Holiday Gift Guide 2011
Detroit — in books!
This year, another truckload of tomes about our fair city, its heritage and its people
Published: November 23, 2011
National interest in Detroit has never been keener, but this year's bevy of Detroit books range all over the spectrum, and includes some homegrown talents that are hard to ignore.
Chief among them would be Richard Bak. Best known for his fascinating contributions to another local magazine (Hour, if you ask), Bak's new book, Detroitland ($24.95, Wayne State), compiles several of his excellent stories into one neat package that's sure to please any die-hard Detroitophile. Subtitled "A collection of movers, shakers, lost souls and history makers from Detroit's past," these are stories you might have heard traced out for you — heck, even stories you thought you knew. But drawing upon historical records, clippings and interviews, Bak pens richly evocative histories that bring to life people and events of Detroit during and leading up to "the American century." In "Dark Days of the Black Legion," he dredges up the nearly forgotten right-wing vigilante group that sprang up in and around Detroit in the 1930s, ably illustrating their reign of terror. In "The Mysterious Daniel West," he tells the unlikely tale of a man who rose to serve in the state House of Representatives under an assumed identity — only to finally disappear without a trace. In "The Bomber That Fell From the Sky," he details how a British Vulcan XA908 aircraft came screaming out of the sky and crashed into Detroit's lower east side in 1958. In "Who Killed Barbara Gaca," he chronicles the tense days in 1955 after the disappearance of a 7-year-old schoolgirl turned the city upside down in a futile search, and how the investigation remains stalled decades later. In addition, you'll find loving tributes to Detroit's famous and not-so-famous, including Charles Lindbergh, Frank Murphy, Bill Kennedy, Albert Kahn, Hazen Pingree, Ben Turpin, Tom Tyler and many more. It's all done with the touch of a true storyteller, from the gripping first paragraph down to little kickers at the end that leave you both satisfied and wanting more. Detroitland is a wonderful achievement.
Much like the talented Bak, who makes 20th century Detroit his wheelhouse, in Hidden History of Detroit ($20, The History Press), young author Amy Elliott Bragg draws on Detroit's other two centuries to spin engaging tales of a city undisturbed by horseless carriages — but often just as chaotic. From Antoine Cadillac's arrival on these pastoral shores, it would seem Detroit has always been facing calamities of one sort or another: conflagrations, invasions, epidemics, disorders and drunkenness. But Bragg renders this rocky history in graceful prose with a warm, first-person touch that lovingly lingers over some of its most unusual characters, those both immortalized in statuary and street names or simply forgotten over the ages. You'll meet Clarence Burton, Jim Scott, Lewis Cass, Stevens T. Mason, Friend Palmer, Joseph Campau, Jean-Francois Hamtramck and a whole host of characters Bragg raises from the dead for a brief moment — if only so we can miss them properly.
From Metro Times' own Detroitblogger John (that's John Carlisle to you) comes 313: Life in the Motor City ($23, The History Press), a collection of his stories compiled from the very rag you're reading. Named 2011 Journalist of the Year locally for his sympathetic vignettes of the people you maybe just glance at when you drive by, this collection gathers more than 40 of his feature stories on truly curious characters. You'll meet the owner of Detroit's last gun shop, a raccoon-hunting blues musician and even Jay Thunderbolt, who runs a strip club out of his home. The tales are all accompanied by Carlisle's award-winning, portrait-quality photos.
Perhaps only the most astute historians are aware of the approaching bicentennial of the War of 1812, but that international conflict had Detroit as one of its hot spots. Timed for the anniversary is Anthony J. Yanik's The Fall and Recapture of Detroit in the War of 1812 ($25, Wayne State). Subtitled "In defense of William Hull," the book may cause controversy among those who maintain Gen. William Hull was a timid relic of the Revolutionary War who deserved his court-martial and death sentence for his surrender of Detroit to British forces. Naturally, if something can still be hotly debated centuries later, you can be sure it's a darn good tale indeed.
Among historical titles, Washtenaw County is not neglected. Laura Bien's Hidden History of Ypsilanti ($20, The History Press) pulls together a quirky batch of historical sketches from the past, including the invention of the indoor composting toilet! And Ypsi's big sister gets the true crime treatment with James Mann's Wicked Ann Arbor ($20, The History Press), a catalogue of Treetown's crimes great and small — ranging from murders to "panty raids." Oh, Treetown!
When it comes to photo collections, more of the typically likable Arcadia titles keep coming out. Although that company's "Images of America" series has already covered many major Detroit themes, every year seems to introduce more finely tuned topics, perhaps fitting as niche gifts. Titles released this year in time for the holidays include Old Chicago Road: US-12 from Detroit to Chicago, Detroit's Mexicantown, South Oakland County, Flat Rock, Maltese in Detroit (who knew Detroit's Maltese community was among the country's largest?), Dearborn Inn, U.S. Naval Air Station Grosse Ile and Detroit Metro Airport. (Hope we didn't miss any.)
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