Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Q & A: Jean Scheffler, Author of The Sugar House

I had the opportunity to speak with author Jean Scheffler about her novel The Sugar House. The Sugar House is a gripping tale about Detroit from 1915 to the 1930s [for an in-depth review, click here]. The story’s protagonist, Joe Jopolowski, grows up from a young boy who follows his Catholic school rules to a young man who associates with Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang during Prohibition. The novel gives a rare view of Detroit and the real-life characters that populated it in the early 20th century. 

Shift Change at Ford (1910s). Library of Congress
What inspired you to write a book about Detroit in the early 20th century?

My grandpa used to tell me stories when I was growing up, and some of them were very shocking to me because I was a very naïve little innocent Catholic school girl. They were so shocking to me at the time that I remember a lot of them. I’ve also always had a love for history, and being a gerontology nurse, during my downtime, I went to my patients’ rooms and asked them to share their stories with me. I was extremely fortunate to have sat at the bedsides of such a great generation and to be lucky enough to hear the stories that made up their lives.  

I decided that this was a story I really wanted to write because a lot of people of my generation, much less my kids’ generation, don’t realize the amazing history of Detroit and the surrounding area. I felt that there weren’t many historical fiction novels about Detroit, especially that era or period, and I wanted to record it for future generations.

Have you always been interested in writing, and have you ever written anything before?

I always was interested in writing but I have not written before. I sat down and tried to write a novel a couple times, but it wasn’t the right time and definitely was not the right story. Once I found this was my story to tell, I hoped I would be worthy of the story. Once I did sit down to write it, it was very easy.

While I was writing the story, I went down to Mount Olivet and found my grandparents’ grave markers. I had already written the part about Joe and his little brother Frank, and I am sitting there on a beautiful sunny fall day looking at their gravestones, and I see there’s Frank. I had never known that my grandfather had a brother named Frank because he had passed away before I was born. I looked up at the sky and said, “Who is writing this story?”

Why did you choose to have Joe’s story revolve around the Sugar House Gang?

Because of my grandfather. When I knew him fifty years after this story took place, he wasn’t a gangster. He was a Polish grandpa. We had our Polish traditions, and he worked at McLouth Steel his whole life. I wanted to show how things were so different back then and that it didn’t necessarily make you a bad guy to be on the wrong side of the law. The story works for this day and age when people try to find themselves, and might not make the right decisions. But they try to come back to where they want to be, their families, their faith.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Sugar House: A Thrilling Tale of Prohibition in Detroit

During the 1920s, no American gang was more feared than Detroit’s Purple Gang, also known as the Sugar House Gang. The Jewish-led gang controlled the transportation of liquor into Michigan from Canada, and their ruthless tactics convinced Al Capone that it was safer to work with them than compete with them. Despite the gang’s infamy during Prohibition, the Purple Gang’s name has not remained in America’s consciousness to the same extent as the 20th century gangs of Chicago or New York.

In her first novel, The Sugar House, Jean Scheffler takes her readers on an exciting tour of Detroit from 1915 until the 1930s through the eyes of Joe Jopolowski, the son of recent Polish immigrants. The story shows 1915 Detroit as a city busting at the seams due to growth spurred by money from the automobile industry and an influx of European immigrants and southern Blacks.

The story begins with eight-year-old Joe speaking Polish to himself while running through the streets of Detroit. The first chapters are filled with elaborate details about the life of a Polish-Catholic immigrant family in Detroit’s Polish neighborhoods near St. Josaphat’s Church. Anyone who has eaten traditional Polish food will salivate at the descriptions of the pierogi, golabki (stuffed cabbage), and other meals that Joe’s mother serves.

At first, young Joe’s only fears are that his Catholic school nuns will punish him for some minor transgression and that his next-door neighbor cousins will tag along on a family trip to Boblo Island. However, while Joe is worried about childish matters, Detroit keeps growing. Eventually World War I and Prohibition force Joe to grow up with his city, and he associates with the Sugar House Gang to help his family survive.

At first, the story feels like it might be only a portrait of the Detroit that was and the famous people that populated or visited the city. Young Joe travels to many of the city’s famous sites, such as Grinnell Brothers Music House, the Boston-Edison neighborhood, the streetcars of Woodward Avenue, a Tigers game at Navin Field, and the Sanders Candy Palace of Treats. Scheffler describes each building, street corner, and house with the finest details. A reader with an interest in the history of Detroit, like me, will appreciate this detail, but other readers might be waiting for the story to build up.

Luckily, the story matures with Joe. With the onset of Prohibition, Joe becomes caught in an exciting but dangerous world that would have seemed unimaginable to the rule-following boy at the beginning of the novel. His world expands beyond Detroit as he finds himself working in the Downriver communities of Wyandotte and Grosse Ile. Real-life historical figures, including Sugar House Gang members, populate Joe’s world. Boats (and cars in the winter) cross the Detroit River, bringing Canadian liquor to Michigan. Cops are on the take, and speakeasies pop up throughout the city. Gang wars erupt, and drive-by shootings and violent shakedowns become commonplace. Joe struggles to survive in this world without losing the values of his family, community, and church.

