Detroit — in books!

This year, another truckload of tomes about our fair city, its heritage and its people

National interest in Detroit has never been keener, but this year's bevy of Detroit books range all over the spectrum, and includes some homegrown talents that are hard to ignore. 

Chief among them would be Richard Bak. Best known for his fascinating contributions to another local magazine (Hour, if you ask), Bak's new book, Detroitland ($24.95, Wayne State), compiles several of his excellent stories into one neat package that's sure to please any die-hard Detroitophile. Subtitled "A collection of movers, shakers, lost souls and history makers from Detroit's past," these are stories you might have heard traced out for you — heck, even stories you thought you knew. But drawing upon historical records, clippings and interviews, Bak pens richly evocative histories that bring to life people and events of Detroit during and leading up to "the American century." In "Dark Days of the Black Legion," he dredges up the nearly forgotten right-wing vigilante group that sprang up in and around Detroit in the 1930s, ably illustrating their reign of terror. In "The Mysterious Daniel West," he tells the unlikely tale of a man who rose to serve in the state House of Representatives under an assumed identity — only to finally disappear without a trace. In "The Bomber That Fell From the Sky," he details how a British Vulcan XA908 aircraft came screaming out of the sky and crashed into Detroit's lower east side in 1958. In "Who Killed Barbara Gaca," he chronicles the tense days in 1955 after the disappearance of a 7-year-old schoolgirl turned the city upside down in a futile search, and how the investigation remains stalled decades later. In addition, you'll find loving tributes to Detroit's famous and not-so-famous, including Charles Lindbergh, Frank Murphy, Bill Kennedy, Albert Kahn, Hazen Pingree, Ben Turpin, Tom Tyler and many more. It's all done with the touch of a true storyteller, from the gripping first paragraph down to little kickers at the end that leave you both satisfied and wanting more. Detroitland is a wonderful achievement.

hidden history of detroit

Much like the talented Bak, who makes 20th century Detroit his wheelhouse, in Hidden History of Detroit ($20, The History Press), young author Amy Elliott Bragg draws on Detroit's other two centuries to spin engaging tales of a city undisturbed by horseless carriages — but often just as chaotic. From Antoine Cadillac's arrival on these pastoral shores, it would seem Detroit has always been facing calamities of one sort or another: conflagrations, invasions, epidemics, disorders and drunkenness. But Bragg renders this rocky history in graceful prose with a warm, first-person touch that lovingly lingers over some of its most unusual characters, those both immortalized in statuary and street names or simply forgotten over the ages. You'll meet Clarence Burton, Jim Scott, Lewis Cass, Stevens T. Mason, Friend Palmer, Joseph Campau, Jean-Francois Hamtramck and a whole host of characters Bragg raises from the dead for a brief moment — if only so we can miss them properly.

From Metro Times' own Detroitblogger John (that's John Carlisle to you) comes 313: Life in the Motor City ($23, The History Press), a collection of his stories compiled from the very rag you're reading. Named 2011 Journalist of the Year locally for his sympathetic vignettes of the people you maybe just glance at when you drive by, this collection gathers more than 40 of his feature stories on truly curious characters. You'll meet the owner of Detroit's last gun shop, a raccoon-hunting blues musician and even Jay Thunderbolt, who runs a strip club out of his home. The tales are all accompanied by Carlisle's award-winning, portrait-quality photos.

Perhaps only the most astute historians are aware of the approaching bicentennial of the War of 1812, but that international conflict had Detroit as one of its hot spots. Timed for the anniversary is Anthony J. Yanik's The Fall and Recapture of Detroit in the War of 1812 ($25, Wayne State). Subtitled "In defense of William Hull," the book may cause controversy among those who maintain Gen. William Hull was a timid relic of the Revolutionary War who deserved his court-martial and death sentence for his surrender of Detroit to British forces. Naturally, if something can still be hotly debated centuries later, you can be sure it's a darn good tale indeed.

Among historical titles, Washtenaw County is not neglected. Laura Bien's Hidden History of Ypsilanti ($20, The History Press) pulls together a quirky batch of historical sketches from the past, including the invention of the indoor composting toilet! And Ypsi's big sister gets the true crime treatment with James Mann's Wicked Ann Arbor ($20, The History Press), a catalogue of Treetown's crimes great and small — ranging from murders to "panty raids." Oh, Treetown!

When it comes to photo collections, more of the typically likable Arcadia titles keep coming out. Although that company's "Images of America" series has already covered many major Detroit themes, every year seems to introduce more finely tuned topics, perhaps fitting as niche gifts. Titles released this year in time for the holidays include Old Chicago Road: US-12 from Detroit to Chicago, Detroit's Mexicantown, South Oakland County, Flat Rock, Maltese in Detroit (who knew Detroit's Maltese community was among the country's largest?), Dearborn Inn, U.S. Naval Air Station Grosse Ile and Detroit Metro Airport. (Hope we didn't miss any.)

For the lover of coffee-table books comes Mary J. Wallace's Historic Photos of Detroit in the '50s, '60s and '70s ($40, Turner Publishing). From the shop floors of the booming postwar period to the urban upheaval of 1967 to the oil shocks and rock shows that followed, Wallace tells the story of the city in more than 200 pages of in lovingly reproduced historic, black-and-white photography.

Another handsome, hardbound photo book is Julia Reyes Taubman's Detroit: 138 Square Miles ($65, Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit). It comes out next week, with views of the city from air, land and water, ranging from proud cityscapes to fading ruins. The imagery is filled out with an essay by native Detroiter and pulp king Elmore Leonard.

In the memoir column we have a special treat: A contribution by a female author — bringing some gender balance to the genre locally — Mary Minock's The Way-Back Room: A Memoir of a Detroit Childhood ($18, Bottom Dog Press). A coming-of-age memoir set in 1950s Detroit, Minock chronicles growing up Catholic in a working-class neighborhood in southwest Detroit that is increasingly filling up with Southerners and Protestants, undergoing that ceaseless Detroit state of change. 

Although it didn't come out this year, the memoir of civil rights leader, teacher and administrator Arthur L. Johnson is especially relevant after his recent death. The Georgia native was a classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. before he came to Detroit in 1950. He helped Detroit's NAACP grow, became one of Detroit's first black public school officials, and became a supporter of the fine arts. Despite the hard tasks and the 37 times he was arrested, he avoided cynicism and retained a graceful mein. After a life well-lived, his Race and Remembrance ($25, Wayne State) bears a second look.

Then there's this memoir, Children of the Greatest Generation ($35,, by Frederick W. Lauck, a west-sider and graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit Law School who became a prosecutor, public defender and prosperous attorney. An archetypal conservative white Detroiter of his generation, you get the expected rants against what happened to Detroit since those halcyon days when teachers could still smack you and judges threw the book at criminals, lamenting how the city is overcast with "the long, domineering shadow of thugs [and] criminals." (OK, maybe he's a little more politically complex than all that.) Ostensibly an attempt to convey a history of the west side, of those children whose parents survived the Depression and the war, it's part memoir, part lecture and part self-congratulatory nonsense, but — you know what? — I'll be damned if Lauck doesn't have some passionate rants and good stories to tell in there — notably the tale of his defense of Robert Smith, a General Motors worker who flipped out and attacked his supervisor with a shotgun. Maybe this is a stocking stuffer for the old man in the family — especially if he's from the old west side.

a life on the run

From the other end of the political spectrum a bit ago comes the memoir of Dr. John Telford, A Life on the Run ($25, Harmonie Park Press). From his childhood as the kid of a hard-drinking Scottish ruffian at Sixteenth and McGraw to a track star of international caliber, and finally a coach and educator, Telford's tale is a fascinating one. With a lifelong commitment to integration learned from his father, Telford spent many challenging years coaching and teaching English in inner-city Detroit schools. Trying to suit his curriculum to the needs of his students while bucking up against unsympathetic administrators, his lifelong educational journey finally took him out into suburban school districts, where he fought new battles against small-minded bigots and racists — at one point having his home sprayed with bullets by skinheads in the night. It's a no-holds-barred memoir that lays bare his sometimes rancorous family life and his long history of womanizing (he's no saint!) — all the more reason to take this tome as the honest memoir of a complex and absorbing personality. (Dr. Telford has also published What Old Men Know [$17, Harmonie Park Press], a sort of devil's dictionary imbued with his personal philosophy.)

Fans of Detroit's automotive heritage might find a few new releases under their tree. To get up to speed on the latest crisis to hit the industry, consider Bill Vlasic's Once Upon a Car ($27, William Morrow). Despite the clunky title, Vlasic's 394 page doorstopper tells how the Big Three teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in 2008, and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that put them back on the road. Out in paperback is Lawrence R. Gustin's David Buick's Marvelous Motor Car: The Men and the Automobile That Launched General Motors ($25, Wayne State). Flint native Gustin takes us back in time to the early days of auto pioneer David Buick, weaving carefully researched historical fact into a story even auto agnostics could enjoy. Generously, another GM history comes to us in the form of Durant's Right-Hand Man ($42, FriesenPress) by Paul Arculus. It's the unsung tale of Edwin Campbell, son-in-law and partner of William C. Durant, and how, after Durant's ouster from General Motors in 1910, Campbell helped Durant's new Chevy brand prosper enough to allow Durant to control GM once more.

And, if you want to give the gift of Detroit to those who — darn it — just don't read, consider the attractive 2012 Detroit Historical Calendar ($14 postpaid, from the Detroit Room, featuring 13 archival photos of the city in its prime, with hundreds of notes marking dates of historical significance. They'll remember you, and Detroit, all year long.


See John Carlisle and Amy Elliott Bragg in person on Dec. 1, at Leopold's Books, 15 E. Kirby St. (enter on Woodward Avenue), Detroit; 313-875-4677.

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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