Book Review: A View of the Lake
One of my very favorite authors has done it again - written a book so compelling and readable that you feel like you are RIGHT there with her, experiencing life, love, and nature on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
Beryl Singleton Bissell's new book, A View of the Lake: Living the Dream on Lake Superior, is one that you absolutely MUST have. You might tear through it all at once, as I did (on the porch looking out at our lake, during a rainstorm, mug of hot tea in hand), or take it slowly (well, who could do this? But I imagine someone might be able to slow themselves down and dole out the goodness).
Beryl and her husband fell in love with the North Shore, as Minnesotans call the north shore of Lake Superior, geographically north of Duluth, running up past Grand Marais to Cananda. And what did Beryl and Bill do with this great love of place? They elected to move there. While some travelers do just that (just look at the expat communities worldwide), it is unusual enough in your own state.
And what a move. From the Twin Cities, with arts and culture galore, to the tiny town of Schroeder (pop. 180). From a city to wide open spaces, where nature rules. It's fascinating, this land she loves. These stories Beryl shares, of walks, hikes, bears, birds, family, and incredible people, pull you in and take you there.
Beryl has broken the book up into four seasons of learning, and then small, enticing chapters. Each chapter teaches us about something of life on the North shore. I love the chapters on people and community, where Beryl learns to fit in by giving. I love the chapters on wildlife and nature, what she sees on her walks, hikes, skiing, in storms. But I love most what she learns, from being in a new place and adapting. Life is in the small moments, and Beryl captures these exquisitely:
On being part of a place...
The owning of a few acres of land on the North Shore has given me something that my other homes lacked, a sense of belonging.
On a night of shooting stars...
Small, vulnerable and intensely alive at the moment, I gave thanks for the incredible universe that sustains and enlivens all creatures. I was no longer sipping from the cup of life, I'd become one with it.
On loving winter...
Here on Lake Superior, I fell in love with winter. Perhaps it's the winter sports that I began to enjoy here, the snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Maybe it's the wonder of a wild lakeshore wrapped in winter, hills blanketed with snow, steam rising like smoky geysers from the Lake as the cold air drops onto the warmer water. Perhaps it's the animals that show themselves in such abundance during winter - deer, wolves, bald eagles and ravens, the tracks of tiny scurrying creatures.
Though snow-laden winters are no longer what they once were, I continue to love winter here. Instead of thinking, "Oh no, winter" as I once did when the temperatures began to drop, I now feel a surge of joy when winter reappears. I look at Lake Superior and laugh.
On geese flying to Wisconsin...
While walking back to the house, the cat lagging behind and the dog running ahead of me, I pondered what I'd witnessed. I understood that to fly freely does not mean to fly alone; there is an order and beauty in togetherness that surpasses the wonder of solitary flight. Each goose was but one unit within one species among millions on this planet; this planet but one among billions of stars in the universe; this universe just one among uncounted others and everything expressing rapture of creation.
While the book is centered around being on the Big Lake, rarely does it feature in the chapters. Instead, Beryl looks inward (both geographically and physically) and explores what it is like to live there, on the majestic, ever-changing Lake. The setting practically glows with the love Beryl imbues in her writing - lucky visitors can attest to the beauty of place. That simple joy of being somewhere you love shines through, in this extraordinary book, written in her tiny red writing shed next to the Lake.
It's a treasure to be read time and again, a timeless paean to the soul - the stirring beauty of Lake Superior and the just-right feeling of a sense of place that Beryl has shared.
WE: Please tell us about your new book, A View of the Lake...
BSB: I had such a good time writing this book. I wanted to take the reader into our experience as we blundered, laughed, and learned a lot about what it means to impulsively pull up roots and move to a remote area. So many persons dream of moving to a special place. Some make the move and love it. Some hate it. Some never give it a go. While I felt at home immediately, Bill thought we’d made a dreadful mistake. He travels a lot for his job, so I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the landscape and community on my own. Bill, instead, became known mostly as Beryl’s husband. He was never home long enough to find his way around the kitchen, much less the hiking trails, wildlife, and widely diverging attitudes in a community of strong minded individuals.
