and especially their own family stories.
A timelessness settles over a person who grows older while living in the same place. You talk about Cliffs Ridge, the ski hill whose name was changed to Marquette Mountain twenty years ago, yet your old friends know exactly where you mean and do not correct you—it is still Cliffs Ridge in their memories too. As you drive into South Marquette on County Road 553, you turn your head out of habit to look at the old red brick house of the Brookridge Estate, which you have always admired, only to realize it is 2010 now, not 1982, and the house was torn down nearly twenty years ago to build the new assisted living facility, Brookridge Heights.
Moments of joy from your past keep you connected to people. Thirty years ago, the Marquette Mall had a fountain with colored lights—so many people have told me they had forgotten about it, and they were glad when I reminded them of its beauty in Superior Heritage. Every place I step, I remember a dozen moments from my own past—I stop to get gas at a station where once stood the Bavarian Inn where I had breakfast dozens of time. I go to the remodeled Delft Theatre and can still remember the first movie I saw there when I was three years old—memories layer themselves on top of each other. The past never dies—we can travel back to it in our minds, and reading a book is the opportunity to enter another world or an author’s mind and experience another person’s experiences.
I imagine such nostalgia and family connections are why people enjoy my books, why some of my readers stay in Marquette despite the possibility of better lives elsewhere, or why many of my readers, exiled from Upper Michigan, find comfort for their homesickness by revisiting Marquette through my words. Books and memories allow you to go home again.
This deep abiding connection, this sense of place, of belonging, of knowing I am home and knowing how much that is to be valued—that is why I write about Marquette.
Tags: bavarian inn, Bishop family, brookridge estate, cliffs ridge, Delft Theatre, fire and blizzard of 1938, First Methodist Church, great depression, iron pioneers, marquette, marquette mountain, marquette opera house, my marquette, superior heritage, tyler r. tichelaar, upper michigan, willa catherYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.