Laughing Whitefish Returns

by Bill Castanier
as it appeared in Dome Magazine

May 16, 2011

John D. Voelker, former Michigan Supreme Court justice (1956-1960) and author of The New York Times bestseller Anatomy of a Murder, called his book Laughing Whitefish “the toughest job of writing I ever tackled.”

First published in 1965 and out of print for decades, Whitefish also has been one of the toughest of Voelker’s 10 books to find. Writing under his pen name, Robert Traver, Voelker wrote five novels, three books on fishing and two books of essays and short stories.

But thanks to a chance meeting between Grace Voelker Wood, one Voelker’s sisters, and a board member of the MSU Press during a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Anatomy, a new edition of Whitefish will be published in June by the Press.

The new edition also contains an introduction written by Matthew L. M. Fletcher, associate professor of law and director of the Indigenous Law & Policy Center at Michigan State University’s College of Law, that puts the seminal historical fiction novel in context by detailing how the book was based on actual Michigan Supreme Court cases regarding Indian property rights and tribal law and customs. Fletcher is a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

In a presentation to the Michigan Historical Society in 1970 about the novel, Voelker called the “basic story…rather simple.” He continued, “Most simply put, it was all about iron ore, Indians and infidelity to one’s promises.”

In the book, Voelker, writing as Traver, told the story of Charlotte Kawbawgam (in real life Kobogum), whose father, Marji Gesick, had been promised a “wee fractional interest” for his assistance in leading a group of businessmen to North America’s largest iron ore deposit. Problems resulted when neither Gesick nor Gesick’s heirs were compensated as promised.

Voelker told how he had learned of the fascinating story, which involves tribal customs, including polygamy, long before he wrote his blockbuster. But he had been derailed by his successful career and the amazing success of Anatomy, which was made into a movie shot on location in Marquette and Ishpeming.

Voelker said he adopted a pen name while he was a prosecuting attorney (1935-50) in Marquette. He was often quoted as saying, “I didn’t want the voters to think I was an author on company time.”

The lawyer and author had spent most of his life in the Upper Peninsula, when in 1957 he was tapped by Governor G. Mennen Williams to be a Supreme Court justice. He became noted for his literary-like decisions and dissents. His writing for the Court was also punctuated with his trademark sense of humor (if there is any doubt, read his writing in People vs Hildabride about police invading a nudist camp).

He later wrote that his “neglected Indian story receded even farther into the background.”

And then one day he had enough of the “baying hounds of success,” as he called his legal career. In his letter of resignation to Gov. Williams in 1960, he wrote: “While other men can write my legal opinions, they can scarcely write my books. I am sorry.” And then, as he called it, he “fled home to my native U.P. to rest and fish and brood over the book I longed to write.”

Voelker would spend two winters (when he couldn’t fish in his beloved Frenchman’s Pond) researching and writing the book. Having lived in the Western U.P. almost his whole life, he was one of the few writers, at the time, who could get the customs, language and peculiarities (is that a pasty or a pastie?) of the Upper Peninsula right.
He said about the book, “The Cornish lingo that runs through my book I remembered straight out of my boyhood spent among them, much of it eavesdropping in my father’s saloon.”

Admittedly, the Cornish tongue is difficult to understand. In this one passage, William Post, the attorney in the story, is introduced to a group of Cornish miners who have stopped by their favorite tavern following their shift:

’Ear, ’ear-lissen tool’ Jack spreadin’ the salve, will you? ‘E’s ’appy as an ’ore lydy on payday-ever’thin’ comin’ in an’ damn little guven aout! Ah, ’ere comes me lavly boilermaker.

Voelker stayed as true to history as possible in writing his book, but he confessed that he had not named the Indian girl in his book after the river she was born next to, saying, “I stealthily crept over to adjoining Alger County and stole one of its more romantically named rivers (Laughing Whitefish).”

It was a good choice, otherwise the book would’ve been named “Carp.”

