I leave for Isle Royale National Park next week for a few days of island wilderness living in the isolation of Lake Superior. With an address of Michigan, the park is actually closer to Canada and Minnesota and is completely uninhabited except for moose, wolves, snowshoe hares and the few park rangers and employees of the one lodge that exists. Yellowstone Park sees more visitors in one day than Isle Royale sees in one year. The remoteness of the place makes getting there an adventure. The being there is just icing on the cake. In preparation for any trip I try to read as much as I can about the place I’m going to. There is not a whole lot of literature on Isle Royale but I’ve been able to find a few interesting books on the history and environment that will enhance my stay there. In my quest I always try to find a novel that takes place in the locale I’m visiting. So for this trip, that means two mysteries in Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series.
Anna is U.S. Park ranger (as is Barr) and her job takes her to different parks all over the U.S. In the course of her daily work keeping the parks safe for tourists and doing routine maintenance, Anna seems to get entangled in various murders, heists, and other crimes. While I’m not normally a mystery reader, Barr’s “Anna” series is attractive to me for a couple of reasons. Her books are character driven, meaning that the characters propel the story forward just as much as the plot. And set against the beauty, danger and sometimes horrific natural cruelty of our nation’s parks these mysteries evoke such a sense of place that one feels compelled to get thee to the latest park as soon as you’re done reading the book. The two books that take place on Isle Royale are A Superior Death (1994) and Winter Study (2008). I had read A Superior Death years ago because of my interest in Lake Superior and Isle Royale. The descriptions Barr offered up of life on the island during the summer months convinced me I had to go one day. The mystery part of the plot, while interesting, took second fiddle in my mind as I grew fascinated with the island and with Anna herself, a complex woman whose life was, like most lives, messy in parts. As of two days ago, I had not read Winter Study yet. As a matter of fact, I had completely overlooked Winter Study when it was published two years ago. How this happened I cannot explain. I was thrilled to discover it when looking for reading material on Isle Royale and last night opened its cover eagerly and began to read.
Winter Study is the actual name of a 50 year study of the wolves and moose on Isle Royale and how they interact with each other. For seven weeks each winter scientists live on Isle Royale, under the harshest of conditions, and conduct their studies. Barr decided to set another of her mysteries against this backdrop and spent some time living with the scientists to get a feel for what they do and how they survive. In Winter Study, in addition to the usual suspect scientists, also on the island is an official from Homeland Security, checking up on the Winter Study group to make sure they are indeed conducting research and not plotting to aid and abet terrorists looking for a way to enter the United States. The story has some sinister elements to it, involving the wild inhabitants of Isle Royale. Halfway in to chapter two I knew I had to quit reading the book until after my vacation or I would be scared witless during my stay on the island. My overactive imagination sometimes gets the best of me and the isolation of Isle Royal will be enough to get me and my companions going. I didn’t need the additional images of what this book was going to produce. This I know – I can’t wait to continue reading the book. In the first chapter alone I learned more about moose than I had learned in all my other readings. On second thought, that might not be true – perhaps it’s the vivid descriptions of a moose dying an agonizing death trying to grow new antlers that makes me think I’ve learned more in two paragraphs that I had in all my previous reading. In any event, the image the writing inspired is permanently imprinted on my brain. I know from reviews that there is a grisly death coming for one of the Winter Study participants. I know the cold will try Anna’s will and make her survival difficult. I sense there will be some politics too, as the US Park Service, Homeland Security, and the scientists of the Winter Study jockey for dominance in this most isolated of places. The book sits on my dining room table and there are four days remaining until I leave. It will be a test of my will not to pick up the book and keep reading. But I know it will stay with me for days and those will be the days I’ll be on the Island. No, better to enjoy the island in all its summer splendor than to be there knowing all the dangers that lurk just beneath the surfaces.
A Superior Death and Winter Study are all available for reserve at www.infosoup.org If you have a library card from any library in Waupaca County you can log on and set up an account in infosoup and have the books set aside for you or delivered to the library nearest you. Click on the links below to get to the item in infosoup.
A Superior Death