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Oprah selects "Familiaris" by David Wroblewski as new book club pick: Read a free excerpt

Oprah's newest book club pick
Oprah Winfrey selects "Familiaris" by David Wroblewski as latest book club pick 06:51

Oprah Winfrey revealed her latest book club pick on Tuesday, naming "Familiaris" by David Wroblewski as a must-read.

Read an excerpt from Chapter 2, titled "Beneath the Wheels of the Mistake Train," below.

The Maple Frog was without question the ugliest boat twenty-year-old Walter Paine had ever seen. It may even have been (as its captain and co-owner Percy DuGreen often claimed—more strenuously the more he drank) the ugliest boat currently afloat on any of the five Great Lakes. No small claim: in 1871 there were plenty of wrecks heaving around those waters, and Walter often felt they'd spent their day jockeying among a flotilla of leaky longboats, wounded schooners, leprous tugs, and rancid fishing launches, each a unique and horrible spectacle of maritime decrepitude. Were some boats faster than the Frog? Indeed, most. Sounder? Of course. But if it was an ugly contest someone wanted, Walter (who three weeks earlier had never sailed a body of water whose far shore wasn't visible) would have backed the Frog against all comers, confident he'd not only profit but garner the awe of any wager-man who watched him step aboard. Captain Percy took a dyspeptic pride in the Frog's condition. "Twelve yards of abomination flottante!" was his tenor cry whenever passing crews jeered at them—a near-hourly event. Though Irish, Percy DuGreen liked to affect a French-Canadian accent in the belief that Canuckdom bestowed upon a man a certain nautical gravity. "So hideux!" he'd shout, bowing and sweeping his hat for hecklers, like a lead actor acknowledging the brilliance of his supporting cast. "Yet only God can seenk her!"

About this latter claim, Walter had doubts; it seemed to him that anyone with a small-bore musket could have put the Frog under. But the former claim was observable fact. If beauty conferred buoyancy, the Frog should never have been afloat. Her steam pipes were as caked with rust as the tin roof of a Civil War corncrib. Her engine—Percy called it the world's only coal-fired anchor—was a concatenation of clanking, hissing ironwork that served mainly to belch sausages of black smoke into the air (smoke which quite often moved across the lake more quickly than the Frog). Her portside wheel was alarmingly egg-shaped and outward-dishing, and lacked entirely or in part three of its sixteen paddle boards. Under full steam her hull shed a dander of mildewed paint like a ragweed releasing pollen. And true to her name, wherever the paint had entirely disembarked, maple planking shone whitely forth. Yet on the evening of October 8, 1871, the Maple Frog, drifting a mile off the Wisconsin coast in the middle of Stinking Bay, was to Walter's mind the most magnificent craft in nautical history—because Walter was on board, and because, in every direction, the world was on fire.

There were three of them aboard the Frog:
Walter dashed fore and aft across the main deck, mashing cinders with his boots. Percy DuGreen stood in the Frog's dilapidated little wheelhouse, drunk (though this was to be expected, since the sun had set). Jess Folquist, co-owner and first mate, was belowdecks tending to the boiler. Together they comprised the full crew of the Frog: Percy piloted, Jess tended the steam plant, and Walter bent his back loading and unloading when in dock.

Walter could have named many other people who would have liked to be aboard with them, most from the Bassoon Saloon, where a few hours earlier he and Percy and Jess had been drinking and talking to a dancing girl—until the bell of the Presbyterian church on the north side of the town of Menominee, Michigan, began to peal, double-struck. The din inside the Bassoon Saloon masked the sound until a man burst through the door, shouting, "Fire bell!"

The piano music halted midphrase (the Bassoon Saloon had no bassoon—merely irony). A heavy-breathing silence settled across the room as the occupants collectively realized that for some time, below conscious registration, they'd been hearing the sonorous dong! of the bell, struck by its own clapper, followed by the quavery vlang! of a sledge or crowbar striking the brass. Chair legs screeched across the dry floor planking. Eighty pairs of calked boots hit the wood floor. The pianist slammed the cover on the keys of the upright piano so violently that every string inside resonated as though strummed by a claw.

