Honoring the U.P.'s literary greats

Literary giants in the Upper Peninsula?  Is that some kind of Yooper joke?

On the contrary, three noteworthy U.P. authors recently inducted four others into the newly formed Upper Peninsula Literary Hall of Fame. The first-ever ceremony occurred recently at the Bayliss Public Library in Sault Ste. Marie. 

The writers inducted into the Hall of Fame were Sue Harrison, Sally Brunk, Robert Traver and Jim Harrison.

Sue HarrisonSue Harrison is the author of six critically acclaimed bestselling novels, including Mother Earth Father Sky, My Sister the Moon and Brother Wind, which make up The Ivory Carver Trilogy, an epic adventure set in prehistoric Alaska. 

In the first novel of the trilogy, a young Aleut woman’s tribe is attacked by another tribe. A member of the attacking tribe, Man-Who-Kills, rapes her and is subsequently killed, but fathers her child, who becomes an essential character in the subsequent novels. It was chosen among the Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association in 1991 and was a main selection of the Literary Guild Book Club.

Jim Harrison, Sally Brunk and Robert Traver were inducted posthumously.

Harrison was a novelist and poet known for his lyrical treatment of the human struggle between nature and domesticity. Among his works are Legends of the FallDead Man’s Float and True North, an epic tale that pits a son against the legacy of his family’s desecration of the earth and his own father’s more personal violations,  

Harrison published more than three dozen books in a variety of genres, including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature and memoir. He wasn’t born in the U.P. but wrote extensively about it. He died in 2016. 

“To be in the U.P. Hall of Fame, you don’t have to be from U.P.,” said Ron Riekki, founder of the Hall of Fame. “You just have to write about it”

Brunk, whose Ojibwa name was Miigwaniigabo or Standing Feather Woman, was from Baraga. Her poetry was featured in the anthology, The Way North, edited by Riekki. Brunk published a collection of poems with Riekki called Niiji, A Collection of Poetry. In one of the poems, titled “Authority Figures, Brunk wrote: 

The intellectuals think it’s fascinating, interesting to be ‘Indigenous,’
I’m looked upon as a specimen, a rarity, a lab rat, . . .
But come to the res, find it for yourself, . . .
Ask them all, every question that fills your book,
You may learn, but will you UNDERSTAND?

Brunk was runner-up for Upper Peninsula Poet Laureate in 2020. She died in 2022.

Traver is the pseudonym of John D. Voelker, who served as prosecuting attorney of Marquette County and later as a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court. He chose to write under a pseudonym because, he explained, “I didn’t think the taxpayers would fancy me doing my scribbling on their time." 

Traver wrote about his two passions, the law and fly fishing. His books include Anatomy of a Murder, written in 1958. Famed movie producer Otto Preminger produced and directed an award-winning film based on the courtroom drama. The plot follows the trial of an upstate Michigan lawyer defending a soldier who claims he killed an innkeeper due to temporary insanity.

Traver’s other books include Trout Magic, Trout Madness and Laughing Whitefish. He died in 1991.

Jim HarrisonPresenters for the event were poet April Lindala of Northern Michigan University’s Center for Native American Studies, writer and Armenian/Arabic translator Alex Vartan Gubbins and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Diane Seuss from Kalamazoo.

They read some of their own writings and inducted writers nominated by the Bayliss Public Library in Sault Ste. Marie, the Island Bookstore in Mackinac Island, the Munising Public Library in Munising and event organizer Riekki. 

The U.P. Literary Hall of Fame was the brainchild of Riekki, a celebrated writer and editor himself, who established the U.P. poet laureate award 10 years ago. He decided to create the hall of fame to pay homage to U.P. writers who have contributed significantly to literature. “I just want people to know who our really good writers are,” he says.

His plan is to honor different U.P. writers, living and dead, each year for the next 15 years. His goal is to focus on one of the 15 U.P. counties each year. Next year’s program will be in Escanaba, in Delta County.  Houghton County will be featured soon. 

Riekki chose Sault Ste. Marie for the first celebration to honor a 19th-century author from that area whose work has been called the origin of literary Native American writing. Her Ojibwa name was Woman of the Sound Stars Make Rushing through the Sky. Her English name was Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.  Beginning as early as 1815, Schoolcraft wrote poems and traditional stories while translating songs and other Ojibwa texts.

Hall of Fame inductee Sue Harrison also read some of her writings at the induction ceremony. “Saturday was wonderful,” she said after the event. “What an honor. What a joy. I simply inhaled the readings from Diane, Alex, and April, and I’m amazed that I was chosen for the Hall of Fame.”

She praised Riekki, saying: “You have done more than any other person to promote UP writers and literature, and your poetry is magnificent: honest, gutsy and heart-rending.”

The Bayliss Public Library in Sault Ste. Marie was the site of the inaugural U.P. Literary Hall of Fame inductions.Riekki explained his motivation for the UP Literary Hall of Fame. “Writers work really hard,” he said. “I like honoring writers. Growing up, we never read any U.P. writer in school, and only one of my classes in college, Finnish heritage, even mentioned U.P. writers.”
Diane Seuss, a presenter at the induction ceremony, is the author of books including Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open and It Blows You Hollow

“The Upper Peninsula Literary Hall of Fame importantly acknowledges and honors the unique literary landscape of the U.P., .its focus on the natural world and rural life, and its Native American voices,” she said. 

Bayliss Public Library manager Meredith Sommers said: “Bayliss was really happy to host the inaugural induction ceremony for this important effort. The U.P.’s range of literature is staggering, spanning hundreds of years and all genres, and this Hall of Fame will do a great service calling attention to it. This was a remarkable event full of important U.P. voices, and I am already looking forward to seeing who this brings together next year.”
Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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