As I mentioned in my last post, I take my family to northern Michigan every summer to visit my in-laws, who have a place on Little Traverse Bay. A few years ago my father-in-law casually asked me, “Would you be interested in meeting Ernest Hemingway’s nephew? He’s a heck of a nice guy.” Well, of course I was interested! Hemingway is a touchstone for all writers of fiction, but his influence is particularly strong for thriller writers. His short story “The Killers” is often cited as one of the first examples of “hard-boiled” fiction (although some academics argue that it was Dashiell Hammett who influenced Hemingway and not vice-versa). What’s more, after all our time in northern Michigan I felt a bit of geographical kinship with Hemingway, who spent the summers of his youth at his family’s cottage on Walloon Lake, just a few miles from Little Traverse Bay. The area became the setting for most of the Nick Adams stories as well as The Torrents of Spring, Hemingway’s early novel set in Petoskey, Michigan.
Hemingway’s favorite sibling was his sister Madelaine, nicknamed Sunny, who was five years younger than Ernest. She was the model for Littless, Nick Adams’s devoted younger sister in the unfinished story “The Last Good Country.” When she had a son in 1938. she named him after her famous brother. Ernest Hemingway Mainland, though, didn’t become a writer; instead he went into the insurance business in Petoskey. My father-in-law got to know him because they were both members of the Petoskey Rotary Club.
We set up a lunch to meet Ernie Mainland and his wife Judy. I’m happy to report that they’re wonderful people. Ernie has a face like his uncle’s, squarish and ruddy. The resemblance is especially striking if he’s growing a beard. He’s also a terrific storyteller. Although he hasn’t written any famous novels, he’s passionate about his family’s history, and he’s invested lots of time and energy in the restoration of Windemere, the Hemingway summer cottage, which Ernie inherited. Over lunch he told us the story of how he rebuilt the cottage’s porch, taking great care to match the way it looked during Hemingway’s boyhood. I asked Ernie what he remembered about his uncle, but he didn’t have much to say about that; he met Hemingway only once, during a visit to Cuba when Ernie was nine years old. Still, it was a great lunch, and at the end Ernie promised to invite us to Windemere the following summer.
This was a rare opportunity. Windemere isn’t open to the public. So when the next summer rolled around, my wife and I happily accepted Ernie’s invitation. The best moment, as I remember it, was taking that first step into the cottage and seeing the fireplace in the center of the room. I really felt like I’d just stepped into a Nick Adams story. Specifically, “The Three-Day Blow,” the story in which Nick and his best friend Bill get drunk on whiskey while talking about Nick’s breakup with his girlfriend Marjorie. On the cottage’s walls are all sorts of amazing things: oil paintings done by Hemingway’s mother, pencil lines showing Ernest’s height at various ages, a battered medal worn by Hemingway when he was wounded in Italy. There are also shelves holding century-old books and pamphlets, the eclectic collection of reading materials that young Ernest probably perused during rainy summer afternoons when he wasn’t hunting or fishing or carousing. As I gazed in wonder at the shelves, an idea occurred to me. I’d brought along copies of my own novels as gifts, so I asked Ernie to shelve them next to Hemingway’s. That was deeply satisfying.
Last year Ernie told me that the Hemingway Society was going to hold its 2012 conference in Petoskey to celebrate the author’s ties to northern Michigan. It was an academic conference, with most of the talks given by professors and grad students, but I really wanted to participate. As it turned out, it wasn’t that difficult to get invited; I just proposed a topic -- “Hemingway and the Modern Thriller” -- and they put me on the schedule. (They identified me as an “independent scholar,” which was very generous.) I was planning to speak extemporaneously, which is what I do when I talk about my novels, but my professor friends were aghast. “You can’t just wing it!” they said. “You have to deliver a paper!” So I wrote a ten-page paper analyzing Hemingway’s influence on Lee Child. Although I don’t know Hemingway nearly as well as the academics do, I figured I was better versed on bestselling thrillers, so I could pretend to be an expert.
The paper was a big hit. I got lots of laughs, and not all of them were at my expense. But the real highlight of the summer came a couple of months later when Ernie and Judy invited us to Windemere again. This time we brought along our kids, and Ernie entertained them by letting us fire his signal cannon. It’s the kind of cannon typically used to start a sailing race; you load it with blank shells and fire it by pulling on a string. (And don’t forget to cover your ears!) While we played with the miniature artillery piece, Ernie told us a story about how it had proved useful. Not so long ago, he said, a pontoon boat full of partying vacationers was looking for an anchorage spot along the shores of Walloon Lake. Now, it’s not so pleasant when one of those party boats is anchored near your property. The noise kind of spoils the idyllic atmosphere. So when Ernie saw the boat approach his shoreline, he brought out the signal cannon and fired it from his porch. The boat’s captain wisely chose another location.
The story reminded me of Hemingway. Ernie had inherited his uncle’s cheerful pugnacity. It was a delight to see.