Some men began to laugh at the sound of the piano, squawking like a mechanical chicken. A few even began singing again. But the sound of the fire bell kept pealing down the street, and the songs and laughter quickly faded. Even from the middle of the barroom, Walter could see red light flickering against the dirty front windows.

"Get out, fools!" someone shouted. "Get out the damn door!"

There were, by Walter's estimation, close to a hundred fifty men in the saloon, but only one door. The patrons threw themselves toward it in a scrambling, shouting, surging mass. The first few drunkards out stumbled and pitched onto the street just beyond the threshold, jamming things up. For long minutes Walter, Jess, and Percy, trapped in the middle of the crowd, could only contemplate the flammability of the wooden walls of the Bassoon Saloon and of the six inches of sawdust used throughout town as street pavement—and the fact that none could remember when rain had last fallen—while the light of the wildfire, terrifyingly intensified, painted across the window glass. Those even further behind shouted and heaved at their backs. Then the crowd began to move forward again. The man directly behind Walter lurched and fell, clutching at Walter's belt as he went down. Reflexively, Walter kicked backward; he felt his bootheel strike some bony part of the poor fellow. Instantly remorseful, Walter turned to offer him a hand up, but a sweaty-faced lumberjack planted his calked boot between the fallen man's shoulder blades and pressed him to the floor. Walter found himself facing backward but carried forward, rowing and twisting to keep from going under, without space for his feet to move or his lungs to breathe. At the doorway he was turned sideways and his breastbone ground against the unpainted pinewood jamb until his skin began to tear and his cartilage crack. Within the walls of his chest he felt his heart struggle. Then he was thrown free, sprawling onto the sawdust street. He scrambled to his feet, was knocked down, then came up again, hands on knees, gasping. The three of them had risen from the same table at the same time but the hydraulics of the crowd had separated them. As he looked behind, Jess stumbled out of the saloon, among the last.

The fire bell kept ringing its two-note fugue. Men ran from house to house, pounding on closed doors and shouting. Someone began blowing a Gabriel horn. The revelers of the Bassoon Saloon, who until minutes earlier had been swilling beer, arguing over poker hands, and singing choruses of "O, Fanny Annie," stood staring at the horizon south and west of town. No one lived for long in the northwoods without witnessing a fire, and such fires were routinely fought and staved off until they smoldered themselves into quiescence in the damp of the forests. But the forests had ceased being damp weeks ago. And this was a cataclysm—a vast red heliosphere that struggled upward against a darkness intent on driving it into the earth; a magmatic shield of red that gathered and pulsed starward, its glow broad and world-encompassing.

Percy, twenty yards ahead, shouted, "Jess! Walt! Head for the Frog!" then went reeling down the street, drunk but determined, twice nearly losing his balance before he turned at Hattie Street and disappeared.

Walter looked back at the Bassoon Saloon. The door had been torn off its hinges and he could see the man he'd kicked lying motionless on the floor. He started back. Jess caught him by the shoulders. "You can't help him," he said. "I already checked. Now come on." And then they were running, wordlessly, side by side.

Everywhere people were rushing through the streets. On the Menominee side of the river, men were hitching horses to a steam-powered fire engine. Homesteaders were digging fire holes and pitching silver and valuables in, or loading their children into wagons and sending them toward the river. A little girl raced across the street carrying a snowy pullet in her arms, its red-combed head tipping and jerking. A man stepped out of a house holding a rifle, and raising it to his shoulder, fired one shot after another into a line of hogsheads balanced on the ridge beam of his house. Water began pouring out of the bullet holes in long silver spouts.

