“Haunting” is a word that comes to mind as I reflect on Lee Zacharias’ new novel. Set largely in the mid-1930’s on Lake Michigan and the harbor town of Frankfort, Across the Great Lake is the narrator’s vivid, jagged, time-bending recollection of her childhood and the trajectory set by one of the central events of her life.
Fern Halvorsen is just 5 when her father – the Captain of one of the railroad’s ferries – takes her with him on a mid-winter voyage across the vast, frozen lake. Lee Zacharias has an uncanny way of weaving this story with the voice of the brave, too-wise child and then with the voice of an old woman who looks back in time to unravel and interpret her tangled, crystalline memories. As woman and child, Fern makes for a likeable narrator – the captain of this story’s telling.
It was very cold, we wore our hats and coats and heavy boots, and I tucked my mitten inside Alv’s glove. The Manitou had cleared the stub piers and was in the basin between the breakwaters. Under the heavy gray sky the bluffs to the north and south of us looked shapeless and dingy. Snow had blown off the sides, and it looked as if the hills themselves were sliding down to the ice that was all around us. Frost rimmed the walls of the deckhouse, icicles hung like jagged bones from the boat deck, and when we came out from the overhang there was snow on the deck, but the crew had shoveled a path for us just like it was a sidewalk in Frankfort.
We stomped our feet, and then the rich smell from the galley seemed to suck us inside. It was a smell layered with onions and beef and sweet pillows of yeast, and though the passageway was din even the yellow lights seemed to exude a warm fragrance, as if the cold outside had mixed our senses up together, and we had walked across the North Pole to a place where warmth wasn’t just something you felt but smelled, and you could hear it too…
What makes Zacharias’ storytelling both compelling and challenging is her capacity to shift back and forth in time. In one chapter the reader is whole-heartedly devoted to the harrowing lake crossing by a mysterious and adored Captain and his 5-year-old daughter as she navigates easily among a community of grizzled and believable seamen. In the next chapter, however, the reader must reconcile alongside this epic tale the vague recounting of an old woman looking back on the superficial trappings of her calm and largely unremarkable adulthood. For me, it was difficult at times to reconcile Fern’s two distinct voices, which was an interesting tension created by the narrative structure. Zacharias fully developed her central character through nonlinear means, and as a reader I was inspired to stay with her as she revealed the ghosts who shaped her life.
Across the Great Lake makes for a rich voyage. Zacharias offers up characters who might not become fully known to us, but who are nonetheless three-dimensional and relatable. She may drop the thread of one storyline and leave it to be picked up in another chapter later in the novel. She makes very real the unforgiving landscape of heaving mountains of ice. But Zacharias carefully guides both Fern and me through this meandering, perilous journey without losing either one of us.