Midwest Book Review
Mary Cowper, Cowper’s Bookshelf
“A seminal work of simply outstanding scholarship that is unreservedly recommended. . . .”
Synopsis: From the Native water monster who raised canoe-killing storms to thousand-foot cargo ships, sailing the Great Lakes has inspired autobiography, folksong, poetry, and fiction about some of the most beautiful, most dangerous, waters in the world.
White Squall: Sailing the Great Lakes is comprised of the words of the men and women who survived the storms, here showcased are the dangers and triumphs, the ghosts and mysteries, the daredevil risks and losses, spanning the worlds of Native journeys, wars on the lakes, early canoe travel, schooner work, yacht racing, steamer travel, and the great bulk carriers.
Their accounts are deftly edited by Victoria Brehm with introductions and technical explanations, illustrated with photographs and drawings, and accompanied by notes and a glossary of sailing terms.
Heavy-weather sailors, arm-chair sailors, and every reader in between will find something interesting. Essentially, “White Squall” is a history of the lakes written by those who knew them best in all weather and all eras from the beginning to the present.
Critique: Inherently fascinating, impressively informative, exceptionally well written, organized and presented, White Squall: Sailing the Great Lakes is a seminal work of simply outstanding scholarship that is unreservedly recommended for both community and academic library Great Lakes History collections and supplemental studies reading lists. It should be noted for students, academia, and non-specialist general readers with an interest in the subject that “White Squall” is also available in a digital book format (Kindle, $24.99).
Michigan in Books:
“It is an outstanding example of dogged research accompanied by brilliant commentary. The book had me wallowing for days in my fascination and passion for Great Lakes maritime history and heritage.”
Invariably, whenever I opened this book I recalled my first, intimate experience with the Great Lakes. While still in elementary school I crossed the Straits of Mackinac on a car ferry. In a voyage that was over far too quickly, I soaked in the grandeur of the Great Lakes, spied the log ramparts of Fort Michilimackinac, and spotted an incredibly long, lake freighter crossing the ferry’s wake. On that short voyage, I became incurably addicted to the romance and history of the Great Lakes and this fine book has fed that addiction.
Victoria Brehm’s wonderful book is an anthology of rare firsthand accounts gleaned from reports, letters, memoirs, stories, poems, and diaries of those who sailed paddled or steamed the Great Lakes from the early 1600s through the 1900s. It even includes an excerpt from a David Mamet play. It is an outstanding example of dogged research accompanied by brilliant commentary. The book had me wallowing for days in my fascination and passion for Great Lakes maritime history and heritage.
The White Squall is divided into several thematic sections each of which is introduced by Brehm. Her introductory essays are filled with fascinating details such as how the birchbark canoe was a perfect marriage of function and beauty. Incredibly lightweight but able to carry large loads, it also took great skill to maneuver the craft. She quotes Hemingway after his first try at piloting an Indian canoe proclaiming, “Just as sturdy as a church, like hell. You have to part your hair in the middle to balance it.” In the 1600s voyagers paddled from sunup to sundown and when they came to portages each had to carry 90 lb. packs or more which explains why more voyagers died of strangulated hernias than drowning. In another introduction, she succinctly explains how Great Lake schooners differed from their saltwater counterparts and why.
The author explains the conditions that made the Great Lakes the most dangerous waters in the world to sail and reports that experts estimate 6,000 to 10,000 boats have been claimed by the freshwater seas, including the first sailing ship and first steamboat launched on the Lakes. Ships went down with such regularity in the 19th Century a Congressional investigation was held to determine the causes and remedies.
But the meat of the book and the reason for its endless fascination are the eye-witness accounts and first-person narratives. There is the account of a gun captain who describes the Battle of Lake Erie from the blood-soaked deck of Commodore Perry’s flagship in the War of 812. Brehm estimates that up to 30 percent of Perry’s squadron’s crew were African-Americans. James Fenimore Cooper helped a friend in an Old Sailors Home write his autobiography in which he describes the sinking of his warship in a sudden squall on Lake Ontario. There is a vivid description of a perilous voyage by canoe from the Soo to Detroit that is juxtaposed to a recent first-person account of a woman kayaker’s life and death struggle to survive a storm on the north shore of Lake Superior.
Women officers aboard 1,000-foot bulk carriers detail their experiences as sailors and officers, their life at sea, and the book concludes with one of the women’s poems describing being outbound from Duluth in a Lake Superior storm. One line reads; “In a gale there is no horizon to hope toward, only the greedy, relentless wind of exactly this spot.” There is an account of how a schooner is built almost by hand in a small boatyard in the 1800s. Not to be missed is the 62-year-old Bay City woman who was the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Her brief and precipitous voyage is excerpted from her autobiography which she hoped would make her wealthy. She died poor. The book is filled with diverse and always interesting primary source material from great voices that tell great stories. The book is complemented with illustrations, and a helpful glossary which includes the term, “Barney’s Bull.” The term has an English /Canadian heritage and is slang for worthless. There is also a bibliography that can yield a lifetime of further reading.
