Midwestern Essays Reveal Humility In Nature's Shadow

Jan 22, 2018

Not long ago, the waters off Door County, Wis., had a reputation for danger. Door County gets its name from Porte des Mortes -- French for "door of the dead" -- and for good reason; there are dozens of shipwrecks along the peninsula.

The most recent wreck occurred in 1928.

Author Kyle L. White got a taste of this danger when he boarded a ferry at the tip of the peninsula to visit friends on Washington Island. During winter, ferries clear ice formations by crawling over them, forcing the chunks to sink. But on this trip there was too much ice. They got stuck.

"Did you have heat?" a friend asked White.

"Well, yeah."

"Food and water?" she asks.

"Yeah. I guess."

"Bathrooms?"

"Yeah."

"So, what happened next?"

"Well, the, uh, wind shifted and blew some of the ice out. We made it to the island. A few hours late. Actually four hours late. Crazy, eh?"

White may have been robbed of a heroic story, but he gained humorous insights into the Midwestern psyche which remembers a time when that ferry ride would not have been funny.

"Yeah. So you weren't really in any danger?"

"Well, we could have died, I suppose. Coincidentally. You never know. Life is risky."

"I see. Well, that's quite a story," she says.

"Well, while we were stuck we did see a bald eagle swoop down and snatch a duck out of the water. That's pretty in-your-face wilderness. Dangerous stuff."

The above exchange is included in White's book Neighbor As Yourself, an essay collection that reveals Midwesterners' inherited fears about Mother Nature -- and the need to tell a survival story. White's book is our Read With Me selection for January.

"I was thinking of this theme that runs through Midwestern literature, of humility," White said, "of living at the whim of weather and land and agriculture. So I think there's always this sense of whistling through the cemetery."

White says this feeling persists even in modern times with improved weather forecasting and food production.

"There's still the voices of grandparents that rumble around," he said. "I think there's still the voice of maybe protestant or Catholic guilt that rolls around -- I think there's that sense of 'I'm lucky to be here.'"

Not all of White's writing is about man vs. nature. In the video below, the author reads an essay about a music-sharing club.

On Feb. 10 , 2010, Mother Nature again came after White:

Ka-bam! Clatter, clatter, clatter, clatter! ... We awoke with "What the devil was that?!" and leapt from our bed, peering through the windows, to the patio door, then the front door. Nothing.

White's neighbors in Sycamore, Ill., guessed everything from an airplane crash to a terrorist attack. Then:

Our neighbor, Joe -- the science teacher and newly minted meteorologist -- he guessed it, however and guessed it right. He sat up thermometer-straight in bed at 4 a.m., according to his wife, Carolyne, and exclaimed, "Earthquake! 4.3! And then, by her report, he dropped back in a satisfied slumber.

In his essay "The Quake of '10," White recounts how CNN, The Today Show, and Facebook put his hometown at the epicenter. Then the quake was downgraded to a 3.8, and the epicenter moved three miles east. Once again, White felt robbed.

"I think that's just typical Midwest," he laughed. "Our expectations are set low, and so we probably thought it was going to get bumped anyway." White admitted it was probably for the better.

"We wouldn't know what to do around here if that attention had continued," he said. "We would've been embarrassed."

Humility in the face of indifferent nature is a hallmark of White's writing -- and, it appears, his personality. But in an interview with WNIJ, a hint of pride emerged when talking about a friend who moved to Florida and later hunkered down during Hurricane Irma.

"The next day she texted or tweeted that 'I'd rather go through a hurricane than thirty-below winters'. That makes us pretty tough," he said, laughing.

Neighbor As Yourself is Kyle White's second essay collection. He previously was interviewed on WNIJ for his first book, Wisconsin River of Grace.

Next month, our "Read With Me" series turns to fiction with The Clubhouse Thief, by James Janko.

As always, we welcome your comments in the space below. And if you talk about our series authors or books on social media, please use #WNIJReadWithMe.