They caught up with Percy on the Marinette side of the bridge and together they covered the final half mile to the dock where the Frog was moored. Jess scrambled down the engine hatch and went to work on the steam plant, throwing open the feed and pitching in shovels-full of oil-soaked starter coal. Percy took up position in the rickety little pilot-house, looking intently back the way they'd come. Without a definite task to perform, Walter dashed pointlessly between them.

"Push off!" Percy shouted.

"Ten minutes to pressure," Jess shouted back. "Maybe fifteen." "Now! " Percy cried. "It has to be now, or we'll swamp for sure."

To Walter, whose eye was drawn by the blaze rising behind the twin towns of Marinette and Menominee, Percy's concern seemed nonsensical. The fire was clearly advancing; to the west, above the treetops, gigantic streamers of orange flame leapt and consumed themselves. It was easy to imagine their craft set ablaze, but how could the conflagration swamp the Frog? Then he realized that Percy wasn't looking at the fire; he was looking at the Hattie Street bridge—the same bridge the three of them had crossed moments before.

In those years, the bridge was unlit. Gaslight was far beyond the sophistication of a northwoods frontier town that ran on firewood, and electric light in any form was a decade in the future. Even so, it was easy to see the throng of panicked residents fleeing across the bridge, for they carried their own light—whale oil lanterns, candles in hurricane glasses, torches that billowed and smoked. Bearing fire as they fled fire. Their movement suggested hysteria, folly, ruin. A man's voice echoed across the river: "This way! This way to the dock!"

Walter, Jess, and Percy had spent the last several days loading the Maple Frog in preparation for their next run up the shore of Lake Michigan, and under the combined weight of a full coal bin, thirty beer kegs, sixty molasses barrels, and countless sacks of flour, the little sidewheeler wallowed, even at the pier. This was just how Percy liked seeing his craft: terrifyingly overloaded. It meant fewer runs and more time sitting in saloons.

Besides, as Percy liked to point out, they always stuck close to the shore, and once they'd put into port at the first few shoreline villages, the Frog became downright perky again, its bow hardly ever threatening to plunge beneath the waves. But setting out was perilous. The weight of even a few additional passengers would leave the lake chop lapping at the rails—and running headlong toward the dock were forty people, maybe more, who wouldn't stop coming aboard until the Frog foundered and sank.

Percy ran to the bow, unlashed the mooring lines, put one of the long poles against a pier post, and began to push. Walter grabbed another pole, sunk it into the shore mud, and likewise labored.

"Jess, get that boiler cooking now!" Percy cried. "Or we're all going to die with Wisconsin river piss in our lungs!"

Jess clambered up from belowdecks and looked at the approaching crowd. The nearest were already running down the long main plankwork of the pier, leaping aboard any vessel still docked. But it was obvious that the Maple Frog would be among the first to depart, and the main mass of people waved and flagged, shouting, "Wait! Hold up! Stop!"

Even in the dark, Walter saw Jess blanch. "Damn," he said. "Damn, damn, damn." He leapt down the engine hatch, barely touching the ladder. The iron burner grate clanked open and great orange flashes illuminated the deck as Jess hurled more coal into the burner.

Percy hauled his pole aboard and dropped it on the deck. To Walter, he said, "Don't stop pushing until you can't see this town." He ran between the port and starboard paddle wheels hauling them around with all his strength. Between Walter's poling and Percy's efforts at the paddle wheels, the overburdened little boat began slowly drifting away from the dock.

"Now is the time, Jess!" Percy shouted. "Now is an excellent time!" "I can't make water boil faster than it boils!"

"Then help turn these paddles," Percy cried. "For God's sake!"

Jess clambered out of the engine hatch and strained at the starboard wheel, while Percy, at port, screamed, "Turn, you lazy swine! Turn! Turn!" The first of the group had reached their mooring on the pier by then, but between Walter's effort with the barge pole and Percy and Jess at the paddle wheels, the Frog had advanced forty yards toward the center of the river.

"Wait!" someone cried. "Take us!"

"We're too heavy!" Percy cried. "Go on to the Union!"

