Art Beat: Making The Cut
John Wemlinger retired from the U.S. Army in 1995 after 27 years of service. Rather than embrace years of retirement ease, he began working with troubled youth. But when that job ended, he had to reinvent himself yet again. It took until 2012 for Wemlinger to discover his new calling as the author of historical fiction with characters who are veterans. His fifth novel, The Cut (Mission Point Press, 2021), earned the 2022 Michigan Notable Book Award.
“It’s an honor,” Wemlinger says. “It’s humbling. As an author who works hard trying to produce good books, that award is validating. It’s gratifying. And it will keep me at the computer writing more books.”
In The Cut, Wemlinger writes about the struggle between feuding farmers and the powerful lumber industry in Manistee, Michigan, in 1871.
“It is the story about how the channel between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan was created,” Wemlinger says. “Along with that, it is also the story of the founding of the village of Onekama, which is my hometown. A group of disgruntled farmers there were losing tillable land to flooding that was caused by a dam. That dam was used to run a sawmill. When ‘Big Lumber’ would close the floodgates to raise the level of Portage Lake to run their sawmill, it would flood 15 to 20 acres of the 80-acre homesteads that ring Portage Lake. The farmers were understandably upset about that.”
Wemlinger says they tried to do the right thing and brought their case to the court when lumber company officials wouldn’t listen to their concerns. Although they won an injunction, a technicality prevented it from being enforced. So, the farmers took matters into their own hands and created “the cut,” a channel to divert the water out into Lake Michigan.
“It was only four feet wide and two feet deep and 500 feet long, but it was incredibly hard for them to dig that because they had to go through a dense, almost primordial forest,” Wemlinger says.
On the morning of May 14, 1871, the farmers pulled down the bulwark holding back the water. In a moment, the channel turned into a roaring, 100-foot wide, 10- to 12-feet deep river that swept the forest into Lake Michigan.
Intertwined with the story of farmers and lumber men is another about the love of a Civil War veteran, Alvin Price, who lives on a farm, for the daughter of a lumber man, Lydia Cockrum.
Wemlinger will read from The Cut at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, at the Richland Community Library. The event is sponsored by Michigan Notable Books, The Library of Michigan, and Michigan Humanities, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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