Why, yes, I do wish I could make this required reading for America. And for you too, Canada. Thanks for asking.
The nod to Jane Jacobs in the title isn’t a coincidence. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan tells a riveting story about the fraught romance between people and place — how it changes us, and how we change it. In this case, we’re talking about the five vast inland seas that we call the Great Lakes. They border eight states, two provinces, and many tribal lands; their collective surface area is equal to the United Kingdom; their broad basin is about the same size as France, stretching across eight degrees of latitude; and they hold about one-fifth of all the surface freshwater on the world. And, speaking as someone who grew up in a little river town on Lake Michigan, I can attest that they are soul-shakingly beautiful. They are a place of gathering — for fishing, for sunsets, for meditation, for walking along beaches, piers, stony trails — and for awe. The horizon seems impossibly far away. In my adult life, I’ve spent some time in small towns that are otherwise similar, except for the fact they are bordered on all sides by yet more small town, and I’ve thought about what a deep psychological difference the Lake brought to my own. For better and for worse, we were always looking outward.
I would’ve wanted to read The Death and Life of the Great Lakes regardless, but I bumped it up on my reading list while I was working on the Flint book. As I researched what happened with Flint and its water, it was important to keep an eye on the context: that the Flint water crisis happened to a city that is in the midst of the greatest water resources on earth. It is only seventy miles from the shore of Lake Huron, and also only seventy miles from Saginaw Bay. It is laced with rivers and creeks that are part of a magnificent ecosystem. Unlike other places in the world, especially in a time of drought and climate change, the problem here wasn’t scarcity. There was enough water for all. More than enough. But by the time it got to people’s homes, it was toxic. It was a decidedly manmade disaster.
Egan is a longtime reporter in one of the great cities of the Great Lakes, at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writing about the politics, science, business, and recreation of these abundant waters. (He’s also twice been a Pulitzer finalist.) In his book, he brings together the dramatic history of the Lakes, especially in the twentieth century — tales of astonishing pollution, river fires, of wonder and beauty and family rituals, but especially, he focuses on the most pressing threat to the Great Lakes: invasive species. That includes not just the jumping Asian carp and unnerving sea lampreys, but the hugely consequential introduction of zebra and quagga mussels into the lakes. He also tells the strange story of how salmon and alewives got into these waters. I have distinct, sad memories of the mass die-offs of alewives, when their little silvery bodies littered the beaches of my hometown when I was in my late teens, early twenties. In fact, I used this as a not-so-subtle image in a terrible short story I wrote in my early twenties. I knew the die-off was because alewives were an invasive species that struggled with the warming freshwater in early summer. But I had no idea about their amazing backstory in the lakes. It is a plot with more than a trace of a thriller in it.
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is beautifully written. Egan’s prose synthesizes so much information, and not only is it readable, it is propulsive and vivid. While I was writing my own book, it gave me courage to trust that exposition, if well made and true, has real narrative power. It also kept me perking up while reading it, turning so many times to say to family or friends: “DID YOU KNOW THAT (interesting fact/backstory from the book)?”