Four men jumped off the dock and began swimming toward the Frog. One of the pierbound figures produced a pistol, knelt, and steadying his elbow on a piling took aim at the boat and fired. A bullet whanged a spark off the smokestack just behind Jess's head. Walter and Percy ducked, but Jess, dumbfounded, stood looking at the dented stack. It wasn't until the second shot splintered the gunwale eight inches from his hand that he finally bounded across the deck and disappeared down the engine hatch, yelling, "Either it'll go or we'll all be blown to kingdom come!" A moment later, a heavy thunk resounded from the engine compartment and the paddle wheels jerked and slowly began slapping the water. The swimmers shouted and cursed, then thrashed back toward the dock. The crowd was already rushing on toward the Union.

Walter stood on the deck, transfixed, watching the town dwindle while the glow of the fire behind it swelled. Overhead three tiny white stars sped across the as yet moonless sky; a fourth, rushing after, pulled a long bright line through the night. The Frog passed into a dense smoke bank that rasped in his throat. Gusts of wind carrying hot ash rushed across the water, first from the north, then from the west. No matter how ugly, no matter how clumsily its paddles flailed at the water, Walter felt only the purest gratitude to be aboard the Frog. No place was worth the fight—hopeless, in his estimation—that the townspeople of Marinette and Menominee were about to undertake.

When he could move again, Walter made his way to the wheelhouse, where Percy stood with one hand draped over the wheel's top curve, looking first downstream toward the open lake, about a quarter of a mile away, then back upriver. At the Bassoon Saloon, Percy had been very drunk, but now, despite the flask in his hand, he looked like he'd spent a whole sober life at the wheel.

"Where do you plan to take us?"

"As far as we can get from the fire," Percy declared. "Maybe to Green Island. Maybe out of the bay entirely and onto the lake. Get a lantern on that hook up front."

Walter knelt by the engine hatch and asked Jess for a lantern.

"Fat lot of good that'll do," Jess muttered, but he opened a small bench hatch and handed up a safety lantern, then threaded a long needle of matchwood through the boiler's burner grate and, while Walter raised the chimney glass, used it to light the wick. Walter carried the lantern to the foredeck, tipping the reservoir back and forth. Maybe a quarter full—two hours' worth of oil. He fastened the bail to the running light hook and adjusted the flame and looked out over the broad river estuary they were navigating. Not a single other craft was visible, only clouds of smoke, clotted low over the water, each a shifting gray void that seemed to pull the water in and swallow it.

The river current was flowing fast enough that they were already halfway to the mouth of the river, with the town a quarter of a mile behind, the lights fuzzy through the smoke. The dark mass of the Union sat moored, its tramway still extended to the dock.

"Are they just staying there?" Walter wondered aloud. Neither Jess nor Percy answered, though they'd surely heard him. The commotion and shouting were still audible over the chug of the powerplant and the wash of the paddle wheels and the lick of harbor chop against the hull. On a different night, Walter thought, it might almost have been pleasant to view the twin towns of Marinette and Menominee, divided by the river, from this short distance offshore, made quaint and pastelled by the smoke, hooded by shooting stars. He was reminded of the first time his parents had taken him to the Fourth of July fair when he was eight years old. He'd heard of fireworks but had never seen them, and he had been delighted by the sulfur match smell of the ignited gunpowder. But that had been simple smoke, tame smoke, smoke that did not augur catastrophe. Now out of port and passing beyond the mouth of the river, the Frog's movements took on a different character, no longer churning smoothly with the river current, but making steady pulses as the lake chop lifted and dropped the vessel. Satisfied for the moment with the condition of the steam plant, Jess emerged from the engine hatch and at once began to dispute Percy's plan to flee into the center of the bay. "Green Island? That's four miles out. We've never been further out than a mile," Jess said. "And how do you expect to navigate? With all this smoke, you won't be able to see the shore. Not the Green Island light either. We'll be running blind, along with every boat in the bay. If we're lucky, we'll only wind up adrift. More likely, we'll be run down and drowned."

