The waves of Lake Superior are backdrop and soundtrack in the alternating stories of three strong but severely tested northern women.
Duluthian Danielle Sosin's fine debut novel opens in 1622, in the dream of an Ojibwe woman named Grey Rabbit:
The cold wind off the lake sets the pines in motion, sets their needled tops drawing circles in the sky. It cuts through boughs and they rise and fall, dropping snow that pits the white surface below. The hardened leaves rattle and sail, and the limbs of the paper birch sway, holding the sky in heavy wedges.
The dark bundle, like the nest of a squirrel. Dark bundle, tiny corpse, lurching with the branches against the sky as the big water, Gichigami, slings against the shore. ... The waves like wolves leap over each other, toss sea foam from their open mouths.
As Grey Rabbit's nightmare unfolds, the waves grow wolflike eyes and climb the rocks toward the dead child in the tree. She awakens, atremble.
And so we are plunged, fascinated and chilled, into one of three alternately narrated stories that make up this masterful ode to the sprawling, shape-shifting freshwater sea that is Lake Superior.
Anyone who has spent time near it, especially in stormy weather, has felt its power, danger and beauty. Sosin, a Duluthian who worked on this novel over a decade, clearly has incorporated Superior's rhythms and moods into her very marrow, and the accuracy and eloquence with which she pays homage to it is impressive.
Grey Rabbit's 17th-century story alternates with those of Berit, a Norwegian fisherman's wife on Minnesota's North Shore in 1902 who is beset by sudden tragedy, and Nora, a chain-smoking grandmother from Superior, Wis., who finds her life turned upside down when the bar she has run all her life burns down one night in 2000. Pondering her future, Nora takes a drive around Lake Superior that, the reader realizes only later, is a brilliantly constructed Homeric odyssey.
Different as the three women's characters and eras are -- and pleasingly different as the tones and syntax of their individual stories are -- they share much, for Sosin has given each a melancholy cast and a dark angel to wrestle.
And always, in the background, is the lake, its waves light and lapping or whooshing and pounding. Sometimes the water's music soothes, sometimes it unsettles, but always it is present, a stern border to their known worlds, provider of danger, beauty and a powerful sense of geographical belonging. It "blazes blindingly through the trees" when Nora takes a walk along a South Shore gravel road. It "mirrors the sky, except for dark, skittering patches where it's grazed by a zigzag breeze" as bereaved Berit watches the horizon for a boat. It is the "Great Spirit" before which Grey Rabbit stands humbled, looking up from a cooling wade one hot summer's day to see a canoe gliding in with a strange pale-faced man in the bow.
The construct is brilliant, the prose fine, the characters beautifully developed, the regional sense powerful. One minor complaint -- Sosin sprinkles among her three tales stream-of-consciousness passages in italics that sometimes seem narrated by the lake itself, sometimes by a geologist or historian, or are they the words of the women in the book? A little confusing, and too much.
But on the whole, this ode to the greatest of all lakes is nothing less than grand.