With ten books to his name, Marquette resident John Smolens is arguably one of the best known writers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His books include Cold, Quarantine, and The Schoolmaster's Daughter. His newest, Wolf’s Mouth (Michigan State University Press, 2017), was a finalist for the Midwest Book Award and has been listed as a 2017 Michigan Notable Book.
“Wolf’s Mouth is the story of a man who served in the Italian Army in World War Two,” Smolens says. “He was captured by the Allies in North Africa along with thousands of others in the latter years of the war. He was brought to the United States and placed in a POW camp, which happened to be in Au Train, Michigan, about 30 miles from Marquette. This is a work of fiction, however these camps did exist and there was a camp in Au Train.”
Smolens’ main character, Francesco Guiseppi Verdi, narrates the book. He tells the story when he's in his 70's, looking back on the first half-century of his life. The story unfolds in the camp, which houses about 200 men. Smolens says there's a lot of tension and conflict between the prisoners.
“The tension was not so much between the prisoners and the American GIs who guarded them, but amongst themselves,” Smolens says. “Verdi is threatened by the German Kommandant Vogel, another prisoner, who really is the commanding officer of all the prisoners.”
After escaping from the camp during a harsh winter, Verdi meets a woman who helps him along the way. He becomes involved in a murder and eventually travels to Detroit, where he manages to create a new life with a new identity. Long after the end of the war, though, Kommandant Vogel still has not forgotten him and shows up to threaten Verdi again.
Several of Smolens’ earlier books are being reprinted by Michigan State University Press.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to be working with this press. Books can have a very short shelf life, but this year they have already reprinted three of my titles: Cold and Firepoint, two books that are set in the Upper Peninsula, and a third book set in Boston where I grew up. That one’s called The Invisible World.”
A fourth title, the historical novel The Anarchist, will be reprinted by the end of 2017.
Smolens is working on a sequel to Cold, called Out. The title is based on a common term used by people in Marquette who choose to live well outside of town in rustic and wild places.
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