Brian Jacobson
Summer Reading 2012

“Return to Wake Robin”

Brian Jacobson reviews Marnie O. Mamminga's memoir of "Up North" Wisconsin vacations in the 1930s.

By - Jun 13th, 2012 04:00 am
“Ted [Moody] prominently hung a sign in the lodge’s dining room that read: “Here there is no time.”  And it was true.  One only needed to get up with the sun to know when to fish; listen for the resonanting ring of the cast-iron bell to know when to show up for meals; choose whatever activity suited the moment; and fall asleep when the moon rose and stars covered the heavens.”
(from Marnie O. Mamminga’s Return to Wake Robin, describing life on Spider Lake near Hayward, Wisconsin)

Living in Wisconsin, sooner or later you are bound to take a vacation to the Northwoods. The modern definition of this experience for many can vary:  someone from Chicago may consider Lake Geneva or the Wisconsin Dells to be “Up North,” a citizen from Milwaukee may visit Tomahawk or Rhinelander, and still others venture as far away from civilization as they can at the Chequamegon National Forest. Many of us have memories of packing up the station wagon and heading for a resort, or standing with an ice cream at the gas station staring up at a faded novelty statue. Everything felt quaint. It felt leisurely. It felt remote. It was our version of quiet.

Now imagine traveling this far “Up North” in the 1930s. This is how Marnie O. Mamminga’s memoir/historical reference/damn-near-loving-infomercial for a long lost time and place begins. Her grandfather, Erle T. Oatman, drives 385 miles up from his dairy business in Dundee, Ill., with his wife Clara and son David (Marnie’s father) to Sawyer County to discover “God’s Country.” One summer, they discover Moody’s Camp. Started by Ted Moody (and wife Myrtle), a mechanic from Elgin, Ill., who moves to Big Spider Lake for health reasons, it was a sumptuous and all-inclusive lodge and series of housekept cabins—as you can imagine through painstaking details offered by the author and via historical photos. The Oatmans were smitten and built a cabin of their own adjacent to the camp.

Their cabin was christened “Wake Robin” after a common trillium wildflower that grew in the forests of the region. The rest would be multi-generational history.

Return to Wake Robin author Marnie Mamminga re-enacts the famous photo of her mother. (All images courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Press)

The book itself is relatively light at 184 pages with wide margins, and Mamminga never goes into drawn-out interpersonal conversations or scene descriptions that fill other books. The conflicts are light, usually involving flat tires and car accidents on quiet country roads, and there is the recurring tinged theme of regret and chagrin for the modern-day loss of quiet and hospitality that was present in her youth. The author notes how simple cabins and sailboats have been overrun by expensive houses and jet skis. Moody’s Camp would eventually pass to another couple who ran it the same way, but after they retired, the little Shangri-La of Northwoods life fell apart and became privatized.

Chapters may feel like they stands alone as in an article from Reader’s Digest (in whose pages the author has contributed). The timeline bounces back and forth to particular character profiles rather than using a narrative. Only when you reach the final chapters do you realize that you have paddled through an affectionate living family tree and historical memoir.

The best sections are the independent stories, where the subject interacts with characters from other chapters, but has a story and personality all its own. The woman on the front cover looks like a stock photo of a outdoorsy woman rowing a boat. It is, in fact, the author’s mother, Eleanor “Woody” Oatman, who loved the place so much she continued to drive 800 miles from Ohio by herself until age 81, at which time she still swam in Lake Superior on day trips.

To the initiated, Return to Wake Robin will cause the reader to reflect on their own experiences and memories of Northwoods vacation time. To the uninitiated, the tome will feel like 1001 Arabian Nights. To not know the thrill of full stringer of bass, the precious time spent with relatives and friends doing nothing but watch the pines sway, to be away from television and phones and fast-food, to troll with a fishing guide like Eddie Ostling—these things are foreign experiences to many outside the Wisconsin borders.

Marnie O. Mamminga will appear for a speaking engagement and book-signing at Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon on July 19 at 7 p.m., but I plan to get my copy signed during a scouting trip to Hayward on June 22-23 during Musky Fest where she will be appearing at Book World.  Stay tuned for my report on the festival.

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