Hometown Fiction

Michigan cities come alive in a Delta College professor’s novels.

In American Poet: A Novel, readers will find themselves riding and walking in Saginaw’s Old Town area near the courthouse, in the Grove across from Hoyt Park, and even out State Street near the Red Horse tavern.

Local highlights come from a Delta College professor of English and creative writing, Jeff Vande Zande, who created the novel five years ago. The protagonist is a young man who is “coming of age,” aiming to find his place in life. He takes a special interest in the Saginaw-born-and-bred poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), whose childhood home at 1805 Gratiot Road in Saginaw is now a museum in honor of the arts.

At one point, for example, the lead character is hanging out with a new pal from an open-mic poetry event. They toke some weed and pound some brews at Hamilton Street Pub. With his buzz, he sneaks back to South Niagara Street on the summer evening to relieve himself. Then he opts to walk all the way to Saginaw Township—and fateful events occur along Court Street.

Some book readers may identify with the places in Saginaw. Others not so much. Still, how often do we grab a novel from a book store, or from a library, and find ourselves in our hometown? And with a photo of the riverfront’s Bean Bunny grain elevator placed symbolically on the cover?

Vande Zande, 47, grew up in Marquette, the son of a literature professor at Northern Michigan University. Similar to American Poet’s narrator, he did not immediately opt to follow his father’s career footsteps. He was approaching age 30 when he joined the Delta faculty near the turn of the millennium.

Local author Jeff Vande Zande has written fiction novels based on Michigan cities such as Saginaw, Gaylord, and Detroit

American Poet, which won the Stuart and Vernice Gross Literature Award, is not his first novel, although it may make an ideal introductory read for a potential Saginaw fan. Previous novels are based in Michigan cities, ranging from Bay City to Gaylord. His latest, Detroit Muscle, is rooted in the Motor City. Vande Zande lives with his family in Midland.

“All of the books are based in Michigan,” he says, which explains the Midwest view that Theodore Roethke also maintained with frequent adult visits back to Saginaw.

Prior to writing his novels, Vande Zande started with poetry. In fact, American Poet began when he took note of the Roethke home in southwest Saginaw and imagined himself  “shouting from the rooftop” for common folks to look beyond shallow activities and to pay more credence to pure poetry.

Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize in 1999 for poetry, Vande Zande aims to reach us beyond his poems and his novels. While he continues to creatively write, he concentrates foremost on his role as a Delta College professor.

“Writing can be kind of lonely,” he explains, “but in teaching, you are with people, affecting people’s lives.”

Students should not feel they are on Easy Street, no more than on Court Street or on Hamilton Street.

“Writing is hard, like chemistry or physics,” Vande Zande tells his pupils. “If you think it’s easy, then you are not really doing the work of writing.”

Photos by Doug Julian