Say what you want about Ernest Hemingway – call him a misogynist, call him a genius – the man loved Michigan. Up until his early twenties, he spent almost every summer up north at his family's cottage near Petosky.
And it's there where most of The Nick Adams Stories take place.
"Once he said you have to get away from a place in order to be able to write about it," says Valerie Hemingway. "And so he was in Paris when he wrote most of these stories."
Valerie Hemingway was with him in Paris when he wrote the stories. Before she married into the family, she was Hemingway's secretary and occasional fishing buddy. During that time she says Hemingway used to go on and on about the good old days back in northern Michigan.
"That was one of his favorite things to do," says Hemingway. "He taught me how to shoot a gun, taught me deep sea fish, told me about the river fishing…and these were things that were initially associated with Michigan. And I think Michigan represented the freedom in his life. You know, the hunting the fishing, the beauty, the spaces."
They were walking on the brown forest floor now and it was springy and cool under their feet. There was no underbrush and the trunks of the trees rose sixty feet high before there were any branches. It was cool in the shade of the trees and high up in them Nick could hear the breeze that was rising.
This is Nick Adams country in the early 1900s...at least as Ernest Hemingway remembers it. But if Nick Adams went up north today, he probably wouldn't recognize the place:
I think we've done our share of damaging it," says Mary Crockett. "And I'm sure there are areas that we can still find something that he found, but it would be few and far between.
Crockett read The Nick Adams Stories for her book club. Mostly older women are in the book club – and they all met up at the Plymouth Public Library to talk about the The Nick Adams Stories.
Like any good book club, there's a fair amount of critical discussion mixed with a healthy dose of humor. But with this particular book, the group spends most of their time reminiscing. Mostly about what life was like up north in Nick Adams day...all virgin woods and great open spaces and streams filled with big fat trout.
Debra Madonna says she experienced some of the Nick Adams life when she was a kid up north some 50 years ago. So for her, reading the Nick Adams Stories is like a nice memory.
"It was like looking at a photo album," Madonna continues. "Plus thinking Michigan's not like there as I said. It's more polluted, the water's not as clean. So that's sad. My kids will never know the Michigan I knew."
Adam and Eva Colas agree. They're reading The Nick Adams Stories in a workshop at 826 Michigan, a non-profit teen writing center in Ann Arbor. The Colas siblings have lived in Michigan their whole life. And they can't relate to Hemingway's northern Michigan experience at all.
"It doesn't feel really representative of Michigan to me," says Adam. "Cause even if you go to Lake Michigan now," says Eva, "there are specific pits for bonfires and specific cabins and all these designated areas that make sure you don't get lost or hurt, and you don't have to do anything for yourself."
The organizers at 826 Michigan thought that might happen...so they came up with the next best thing. An outdoor classroom where the students can talk about the stories while doing what Adam and Eva Colas call "the Hemingway thing."
"The nature, hiking, canoing. We can't do the hunting and fishing thing, but like just sort of experiencing nature as nature and that kind of thing. Michigan as it was back in the day when this takes place."
So even if you never got to experience the big open spaces and virgin forests and clear blue streams of Northern Michigan back in the day...well, there's always the public library.
For more information on the Great Michigan Read, visit http://www.greatmichiganread.org/
WEB EXTRA: 826 Michigan teacher, Ryan Howard, challenges his students to write their own Hemingway-esque mini stories.
Hear the stories