For those who have not read the book, a quick summary is in order. A young Indian girl, Laughing Whitefish, approaches William (Willy) Post, a lawyer and newcomer in Marquette, to seek compensation which was due her father. Litigation results and the case eventually is heard by the Michigan Supreme Court. The result is a series of precedent-setting decisions (using literary license, Voelker boils it down to one for the book) that says that tribal law has supremacy over state law in domestic disputes.

And as is fitting for a Voelker novel, a romantic interest develops between Poe and Laughing Whitefish.

Fletcher said he especially likes the sequences in the book about the extensive trial preparation. “Poe has to reconstruct events that occurred a long time ago. He interviews parties, some who are old and some who die.”

Fletcher believes the book can be used as a textbook for Indian law. He said there are between 180-190 law schools that have courses in Indian law, and 25-30 offer degree specialties in Indian Law, including MSU.

Indian rights were an important arena for Voelker, according to good friend Fred Baker, who is a commissioner of the Michigan Supreme Court and a Voelker aficionado.

Baker said he came to know Voelker through another close friend, Richard F. Vander Veen III, who is now president of Mackinaw Power of Traverse City, a company specializing in wind power generation in the Great Lakes region.

Vander Veen, like his father, former Congressman Richard Vander Veen, was an avid book collector and had been writing Voelker since the 1970s.

“We had really hit it off in correspondence. His letters came written in green pen on legal letterhead,” the younger Vander Veen said. In 1981 he and his spouse were invited by Voelker to visit him in Ishpeming. As became the custom, they met him at a local “watering hole” and subsequently became good friends.

In 1984 Vander Veen would share that friendship with his good friend Fred Baker, when they visited Voelker together.

Vander Veen said they would spend most of the time talking and fishing. “We wanted to preserve his legacy…Back then our vision was to do a movie on Laughing Whitefish and create a foundation to raise money for it.”

In 1989 Baker and Vander Veen approached Voelker about establishing a foundation. Voelker had his own idea and wanted to set aside money raised by the foundation for scholarships for Indians who wanted to go to law school. When Baker and Vander Veen pressed him about what he would say when his fishing constituency and potential donors asked “why?” Voelker, in his often blunt way, responded: “Let them read the book.”

The John D. Voelker Foundation was established in 1989, and the organization’s first fundraising effort entailed a limited edition of 300 copies of Whitefish signed by Voelker. The edition quickly sold out at $200 a book. The foundation has also produced several special edition books with Voelker’s writings on fishing that also were quickly snatched up. You can read more about the group’s activities and fundraising here. The foundation boasts more than 400 members.

Since its establishment, the foundation has provided scholarship money for 16 law students (15 have graduated and are now lawyers, and one is still in school). The foundation also took into account Voelker’s other passion, fly fishing, and each year a cash prize (currently $2,500) is awarded for the best short story about fly fishing.

“All of the money we raise goes to scholarships and to the writing award,” said Vander Veen, who serves as president. The foundation also commissioned a painting of Voelker, which hangs in the Hall of Justice in Lansing.

Baker, who serves as secretary-treasurer of the foundation, said it was critical to put Whitefish back in print because it speaks to a very important chapter in Michigan history from the late 19th century. “It is just as relevant today as when John wrote it,” Baker said.

When the book came out it wasn’t a big hit like Anatomy, Baker said. “It didn’t ring as many chimes then as it does now.”

He said the book reinforces one of Voelker’s legal maxims that the role of law should be to have a calming and soothing effect. Not bad advice, especially in today’s world of conflicts.

As Voelker would say, “Read the book.” It will be available at local bookstores and from Michigan State University Press following a release celebration at the Historical Society of Michigan’s summer meeting in June in the Upper Peninsula.

Bill Castanier, a retired state government administrator and Michigan State University advertising graduate, writes a weekly literary column for Lansing City Pulse and manages the blog, a daily look at Michigan literature and authors. He also is a member of the Michigan Notable Book selection committee and the board of MSU Press.

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