The Experience of Writing About One's Home

January 14, 2018

Outside of the Northwest in the Summer, Northern Michigan is not what one would call over populated.  The possibility of just blending in and staying anonymous is not likely.  This involuntary transparency could make a writer doubt a sentence or two.  Historians have certainly struggled when, out of necessity, they are forced to confront something that may be seen as negative about their own culture, religion or family.  It may even be worse when writing of other cultures.  Emily St John Mandel used Petoskey as her setting for Station Eleven but that book was a futuristic fiction, nothing at which a resident could point a fingerFurther, she is not a native of the region and unlike Travis Mulhauser never lived in the area, just used the place as a setting.  Enter Julie Buntin who on this day has been listed as a 2018 Michigan Notable Book author for her novel Marlena.  Marlena centers on Cat, who at age 15 is forced to leave her metro Detroit home and private school and move to a low end house with sketchy neighbors in a fictional northern town.  Far enough out in the sticks, the closest grocery store with vegetables is over 20 miles away.  Lonely and bored in her new town in the rural north, she meets Marlena, a pill-popping neighbor who dies young.  Buntin, like Mulhauser, grew up in northern Michigan and has a clear understanding of the region outside of tourism.  Mulhauser has been frank about his world view of the area which does come out in Sweet Girl, but in today's Detroit Free Press article about the Michigan Notable Book award, Buntin admitted to trepidation stating, "I was terrified of publishing a first book for many reasons, especially with these themes and how difficult it is to talk about (addiction and death with respect to teens) and it was possible people would be upset that I wrote about this subject and in (Northern Michigan). But the literary community in Michigan has been so supportive of me and my book.".  I suspect that residents support writers like Buntin and Mulhauser as they are to Michigan writing as Dorothea Lange was to portrait photography and  Philip Levine was to poetry.  Realism may not be as picturesque as a stunning John Singer Sargent portrait or a Stepford-esque community but the approach does deliver a level of respect that touches its subjects.  In such writing, the author is telling the community or people on which it was modeled, "we see you clearly" and thus the respect.  The characters like the people of the region are not black and white nor caricatures but complex individuals dwelling in their real word that contains good, bad and numerous shades in-between.  Well done, Ms. Buntin and thank you for your vision. 



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