The Sugar House is a must-read for anyone who is interested in Detroit’s history or anyone who wants a thrilling tale of a young man trying to remain morally strong in the face of a corrupt world. Detroit area native Scheffler clearly did her research, and the reader is rewarded with characters that feel real and a view of Detroit's past that is not easy to find. 

The Sugar House is currently available in both paperback and Kindle format at here.

For a Q&A with Jean Scheffler in which she talks about her research, writing process, and her grandfather who inspired her novel, click here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Best of the Net 3/11-3/18

Detroit is happy and kind

Detroit recently made two lists that will make Detroiters proud. First, Business Insider reports that Jetpac, a company known for its "social travel" app, analyzed millions of Instagram photos for photos of people smiling and laughing. Jetpac's analysis revealed Detroit to be the ninth happiest city on its list of the twenty happiest cities in the United States.

Maybe Detroiters are happy because they help each other out. MLive reports that OnStar's roadside safety service revealed that Detroit drivers make more "Good Samaritan" calls through OnStar to assist other drivers than the drivers of any other U.S. city.

3-D printing saves a boy's life

University of Michigan doctors and engineers used 3-D printing to create a splint for 18-month-old Garrett Peterson's bronchi, the airway that conducts air into the lungs. As reported by MLive, Garrett has a rare disorder that caused his bronchi to collapse into the size of small slits. U-M doctors performed a surgery to implant the splints, and Garrett's bronchi have remained open. This procedure will allow Garrett's parents to eventually take him to their home to Utah after he has spent his entire life in hospitals.

Here's a video of Garrett's struggles and the doctors who saved him:

Detroit Institute of Music Education

Detroit has influenced American and international music for years. Now, Detroit is adding a music college. The Detroit Free Press reports that the Detroit Institute of Music Education (DIME) will open at the Bamlet Building on Griswold in Downtown Detroit. DIME will offer students the opportunity to earn a bachelors degree in music with courses in guitar, bass, vocals, drums, songwriting and music entrepreneurship.

Two popular Michigan beers are back

It's hard to find a beer "Best of" list that does not include at least one beer from Bell's or Founders. Even if Mother Nature is not ready for Spring, each of these two brewers is celebrating Spring with the release of a popular beer. Bell's is releasing it's popular wheat ale (and one of my longtime favorites) Oberon on March 24.

Founders released its KBS, or Kentucky Breakfast Stout, today as part of KBS Week in the Grand Rapids area. recently named KBS the Best Beer in America. For a list of bars serving KBS in the Grand Rapids area, read this report by MLive.

Three Michigan schools go dancing

The NCAA men's basketball tournament starts this week, and Michigan has placed three teams in the "Big Dance." Although that might not seem like a big number, two talent-rich basketball states, Illinois and Indiana, surprisingly did not place even one team in the tournament this year.

Big Ten champion Michigan and Big Ten Tournament champ Michigan State hope to advance deep into the tournament while MAC champ Western Michigan look to make some noise by upsetting higher ranked teams.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Best of the Net 3/3-3/10

8-year-old boy feeds his peers

Cayden Taipalus, an 8-year-old elementary school student in Howell, was upset when his peers who did not have sufficient funds in their lunch accounts received a cold cheese sandwich instead of a hot lunch. The Huffington Post reports that Cayden started a grassroots campaign to raise money for his school that soon raised enough money for 34,000 meals, allowing Cayden to share the wealth with other local schools.

Young Detroiters cultivate gardens

The Detroit School Garden Collaborative allows students at 51 Detroit schools to cultivate gardens while also cultivating their minds. Michigan Nightlight explains how the program exposes some children to natural foods they have never tasted while allowing children to learn about careers in agriculture that they otherwise may not have considered. 

Michigan Tech's innovative research

Michigan Technological University is conducting groundbreaking research in the U.P. Upper Peninsula's Second Wave highlights the university's leading research in 3D printing, a bionic foot for amputees, and a snow grooming machine that allows snow to be "paved" into usable roads.

Detroit poem gains recognition

The New York Times featured a poem about Detroit in its "Poetry Pairing" on March 6. "There Are Birds Here," a poem about Detroit by Jamaal May, is paired with a Times article about blight in Detroit.

Traverse City makes another travel list has named Traverse City as one of its "Best Wine Vacations in the U.S." The travel site praises the region's wine industry's "fruity and award-winning flavorful antiques."

Michigan basketball rises to the top

The University of Michigan men's basketball clinched its first outright Big Ten championship since 1986 with a victory over Illinois last week. They then beat Indiana on Saturday to finish the season with a three-game lead over the two teams tied for second place.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Finding the Perfect Paczki in D.C.

