Book Reviewed: Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy
A couple weeks ago I received an email from one of my professors that simply told me to find a copy of Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip. She claimed I would understand why as soon as I saw the book. So as soon as I checked out a copy from my campus library, I took a look. And she was right: this book was exactly what I needed. My poetry thesis has turned into a series of fragmented narratives and lyrical poems about the Huckleberry Queen, a local folk legend from where I grew up. In fitting with the Queen's existence in "South Chicago" - the area where St. Joseph, Starke, and Marshall counties in Indiana met up in the 1800s and where roughneck huckleberry harvest workers often fought their way through the swampy terrain - there's a lot of blood and violence and hard labor involved in these poems. And Wisconsin Death Trip is all about blood and violence and manual labor.
Wisconsin Death Trip is a series of texts and pictures from late 1800s/early 1900s rural Wisconsin (more specifically, the small town of Black River Falls). Lesy collected photographs taken by Charles Van Schaick at this time, and then he added stories from the town, county, and state newspapers, as well as case histories from the Mendota State Hospital, an insane asylum. Lesy also included passages from novels and poems, as well as brief histories that he wrote himself. The result is a weird and startling collage that argues for the fact that rural communities were as capable of great psychological breaks and criminal activity as any city at the turn of the century. News stories focus on children dying en masse of diptheria, women cutting their own throats, arsons breaking out in the dozens on a weekly basis, murder, and some truly strange tales of mental breakdowns and death by nature.
Wisconsin Death Trip is fascinating and eerie at the same time. Sometimes, the pure absurdity of these true stories made me laugh in a mix of both humor and horror. For example, there are stories here about a man who killed himself by digging a hole in the ground, filling it with dynamite, laying his head down on the hole and lighting it up, literally blowing his head off. And the newspaper reports all these absurdities with a dry and even tone, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary about these things at all. Van Schaick's photographs have the same effect. He took pictures of things that were completely normal at the time - dead babies* in their caskets at a funeral, disgruntled-looking people forced into family pictures, men in blackface - without ever knowing how creepy these pictures would appear a hundred years later. It's the ordinariness of the situations that render them so strange and bewildering now.
I really enjoyed this bizarre trip into a world I have been trying to get at in my own work. If you ever get a chance to get your hands on Wisconsin Death Trip, I highly recommend it. It's unlike anything else out there and yet showcases a rural discontent that's more common than people are willing to admit. Seriously; you won't believe this stuff until you see it for yourself.
Note 1: I only have complaint about this book - Lesy's writing. His own writing doesn't come in very often, but when it does, it kind of sucks the air out of the room a bit. It's a little dry and lifeless for such great subject matter, I think.
Note 2: This stuff seems so alien to us modern types, and yet it hits close to home, at least for me. I went home this weekend and heard my uncles sharing some truly bizarre stories about who murdered who in our small town while they were growing up. It was so casual, the way they tried to remember the names of men who shot their own wives, or how they just threw out the name of the "Bloody Bucket" - a nickname for a local bar that actually sits on the other side of the wooded area behind my house.
* It was actually quite common for families to have pictures taken of their infants or toddlers after they died. In fact, parents often propped the babies into lifelike poses, just so they could have a normalized picture to remember their child by. Some time ago my parents and I sorted through a huge collection of old family photographs at my grandparents' house. There was a black and white photograph of what looked like a sleeing baby sitting in a walker-like contraption. "Oh, that baby is dead," my grandma said off-handedly. I don't know where that photo has gone since then, but it still sits in my mind as fresh as the moment I saw it, about ten years ago or so.