WE: What inspired you to write this book?
BSB: I worked for a wonderful literary press, Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis, prior to moving to Lake Superior. Emilie Buchwald, the press’s founder, publisher and editor loved the columns I wrote about our experiences as newcomers and suggested I turn them into a memoir. Besides launching a book, writing a weekly column of 500 words honed my writing skills, sharpened my vision, and toughened my spine. I owe a lot to that experience for the success of my first book, The Scent of God, the memoir about the search for God that led me into a cloistered community as a teenager and the unraveling of that vocation in Puerto Rico when I met and fell in love with a priest. I had plenty of material from which to choose: columns, journal entries, and log books, so it took less than a year to rewrite in memoir form.
WE: Your writing is so evocative of the outdoors. Was it a big change for you to move from the city to the country, where much more of life is spent outdoors?
BSB: You bet it was. Nature, explored on my own, was an exciting, challenging, and sometimes threatening activity. I’d never been much of an athlete, but the landscape called to me. So out I went, into nature, to explore and learn. I wanted to know everything about it. Every tree, flower, butterfly, bird, moss, lichen, rock. The scat and tracks of wild animals enthralled me almost as much as encountering them, and I did, in all sizes, shapes, and appetites. Everything spoke to me. The lake especially with its many moods and visages. It’s a landscape resonant with bounty and benevolence, danger and derring-do.
WE: Settling into a small community takes work, and has great rewards. What were the biggest surprises, for you?
BSB: When I moved here, I pictured myself immersed in my writing and the landscape. I didn’t expect to become a community minded individual as well. I credit our local post-office, at the time a hobbit sized box with a giant sized postmaster, with its always full candy jar and freshly brewed coffee, for introducing me to my neighbors. He sent me up the hill to see the local ladies flower show where I met the most creative, bright, and delightful women at this end of Cook County. It was there that I also learned that Schroeder, with its 180 residents, had its own historical society. I was so tickled by the idea that I volunteered to help and within the week, had been appointed as Oral History Chair and Publicity person. Meeting old-timers and recording their stories not only gave me that proverbial “foot in the door,” but so enthralled me that for the first five years I did little save get involved. Writing sort of leaked out the door. The entire North Shore thrums with activity, most of it generated by volunteers. My hubby Bill had to remind me that I’d promised to finish my memoir, The Scent of God, and to hop-to-it. And so I did.
WE: Living on a lake is an incredible experience. What do you love most about the lake?
BSB: I love the lake for its vastness. One look at the lake and I shed pounds of internal and external pressure. And, despite the terrific noise it can make on windy days, or during its terrifying storms, the lake creates inner silence. I now find the cities that I used to love claustrophobic and incredibly noisy and discordant. The lake, whether it whispers or rages, does so in harmony with the landscape surrounding it.
WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
BSB: I find myself longing that children, especially those in the inner cities, get to experience the beauty and sacredness of the land. To find there nourishment for their hearts, minds, and spirits. To be awestruck and thrilled, to recognize and give thanks for the blessings nature provides so lavishly and to find healing in an increasingly violent world.
Beryl's husband, Bill, and grandkids on Bob Silver's swing
WE: Thanks so very much, Beryl, for enriching our lives with your book, your love of place shining through on each page. We highly recommend it to our Wandering Educators.
For more information, please see:
and to purchase the book (or several copies):
or at Amazon.com
A View of the Lake: Living the Dream on Lake Superior
Beryl Singleton Bissell
Lake Superior Port Cities Inc.
Softcover, 162 pages
Beryl is the author of the nationally acclaimed memoir The Scent of God (Counterpoint 2006 hardcover, 2007 soft cover) and A View of the Lake (Lake Superior Port Cities Inc., June 2011). She was named a Best of Minnesota 2006 Authors by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Scent of God was a Book Sense notable in April 2006.
Note: We received a review copy of this wonderful book from the publisher. Thank you!
All photos courtesy and copyright Beryl Singleton Bissell.