Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Breathing Lake Superior
by Ron Rindo
Brick Mantel Books
Oct 2022, ISBN 978-1-956897-11-1, 254 pages, Paperback
Breathing Lake Superior is a masterpiece of dramatic tension about the destruction and resurrection of a family. The compelling plot involves a man who, when faced with a situation that could go either way, seems fated to choose the route that leads to disaster. vivid imagery and unforgettable characters. I was drawn to the novel because of geographic sentiment, being a Canadian raised on a small farm in the rigorous climate of Northern Ontario, and having relatives who live on the northern shore of Lake Superior. I was soon caught up in a timely story, full of vivid imagery and unforgettable characters – a tragedy in a beautiful landscape.
Set in Wisconsin, USA, at the turn of the century from 1999 to 2000, Breathing Lake Superior is narrated by John, who was a teenager and aspiring writer during the fourteen month period in which his family life was shattered and transformed. He sums up this period of family life as “tragic and miraculous.”
John’s stepfather, Cal, a college English teacher and his mother, Anna, who works in a factory assembling lawnmowers, are bringing up three children. John and his stepsister, J.J., are high school students.. Their six year old half-brother, David, is a construction genius who built a model of Notre Dame Cathedral with Lego and Tinkertoys.
“We have blended-family values up the ass,” Cal says of the family. The teenagers reluctantly attend church with their parents and little brother. In John’s words, they are a “monosodium-glutamate-tolerant, TV-watching, traffic-jam cursing, run-for-the-telephone kind of family living the American dream.”
Cal is an exuberant, larger-than-life father who was writing his Ph.D. thesis on a Puritan poet when his wife died of pancreatic cancer, leaving hm with a three year old daughter, J.J. He then took a full-time position teaching English at a technical college, which he cheerfully calls, “grammar for semi-literates.” In spite of his dismissive words, he genuinely believes that the tech graduates will have better lives if they can read and write well.
Cal loves Black American music, from Duke Ellington to Otis Redding, and enjoys dancing with his wife and kids, with young David on his shoulders. While he loves all three children, David, the miracle baby is his pride and joy.
During the summer while their parents are working, David is in the care of J.J. and John. At the local swimming pool, David is playing with a group of children under the gaze of two life guards, while J.J. sunbathes with her friends and John watches the girls. Suddenly there is a whistle, screams, and David’s limp body is being pulled from the pool.
“Grief blew into our house, blew in through window screens like the cold front preceding a thunder storm,” says John. Evocative, poetic description captures human emotion and landscape throughout the novel. J.J. and John blame themselves for David’s death, though the parents insist it was not their fault. Cal cancels his classes and drinks; Anna takes Valium, John can’t sleep, and J.J. goes into unwashed seclusion in the basement.
A grief counsellor labels their feelings as “survivor guilt”, and points out that, until recent times, every family lost at least one child. She denies them the uniqueness of their pain, and pressures them into a bereavement group. Cal refuses to participate in this counselling. “His anger stayed inside, building…”
His rage manifests itself in reckless driving while taking the family to a Milwaukee Brewers game at Anna’s insistence. After a police chase, Cal is fined and undergoes a psychiatric evaluation. He is fired from his teaching position after he rants and explodes. He shouts out in church, throws hymnals at the pastor and is finally restrained by several elders. Miraculously, he escapes with minor cuts and bruises after a collision with a transport truck in which nobody is killed. While in hospital he tells the family that during the accident he had a vision of a beautiful field in the mist. He can’t decide whether he was saved by God or is “the luckiest son-of-a-bitch on the planet.” Though readers may feel that he’s the latter, he decides that he is the former.
On an impromptu road trip to northern Wisconsin, Cal returns to tell the family that he saw the very field from his dream just a short distance from Lake Superior. Convinced that he is called to a new life, he buys the derelict farm with the beautiful field and announces that they are all going to live close to nature, raising animals, growing their food and spinning wool for their clothes. J.J.’s reaction is: “This house has turned into a loony bin.” John, however, likes the idea of starting over in a place where he isn’t constantly reminded of David’s death. “Inertia is like a disease,” he says, “and Cal seemed to be the only one with enough energy to carry on, pulling the rest of us with him.”
Summer in northern Wisconsin is beautiful, but the house is decrepit, the cows scary and the pests abundant. Even so, John finds that hard work takes his mind off David’s death. Then their barn burns due to spontaneous combustion because they stored the hay without first letting it dry in the field. This is the first of a series of farm failures.
Then Cal announces that he has had a vision: God wants him to build a hexagonal cathedral. Together he and John build this log structure, which attracts the attention of a neighbour couple. When the neighbours give them a flyer about a “Christian Patriot Revival”, Anna reads it and says, “Honey, these people are racists. They’re bigots. They’re violent.” Cal, however, thinks they should attend. Once there, they find that Anna is right.
Breathing Lake Superior is full of dramatic scenes, with one of the most gripping occurring at this “revival.” In the middle of an angry, far-Right crowd, Cal gets up and contradicts the keynote speaker, who is racist, anti-Semitic, anti-government, and claims that the “once-great” United States has become a “socialist shit-hole.”
Cal tells the crowd that “we don’t have to hate our brothers and sisters to live free.” He points out that Black people have been in America longer than anyone else except the Indians, and did more to build the USA with their bare hands than anybody else. He says that the Jews went through a hell in Hitler’s Europe that was as bad as slavery.
“Can anyone here really imagine the NBA without black players?” he asks. “And what about music?” This is Cal’s finest hour, and the forces of the universe seem to be with him, for just as the crowd seems ready to riot, a bold of lightning hits a pine just outside the revival tent. Accompanied by a clap of thunder, the tree bursts into a fireball.
Cal takes it as a sign that God wants him to preach. At this juncture, I hoped that Cal would find peace in ministering to others. At his first church service, sparsely attended, an audience member asks for a faith healing, Cal obliges, telling the man not to get his hopes up. The man feels better after Cal’s touch, others come for healing, the congregation reaches capacity and money rolls in. Then Cal has another vision which tells him to do something that is against the law, and he enlists John to help him. The consequences have a snowball effect, and toward the end, Cal becomes the sort of armed survivalist that he spoke out against at the revival.
Meanwhile, we observe the growing closeness between the two step-siblings and wonder how that will end. Toward the conclusion of the novel, they go on a river journey in the hope of saving Cal from the consequences of his worst decision. Also near the end, the sheriff shares his worst memory with them, a revelation that comes too late to help them much: when eleven years old, he accidentally shot and killed his brother. This confession segues into the final dramatic scene, which is followed by a surprise ending.
Writing this review at a time of grief in my own family, I found it fascinating and chilling to see how a great emotional need can devastate a person. At first, Cal seems a healthy sceptic like the rest of us, but his pain shoves him over the edge.
Breathing Lake Superior is not the author’s personal story although it shows great human understanding. “This is a work of fiction,” Ron Rindo writes. “Though the landscape, rivers and lake that appear in this work are real places, many of them perhaps more beautiful than I’ve been able to render them here, the events and characters here are entirely the products of my imagination.”
I intend to read Rindo’s three short story collections, and if Breathing Lake Superior becomes a movie, I’ll be the first in line to see it.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s most recent Canadian historical novel is A Girl Should Be (Ottawa, Ontario, Baico, 2021.) Her current project is a novel inspired by the life of a Canadian woman trade union organizer.