2014-08-30 / Columnists

A Look at History

Michigan Author Iola Fuller Writes Frances Bachman, 1945

Michigan author Iola Fuller was born in January 1906. A student in the 1930s at the University of Michigan, she found her eye turned toward the school of fiction that scholars call “American literary regionalism.” The genre looks at the lives of marginal people who, although not wealthy, are pivots of their local communities or guardians of local folkways. In the 1930s and 1940s, as global economic challenges and war dominated Americans’ lives, it seemed essential to fight for the truths that existed, or had existed, among groups of Americans who could see and deal with each other face to face.

Iola Fuller, who was Iola Fuller Goodspeed when she wasn’t writing, became the author of novels “The Loon Feather” (February 1940) and “The Shining Trail” (1943). “The Loon Feather,” set on Mackinac Island, is a sentimental tale of the life of a young Native American, as she grows into womanhood in the early 1800s. Rather than being forced to trek westward on a “Trail of Tears” like other tribes of the eastern United States, the Natives of the Mackinac Island area had been essential elements of the local fishing and fur trades. The tide of incoming whites had all sorts of reasons, including selfish reasons, for wanting their predecessors to stay in their native lands. But even on Mackinac Island, the relentless tide of modern technology, and new Europeanbased styles of interpersonal relationship, made the old ways tough to preserve. “The Loon Feather” is the story of how a strongminded, young woman finds love while trying to keep as much as possible of the world into which she had been born. “A beautiful picture of the frontier, and a sympathetic study of races at odds,” wrote “Kirkus Reviews.”

“Saints were ever less to me,” says the heroine, struggling with the Catholic faith, “than the many spirits of trees and rocks and streams. . . . The music of the choirs, the chanting of the mass, only made more vivid the sounds of the waters in the Straits, the quietly dropping springs, the wind and rain of autumn storms.”

“A remarkable first novel,” was the conclusion of Richard Cordell in the Saturday Review. “Miss Fisher [sic] has an Indian like sensitivity to all weather phenomena and to the rhythm of the seasons.” Fuller’s novel, which offered escape from the terrors of World War II, was relatively successful and sold well in hardcover ($2.50). A consortium of New York publishers, the Council on Books in Wartime, published what were called “Armed Services Editions” of paperbacks to ship to libraries and free-distribution depots in the combat theaters. Fuller was told that 150,000 copies of “The Loon Feather” had been published and distributed in this way. This was perfectly believable and not at all unusual; the average print run of an ASE paperback was well more than 90,000 copies (1,322 books were selected for ASE use and 125 million books were printed). The authors got almost no payments from the free ASE books (they were paid a near-token royalty of one-half cent per copy, which meant that Fuller would have been paid $750 for “The Loon Feather”), and most of the paperbacks were printed on acidic paper that would not survive in good condition for long.

Fuller loved Mackinac, but she had mixed feelings when she was staying at the Iroquois Hotel in the late summer of 1945. Frances Bachman of Kansas City, another woman in her 30s, was pestering her to learn how to ride a bike. Eventually Fuller submitted, even though she fell off several times. In a letter to Bachman dated October 4, 1945, the bestselling author thanks Frances (a bit ironically) for giving the training wheels a push and claims that after skinning her knees, she had ridden all the way around the Island. The summer was ending, though, and it was time to go back to her home in Detroit.

With the fall of 1945, the Bomb had dropped and World War II was over. The war’s escapism was about to be followed by postwar fiction – realism in the “mansplaining” voices of Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” or James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” – and the new postwar world to which Fuller was returning would have less room for epic, romantic themes. Amidst the praise for Fuller’s debut novel, a sour note had come forth in 1940 from Harvard and Stanford’s Wallace Stegner. “Too perfect characters,” the trenchant critic observed, “and a tendency to make everything turn out well.” “The flowering and lovely wilderness of Mackinac Island,” observed the Pulitzer Prize-bound writer, was “Arcadian wilderness.”

The royalty checks would not flower for Fuller’s later novels, “The Gilded Torch” (1957) and “All the Golden Gifts” (1966). The widowed novelist, in her second marriage, became Iola Fuller Goodspeed McCoy. In the 1960s she was an instructor of English literature at what was then Ferris State College in Big Rapids. She retired to Colorado, dying in April 1993.

Forty-eight years earlier, Iola had called Frances “a fellow member of the ‘Iroquois’ tribe.” Frances, who became a trust officer at a major Kansas City bank, ignored changes in literary criticism. She treasured the letter and inscribed book that Fuller had sent to her. Later staying at the Doud family’s Windermere Hotel, she became a Mackinac Island summer cottager. Her son and daughter-inlaw, Ron and Kay Smith, and their friends remember Frances’s many decades on the East Bluff. She passed away in February 2006 at the age of 93, in Austin, Texas. She is buried in the Island’s Protestant Cemetery.

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