This book deserves the “Great Lakes Literary Heritage Award for 2018,” if there was such an award. On second thought there is, I just created it. Ms. Brehm, your certificate will be in the mail shortly, along with a monetary prize up to, but not to exceed Barney’s Bull. Seriously, this book should find shelf space on every medium-sized and larger library in the Great Lakes region and anyone with an interest in Great Lakes maritime history will find it totally engrossing.
Whether you’re taking to the waters of the Great Lakes this summer or contemplating them from shore, White Squall will make an illuminating companion.
Sailing on these most beautiful and dangerous of lakes, on vessels ranging from canoe to bulk carrier, has inspired the autobiography, folk song, poetry, drama, and fiction collected here. Accounts are edited with introductions and technical explanations, illustrated with photographs and drawings, and accompanied by notes and a glossary of sailing terms.
INLAND SEAS: Quarterly Journal of the National Museum of the Great Lakes.
Jacqueline Justice, PhD. Associate Professor, BGSU Firelands College
White Squall provides a varied and in-depth picture of sailing on the Great Lakes that is rich with surprises.
Researchers and historians are likely familiar with Dr. Victoria Brehm’s contributions to Great Lakes studies. In Sweetwater, Storms, and Spirits (University of Michigan Press, 1991), she revealed the unique characteristics of sweetwater fiction. In The Women’s Great Lakes Reader (Ladyslipper Press, 2000), she uncovered the experiences of women in the Great Lakes. In Star Songs and Water Spirits (Ladyslipper Press, 2011), she introduced readers to Great Lakes Native literatures. In each of these collections, Brehm tackled the formidable task of celebrating the often-overlooked voices of Great Lakes writers by locating and contextualizing hard-to-find and nearly lost Great Lakes texts. Throughout her body of work, one theme resurfaces: “Geographically and culturally the Lakes are unique” (5). Revealing the characteristics that make life on the Great Lakes unique is the connecting thread in Brehm’s passion for re-discovering and sharing Great Lakes literature in all its forms.
In this most recent of Dr. Brehm’s anthology projects, she turns her attention to Great Lakes sailing. More than 50 diverse texts are represented in White Squall: Sailing the Great Lakes, including essays, diary entries, poetry, fiction, drama, and songs. In the introduction, Brehm explains the power of this multi-genre approach: “Understanding a subject as complex as sailing the Great Lakes requires not only ‘objective’ facts but literature as well… because without literature the record of what it means to travel on the Lakes or to command a vessel is incomplete” (6). White Squall is organized into eight sections, each with its own introduction and thematic focus, including native selections, wartime texts, various accounts of commercial shipping (from birch bark canoes to bulk cargo ships), accounts of superstitions, ghosts, smugglers, inventors and thrill seekers.
On the surface, these categories may suggest a conventional picture of a “progress-oriented” history of sailing on the Great Lakes. However, Brehm avoids reinforcing popular ideas about the Great Lakes, which she sees as a distortion of history, “a socially constructed past preserved by those who have the power to choose” (5). Instead, selections challenge many common assumptions. Specifically, Brehm’s anthology sets out to show that the history of sailing the Great Lakes “is more than shipwreck” (5). More often than not, selections present paradoxical realities that complicate popular myths. For example, selections in “White Stone Canoe” undermine the myth of Europeans as a dominant force in the fur trade, “The Long journey” reveals the cycles of economic exploitation beneath the gaiety of voyageur songs, and the ghost stories of “St. Elmo’s Fire” provide compelling clues to the power structures and abuses that were often part of life aboard Great Lakes sailing vessels.
White Squall provides a varied and in-depth picture of sailing on the Great Lakes that is rich with surprises. Brehm’s extensive commentary supports interpretation and helps to explain the power of the texts to communicate essential aspects of Great Lakes history: “What endures are writers’ attempts to understand a maritime life unlike any other: close to shore but separated from it as if by leagues of water, technologically sophisticated but prey to unsurvivable gales” (24). The anthology is an indispensable tool for researchers, including extensive notes, a bibliography, glossary and detailed index. Best yet, Brehm is already working on a second volume, which promises additional selections for categories included in the first volume, as well as new sections, such as “Sailors in Small Boats.”
The Anchor Wisconsin Maritime Museum
White Squall is an impressive collection of writing styles leading to an authentic representation of what it means to be from the lakes and to sail them. . . . Whether you’re a history buff, boat nerd, or written word enthusiast, everyone should find something within that suits their interest.
White Squall: Sailing the Great Lakes
Great Stories of Freshwater Sailing