Photo by Brian Mulloy
Growing up as a Polish-American kid in the Detroit area, there were things I assumed were the norm throughout America: 1) Polish surnames with multiple consonants in a row, whether they ended in "ski" or not; 2) kielbasa at every family gathering; and 3) Paczki Day. After leaving the Midwest, I saw Polish names less often; ate less kielbasa; and realized that most East Coasters sadly have no idea what paczki are.

What's Paczki Day? Well, it's known as Fat Tuesday or Mardis Gras everywhere else. Traditionally, Fat Tuesday is the last day before Ash Wednesday when Lent's fasting begins, so Polish tradition called for one last hurrah of eating bad things before Lent began. In Poland, they actually eat paczki on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, but Polish immigrants to the U.S. often baked and ate the treats on Fat Tuesday, making the holiday also known as Paczki Day in heavily Polish regions like Detroit and Chicago. In Detroit and especially its neighboring city of Hamtramck, it has become the Polish equivalent of St. Patrick's Day.

So what's a paczki? Technically, "pączki" is the plural of "pączek," but most Americans just call it a paczki. Paczki are a deep-fried dough ball glazed or powdered with sugar, often served with a jelly filling. They are kind of like jelly donuts, but they are far superior. Authentic paczki have dough made with eggs and have a lighter texture similar to brioche or challah bread.

How do you pronounce paczki? Since Polish letters are not always pronounced in similar ways to English or Romance languages, the answer might not be intuitive to native English speakers. I'm not sure if it's the result of different Polish dialects or Americans butchering the Polish language, but I've heard three primary pronunciations in the U.S.: 1) Poanch-key; 2) Poonch-Key; and 3) Punch-key. I interchange "poanch-key" and "poonch-key."

This year, I decided that it had been too long since I had a paczki, so I did some research and found three possible sources in the D.C. area: 1) Giant Supermarkets; 2) the Kosciuszko Foundation's Center near Dupont Circle; and 3) the Kielbasa Factory in Rockville, MD.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Best of the Net 2/25-3/2

Holland to Star in a New Movie

Hollywood movie makers again will be coming to Michigan to film a new movie starring Bryan Cranston and Naomi Watts. "Holland, Michigan" is scheduled to be filmed in Holland and is currently in pre-production. The Grand Rapids Business Journal describes the film as a Hitchcock-like thriller set during the tulip festival.

Eight Women Who Are Transforming Detroit

Huffington Post Detroit features eight women who epitomize the energy of Detroit's resurgence. The article highlights an artist-musician, a blight buster, a music teacher, and more women who give back to the city in different ways.

Kids Honor Their Classmate by Donating Jeans

Quiniece Henry,  a 13-year-old at Forrest Hills Middle School, recently passed away from Burkitt lymphoma. Her classmates, teachers, and friends remembered her as a young girl who wanted to help others, so they decided to honor her by helping the homeless. MLive reports that a Girl Scout troop and the school's student council organized a jeans drive to collect jeans for Grand Rapids-area homeless. The drive collected 151 pairs of jeans, despite bad weather shortening the week of the drive.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Stand Up and Tell 'em You're From Detroit

Joe Louis's Fist
Ellen Creager, a travel writer for the Detroit Free Press, asks, "Do you tell them you're from Detroit − or hide it?" 

It's a legitimate question. Detroiters who have traveled or moved out of state, or out of the country, know that answering the question "Where are you from?" with "Detroit" can lead to a myriad of negative responses.  

Creager, exasperated with Europeans' negative views of Detroit (no doubt a result of the international reach of the "ruin porn" narrative of our national media), decided to experiment by saying "Michigan" instead. She found that the Europeans' responses generally were more positive (so I guess that's good PR news for the rest of the state).

When I was a kid, I either said Detroit or the Detroit area when asked where I was from. Eventually, I stopped saying Detroit and started saying Michigan because I was tired of the predictable negative reactions toward the word "Detroit."

I moved out of Michigan but never stopped paying attention to what was happening in Detroit. Somewhere along the line, watching the media and East Coasters who had never even been to the city tear apart my hometown from afar made me want to stand up for Detroit. It was as if I was witnessing a gang of bullies gang up on a kid who had no one else there to defend him. If I didn't step in, Detroit would just keep getting pummeled.

I started telling people I was from Detroit again. If I saw a negative comment about Detroit on Facebook, I would intervene and tell the errant commentator why he or she was wrong about the Motor City. Eventually, I started this blog to defend and promote both Detroit and Michigan. I may not have the readership of the Wall Street Journal, but if I can change one mind or make one former Detroiter proud of his hometown again, I am doing my part.

And that's why Detroiters (and that includes suburbanites) should not shy away from saying "Detroit" when asked where they are from. You can control the person at a time. Go on Twitter and follow Detroit corporations, nonprofits, and, most important, people who are making a difference in the city. They will give you the talking points to combat the narratives of bankruptcy and ruin porn.

Detroit is getting better. It still has a long way to go, but the trip will be a lot easier if you can stand up and tell them you're from Detroit.

Or you can sing it loud for the world to hear like we did in 1985: