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Wednesday, May 21,2014

Survivors tales

Two books detail stories in Michigan’s harsh natural and urban extremes

by Bill Castanier

Great storytelling is an art, and this week, the Capital Area District Library will host two raconteurs. Tonight, Dennis Hale will share the amazing true story of his survival after the freighter he was working on sank in the ice-cold waters of Lake Huron. Then on Thursday, author Jim Daniels will read from his work that weaves fictional tales of survival in the rust-belt lifestyles in Warren, Mich.

The tumultuous November waters of the Great Lakes have claimed more than the seamen of the Edmund Fitzgerald as we discover in Hale’s account of the sinking of the S.S. Daniel J. Morrell on Nov. 29, 1966. Hale was the sole survivor.

As the Morrell was on its last run of the season, 70-mph winds and 25-foot waves tore the Morrell in two, pulling it under and taking 28 crewmembers to their deaths. Hale, who was 26 at the time, remembers having only time to grab a life jacket and a heavy pea coat before moving to the deck as the ship began to break apart. It’s there the young watchman wondered, “when I am going to be killed?”

“The ship was sinking and it was surreal,” he said in a recent phone interview from Newport, R.I., where he was speaking at the Steamship Historical Society of America’s annual conference. So why did Hale survive and he others didn’t, including three others who made it on his lifeboat but died of exposure? Hale, 74, thinks he was born to survive.

“My mother died at childbirth and I had a hard life,” he said. That hard life included numerous counts of grand theft auto and running away from home. After the sinking, Hale’s life turned around. He became a machinist, and after retiring twice he began work on his book, “Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor.” It took him four years to write about the fateful night and his lifetime of survival.

“I often think of that night,” Hale said. “Thirty-eight hours on a raft — how can you get away from it?” Hale who still has his lifejacket from the Morrell, is working on his next book, “Wackos on the Water,” about men who sailed the Great Lakes.

“Detroit Tales,” the latest book by author Jim Daniels, will be released next month. He lives in Pittsburgh, where he’s a writing professor at Carnegie Mellon University, but he has an interesting relationship the Motor City.

“When people ask me where I’m from I say I’m from Detroit,” he said recently by phone. “But the people in Detroit know I’m from Warren.”

The collection of short stories in his recent book, “Eight Mile High” “fits together like a novel,” Daniels said, who regularly visits family in the Detroit area.

“The stories are thematic, like an old rock album,” Daniels said. That’s likely why Detroit rocker Mitch Ryder said Daniels’ stories “deserve applause.”

Daniels, 57, has managed to capture that time and place of living on the fringe of Detroit in most of his four collections of short stories and his numerous poetry books.

“I think as a writer,” Daniels said. “There is a lot to write (about Detroit) once you start peeling back the onion.”

And the stories he tells, both in his poetry and short stories, will make you cry and make you laugh as working class folks go about surviving their daily lives. On one of his recent visits to Detroit, Daniels said he learned first-hand about that survival instinct.

“My oldest friend lost a bar in Troy, and he’s kind of struggling,” Daniels said. Daniels will also discuss and read from his most recent book of poetry, “Birth Marks: Poems,” a 2014 Michigan Notable Book Award winner. The author has worked in a variety of mediums, including working on turning one of his poems into a film.

Over the years, Daniels said his technique of writing has been to “beg, borrow and steal” — he listens closely to what other people have to say and writes it down. He keeps scraps of paper with story ideas and dialogue on index cards to trigger his memory. Daniels recently attended his 40th class reunion.

“I got a lot of story ideas there,” he said. Local creative writing teachers will also appreciate Daniels’ observations on 33 years of teaching. He said writers frequently visit his classes that focus on community outreach to engage the larger community. For example, as part of the Martin Luther King Carnegie Mellon Writing Award, he challenged local students to tell their personal narratives on race, which were published as a chapbook.

“These (are) really moving, brave stories,” he said.

Dennis Hale

Book discussion 7 tonight

Jim Daniels

Book reading and discussion 7 p.m. Thursday May 22 Capital Area District Library 401 S. Capitol Ave., Lansing FREE cadl.org

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