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Talking Location With – Kinley Bryan: The Great Lakes

27th November 2021

Kinley Bryan#Talking Location With… Kinley Bryan, author of Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury: The Great Lakes

For many years I lived in a cottage on Lake Erie, a few miles west of Grand River, Ohio. An old fishing village where my great-grandfather managed a fishing company after years of sailing, Grand River is where my father and his six siblings were raised. If you’re visiting the area, take an hour or two to walk the grounds of the Fairport Marine Museum and Lighthouse, explore its collection of Great Lakes maritime history, and climb the 1871-built lighthouse for a spectacular view of Lake Erie. Afterward, treat yourself to Lake Erie perch at Brennan’s Fish House.

In the summer I’d sit on the balcony of the Lake Erie cottage and look out over the water. Motorboats buzzed past, sailboats slipped by, and way out where lake met sky, there’d often be a lake freighter. No matter how many times I saw one, it was always a treat, and I’d smile at the sight of the ship gliding along the horizon, hazy in the distance. With a tall pilothouse at the bow, boilerhouse at the stern, and long expanse of flat deck in between, these freighters are unique to the Great Lakes. I liked that they were out there going about their business—working hard, not asking for attention. Very Midwestern.

Kinley Bryan

View of Lake Erie from the cottage (no freighters today)

The lake was peaceful on those summer days, waves gently lapping the pebbly shore. But storms can whip up in minutes on the Great Lakes—and the worst come in November. Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury is set during the Great Lakes Storm of November 1913, a devastating gale that sank twelve steel freighters and cost the lives of more than 250 sailors. I felt a personal connection to the storm, for it’s part of family lore: My great-grandparents survived the gale on Lake Michigan (after which they left the seafaring life, and my great-grandfather managed the fishing company in Grand River). My great-grandfather’s uncle, a steamer captain, was caught in the storm on Lake Superior not far from where the Henry B. Smith went down with all hands.

My novel centers on three (fictional) sisters caught in the gale, and their struggle to survive. It’s also the story of the sisters’ struggles to exert some control over their lives, despite the strong currents of societal expectations. Cordelia, recently married to a freighter captain, joins him for the season’s last trip, from Cleveland to Duluth. Sunny is a galley cook on a freighter headed up the lakes as well, a day behind her sister’s vessel. And Agnes lives in the Lake Huron town of Port Austin, not far from the life-saving station.

For an idea what it’s like on a lake freighter, tour the Col. James M. Schoonmaker in Toledo or the Valley Camp in Sault Ste. Marie. Having lived and worked in Cleveland, I’m more familiar with the William G. Mather, built in 1925 and available for weekend tours. You can explore the 618-foot steamship, from the brass and oak pilothouse at the bow, to the four-story engine room at the stern, and the huge cargo holds in between.

Kinley Bryan

Portions of my novel are set in Port Austin, a small town on Lake Huron. The town sits at the tip of Michigan’s Thumb, where the shoreline features rock outcrops. Kayakers love the area for its beautiful, dramatic shoreline: sea caves and arches, stacks and wave-cut cliffs. Turnip Rock, a stack just offshore that’s been severely undercut by waves, has been visited by tourists for more than a century. What makes the area beautiful also makes it dangerous: the rocky coastline extends into a reef lying just beneath the surface of the water, a hazard for captains caught too close to shore.

Postcard (1906) featuring Turnip Rock in Michigan (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Further north, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, Mackinac Island is a top tourist destination, offering historic fort tours, horse and carriage rides, and hiking trails. The Grand Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, oversees Lake Huron and you can, too, from its 660-foot front porch—the largest in the world.

Further north still (but just an hour’s drive) is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The celebrated museum honors mariners who’ve perished at sea, and works to discover and document sunken vessels. It marks one end of an 80-mile stretch of rugged coastline, along which shipwreck remains lie half-buried in sand—a mast here, a hull there—eerie reminders of how ferocious the beautiful Great Lakes can become.

Kinley Bryan

Kinley Bryan applied her love of writing to the world of corporate communications before her fascination with historical fiction became too great to ignore. Her debut novel, Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury, is set during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913. Kinley’s love for the inland seas swelled during the years she spent in an old cottage on Lake Erie. She now lives with her husband and children on the Atlantic Coast, where she prefers not to lose sight of the shore.

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