White-washed buildings gleam beneath a blue sky streaked with high clouds. They’re the kind of clouds that don’t do much more than add brush strokes to a painting. No humidity. No heatwave. No black flies. Sunshine rests comfortably on my head as I carry a box of books and my computer to the western garrison.
I’m at Fort Wilkins to give a presentation on how to use flash fiction to explore history.
1844: Fort Wilkins stands to protect the copper. A young nation encroaching further west, the Michigan wilderness known to the fur traders and voyageurs, marks a lucrative spot on territorial maps. From the decks of sea-faring, Great Lakes mariners can trace veins of copper rich ore to the shoreline of the Keweenaw Peninsula. At its tip where land juts into lake like a bent finger, the Pittsburgh & Boston Mining Company stakes its claim. The garrison of soldiers with memories of the War of 1812 forge a fort. Peaceful as a Sunday picnic. No one badgers the copper miners.
Mowed summer grass surrounds the fort grounds as it faces a lake — not Lake Superior, but Lake Fannie Hooe. A small gurgling stream flows from the lake, past the fort and mingles with the greater one in a half-moon cove with pinchers of craggy rock at each point. The John Jacob Astor floundered in 1845 after missing the safety of the harbor.
Champagne doused her prow on the shores of Sault Sainte Marie – the first tall ship built on Lake Superior. The pride of the American Fur Company, she bore the name of its progenitor. Cutting across heaving waves, she carried cargo and passengers. Eight could squeeze around her dinner table. Fully loaded with winter supplies for Fort Wilkins, she sailed for the harbor. Crashed upon the rocks, every man in the garrison soaked by surf and slashing rain fought to release her. No one died, but with supplies lost to the Great Lake, together they faced a winter of rations.
After I set up in the lecture hall, I eagerly head to the harbor. An artist’s rendering superimposes a modern photo of the harbor with the wreck of the John Jacob Astor. It’s part of an interpretive display to explain the shipwreck. The cove seems pleasant, not one that could take down ships, but I’ve seen Superior on high energy days.
It’s neither too cool nor too hot. It’s a perfect spring day, a gift in mid-summer. The greater gift is the death of black flies. Those winged beasts fed upon my blood just a week before when I came to Copper Harbor to hike in the old growth cedar grove. This evening, I’m alone, savoring my time on the rocky beach.
I settle into a seat of warm pebbles to eat bison jerky made with cranberries and seeds. Almonds and dried apple rings finish the light meal. My energy rises before a presentation, and I eat little. Afterward, I’ll be ravenous! Likely the fish and chips will be closed by then, and I’ll make do with organic fig newtons.
For now, I relish the moment of perfection. Life rarely offers such a perfect mingling of nature, anticipation, tasty fare, sunny skies, warm pebbles and lapping water. I watch the Isle Royale Queen approach the harbor and promise myself that one day I will have a writer’s retreat on the island.
It’s a bucket list kind of place — so remote in Lake Superior, it takes six hours to reach.
Wolves sheltered on the dock in crates. Daddy’s expression never changed but I could feel his tension. He didn’t want wolves on his island. This was our third summer on Isle Royale since Daddy became National Park Superintendent. Mother said some zoo in Cleveland wanted to purge its wolves, but they were too used to people to set loose on the lower 48. So, they shipped them to Daddy by boat in crates. That summer, shadows followed me and my sister, but never materialized where we walked or played. If wolves knew of people, they knew to stay away.
Recently I collected the oral histories of two sisters who lived in Ripley but summered on Isle Royale where their father had served as the National Park’s second superintendent. It was happenstance that I met the women. In flood-torn Ripley, of all places. They described their childhood to me, living next door to Cynthia’s house and attending school at what is now an apartment complex next to the fire hall.
99-words is catching on in the Keweenaw. I love its artistry, the form’s ability to distill a story in surprising ways. I love how it births creative moments, solving problems with a constraint. I love how it can be a tool. To the entrepreneur, 99 words are 45 seconds. One 99-word story can express a vision. Eight can launch a compelling pitch. To the historian, 99 words can digest historical facts, fictionalize the gaps and imagine times past.
Fiction lets us question history, to dig deeper than the facts and records. Writing historical fiction is all about asking what if…and why…and how…and who would… We might know when, but we want to know so much more. In my own historical research, I find that these questions drive me to examine the records more closely.
I learn about the mystery of Lake Fannie Hooe. A friend from my veteran spouses group grew up not far from Copper Harbor, spending her summers exploring old mines and logging camps the way I did in my hometown. She told me that legend has it, Fannie was a little girl, perhaps the daughter of an officer, who went missing. As they circled the lake they called, “Fannie…! Fannie, hooe!
They say, they never found her body.
As a story-catcher, I have an affinity for “they say” stories. Usually, they are not accurate historically, but they contain a nugget of humanity. “They say” stories express our fears or need to be entertained. I find “they say” stories fun to research. When I lived in Idaho, I wrote a column for a magazine that explored local history beginning with they say. From there, I tried to match the story to historical records.
Questions help discovery. The night of my presentation, I had planned for attendees to write their own Fort Wilkins flash fiction. I forgot that writing can be intimidating to non-writers. I tried to convince a wide-eyed crowd that they could pencil their own historical fiction. Realizing their trepidation, I led the questioning and did the writing from their responses.
The one prompt they all wanted to explore was, “Who was Fannie Hooe and why did she go missing?” Two historians from the fort sat in on the presentation and knew a great deal about the real Fannie. She was from Virginia and came as a single woman to Fort Wilkins to help her pregnant sister. She was not a girl, but a young lady. They say she went missing, mauled by a bear or murdered by a spurned lover.
Truth is, she returned to Virginia, married and lived a long life.
Flash fiction remains my favorite tool to explore history. It allows me to write quickly from multiple perspectives and test different points of view for my characters. If I don’t like a POV or discover a different path for a character, I’ve only committed a batch of flash fiction to the discovery instead of having to overhaul chapters or revise an entire draft.
Flash fiction lets me push into the space between the gaps. It lets me crawl under the skin of those the record shows were there. It tolerates my line of questioning with 99-word answers.
July 19, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about Fannie Hooe. Although she is a legend in the Kewenaw, feel free to go where the prompt leads.
Respond by July 24, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
Grandma Fannie by Charli Mills
Grandma Sarah rocked with restraint as we drank mint water over chipped ice, a luxury in 1870s Virginia, especially after the War. Grandpa Hooe was a Union officer, commissioned in the wilds of Michigan. Grandma told stories about how they met at Fort Wilkins the year she stayed with her sister. She told me how her nickname was the same as mine – Fannie.
“My bonnet blew off, and your grandfather swore he was bedazzled by the sun on my blond hair.”
All the men from the garrison courted her, but she left the wilds with Grandpa as Fannie Hooe.