Adolescence is the conjugator of childhood and adulthood.
– Louise J. Kaplan
I grew up in a small blue-collar borough in Pennsylvania named Marcus Hook. Not far from the railroad tracks behind our house that sped people back and forth from Philadelphia or New York City to Wilmington or Washington DC, was a little tract of land the local children, for some unforgotten reason, called The Process. A small cluster of trees behind an abandoned warehouse with a decent hill to sled in the winter, lots of rocks to climb on, and ample storage spaces to hide the precious treasures of boyhood from the prying eyes of parents and siblings. Even now, in my mid-thirties, I can see the geography of our space, feel the pull it had on me. I don’t know if it is still there physically today, but in my child’s heart it lives on forever, the geographic protagonist at the center of many of my boyhood adventures.
The shores of Lake Michigan play the same central role in the eleven short stories in Adam Schuitema’s Freshwater Boys. The first four stories chronicle the experience common and yet completely unique to us all, our “coming of age,” the event or events that propel us from the sunny, open meadow of our childhood to the rocky, weed-choked trail of our adolescence. The boys in these opening tales encounter events that confuse and frighten, confound and mystify. They come out on the other side of their experiences changed in fundamental ways. And at the center of each story, the geography of Lake Michigan and its expansive shores.
In New Era, Michigan, my personal favorite in the collection, the young boy at the center of the tale is forced to confront his perception of the “town hermit” down the road, the figure he thought he understood. However, he is shocked to discover how wrong his presuppositions were. Even more shocking to his young mind is the wholly unexpected connection he discovers between himself and the man who lives in the old school bus at the top of the inland sand dune.
The next several stories move from the world of the budding adolescent to men who have already trod that path and are dealing with being grown men and what that means as they go through life. In the deeply disturbing tale, Camouflage Fall, a man tries to assist his neighbors as they search the thick woods in search of a missing child. Curbside is a tale in which a husband and wife are forced to deal with an unfortunate and unwelcome addition to the sidewalk in front of their home after they return from vacation. This second series of stories places the reader square in the middle of the lives of what any newspaper would passingly describe as “normal people,” men living life day-to-day in the closed microscope of their own experiences. In the final selection, Freshwater Boys, the author takes the world of the adolescent and the world of the adult and melds them together, giving us a heart breaking, moving tale of a young boy’s compulsive decision and a father’s attempt to deal with that decision’s consequences. It is a tale that will stay with you long after you have closed the book and walked away.
Adam Schmuitema’s stories are all about connections, the connections between people, between events, between places. And they all occur with the geography of Lake Michigan as not merely backdrop but active participant. The setting of these stories is just as much a part of their telling as the living, breathing characters are. The trees, the sand, the water, these may not be the soul of the stories in Freshwater Boys, but they are almost certainly their beating heart. The events of Freshwater Boys don’t just happen to occur in some random place. They happen because of a specific place. The geography of Lake Michigan wraps its arms around the characters of Schuitema’s stories, sometimes guiding, sometimes hurting, but never indifferent.
Freshwater Boys is a collection of stories that will remain with you long after you have moved onto others. Not only from the richness of Schuitema’s descriptions, where a boy worries that his mother might discover some wood carvings and throw them away because, “She probably thought the carvings were junk made by a lonely old man with nothing in his pockets but time,” to a description of how young boys see the waters of Lake Michigan: “None of them feared the water. They wore it over their skin like cool summer bed sheets.” The stories of Freshwater Boys will also stay with you because once you meet the boys and the men in these stories, once you become involved in the details of their lives, once you experience the magic that seems to seep from the shores of Lake Michigan, they will leave a piece of their experience with you.
When an author can leave a piece of a fictional life in your heart, when you smile or feel a catch in your throat as you reminisce about a life that never actually existed, he has done his job effectively.