Year-end reading: "Station Eleven," a novel set in post-apocalyptic Michigan
One of the books making many of the best books of 2014 lists was set largely in Michigan. But a book about life in Michigan after a pandemic might not be what you want to read when you are sick.
I found this book when I was Up North on a rainy weekend with only 100 pages left in the last book on my reading list.
Luckily, Petoskey has a real bookstore.
"Can I help you?" asked the guy working at McLean and Eakin.
"I don't know what to read next."
We talked briefly about what I'd read recently and he said, "Here's one we're really recommending. Station Eleven. It's not gone over well with a lot of our regulars because it's set after a pandemic wipes everybody out."
I'm thinking to myself that is so not my kind of book.
But he continues, "It’s a National Book Award winner and it's about a symphony that travels along Lake Michigan and Huron performing Shakespeare."
"How did I not hear about this?" I wondered.
I bought it. I started it. Then I got a nasty cold.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is set against the pandemic scenario the epidemiologists are always talking about. A deadly flu starts in a far flung place. In the book, it's Georgia (as in former Soviet Union Georgia). The flu quickly spreads by airplane passengers and in mere weeks has wiped out 99% of the population. Without people, there's no one to transport fuel, keep the electricity going, and maintain the infrastructure that powers modern life.
I've seriously worried about society being on the brink of collapse twice. Once on 9/11 when the radio station was evacuated for a bomb threat not long after the second tower fell. The other time when the grid went down across the upper Midwest taking the gas pumps, ATMs, and other foundations of modern life with it.
Each time, as I started to think about what happens next and what I'd do, I'd think the answer would be to head north to northern Michigan, to Petoskey. It’s where I go when I need to escape.
So there I am blowing my nose reading a book about a web of characters and their lives before, during, and after the pandemic. And yeah, what life in northern Michigan is like after civilization collapses.
It isn't pretty. It's violent, the temperatures are extreme, and life is hard.
But slowly people learn to adapt. They eke out an existence. Then they start to reach for more. A museum of civilization, a performance group, a librarian in "New" Petoskey starts a newspaper, and a community that’s rediscovered electricity is seen in the distance from an abandoned air traffic control tower.
The author, Emily St. John Mandel, is from Canada, lives in New York, and has pretty much only been here on a book tour. But her book touched a nerve of pride.
In this fictional post-apocalyptic Michigan, the people here rebuilt the things that make us human – art, markers of things past, technology, and media. Perhaps it's a metaphor for what this state has been through. Our economy, our cities, and many of our neighbors have hit really hard times. But in the midst of it all our artists, writers, and innovators have helped people move forward.
It's what's happening in Midtown Detroit.
Twenty years ago I worked in the Cass Corridor. It was a dangerous place where my car was vandalized multiple times, people I knew were carjacked, and a police officer even advised us to run red lights if things felt sketchy. But today, it's a hotspot of quirky businesses, artists, and tech incubators.
Maybe Mandel knew what she was doing in setting Station Eleven here. But I kind of doubt it. It's just one of those universal things about how humans move forward after things fall apart. But sometimes it's the universal that can feel so particular and so personal.
My cold is getting better, the electricity still works, and society stands. But I do think I need a new disaster plan. Sorry Petoskey.