Percy swept his flask around in a gesture that encompassed all visible coastline. The fire crouched over the land from horizon to horizon, a reef of orange punctuated by scarlet eruptions of flame.

"Look at it, Jess. If we're close enough to see the shore burn, we're close enough to burn ourselves." Even as Percy spoke, a tiny red ember settled onto his sleeve. He pinched it out between thumb and forefinger and pointed to a triplet of larger sparks drifting onto the water off the Frog's bow. "Our only chance is out—as far out as we dare. We can hail someone for help in the morning, if it comes to that. At least we won't have a boat in flames."

Exasperated, Jess turned to Walter. "What's your vote? Shouldn't we—" Percy was a little man, but nobody had told his voice that. "ain't! a! votin'! matter!" he bellowed, his face tipped upward, launching his words at the heavens. "I'm captain of this good ship, and you have to do what I say." "Jesus Jack and Christmas," Jess said. "Suddenly she's a 'good ship'?

This morning you called her the Steaming Sturgeon. The Unsinkable Corpse. The Infected Strumpet of Lake Michigan. You said you were sorry you'd ever laid eyes on her much less stepped aboard, and you blamed me for talking you into putting up half the money to buy her."

Percy sniffed. He lifted his flask and took a swallow.

"Captain's called upon to curse his ship now and then," he said. "Raises the spirits of the crew and swells the hull to seal it."

Jess shook his head and stormed back to the mechanic's hatch. "Head any further out and you'll lose primary steam," he called over his shoulder. "Then we can talk about votes."

By the night of the fire, Walter had been working on the Frog for almost three weeks, ever since crossing Lake Michigan on his way to live with his sister Louise in Waupaca, a town he understood to be located somewhere in the interior of Wisconsin. That July, Louise had posted a letter claiming that the Wisconsin Central was laying a mile of track a day, and if Walter came over, her husband could get him signed on with a team laying crossties—hard work, but with a chance of making foreman the following spring.

Walter had been mildly intrigued; Walter's father had been disconcertingly enthusiastic. Walter was then twenty years old, and for as long as he could remember his father had been observing that—though Walter was practical-minded and honest and a hard worker, with a calm demeanor and pleasant looks—he also seemed rudderless. Here, his father declared, was Walter's chance to venture forth! A wonderful opportunity had fallen into his lap! A young man could hardly ask for better prospects, with a good job waiting at the end of a short journey. It was true, all true; especially the rudderlessness. This question of purpose had been nagging at Walter, not urgently but persistently, for years. How many nights had he fallen asleep peering soulward, whispering questions into his core, hoping to discover the germination of some singular fate? But the only answer had been darkness and silence. As if he had an inner blindness. He'd wondered if this was how someone knew they had a soul: when they turned their senses inward, something was there. Mysterious perhaps, but unmistakably present.

If Walter's curiosity had been piqued by his sister's invitation (and his father's zeal supercharged), he'd also felt supremely comfortable at home. Thus, he'd dallied and considered, and the days had slipped by until the thrill of the notion faded so smoothly and incrementally that within a fortnight he'd forgotten his sister's letter entirely. When his father raised the subject in the middle of August, Walter confessed apathy.

The next morning his father walked the three miles to town, entered the Lumberman's Bank, where he kept his accounts, and returned with fifty dollars—a sizable amount for their family—to stake Walter's trip. With the crisp bills upon his palm, Walter grew interested again. That night he posted a reply to his sister: he would arrive within a month. His father helped him plan the journey, noting that a train excursion south to Chicago and then back north through Milwaukee and on to Waupaca would waste time and money. Instead, he could take the spur line to Traverse City, where a new passenger ferry was said to be crossing to Green Bay twice a week, and from there it would be a short train ride to Waupaca.

Walter departed feeling rich, with forty-seven dollars in his pocket after having spent three dollars at Johnson's store on new canvas trousers and a pair of boots and hair tonic. A valise seemed like an extravagance for such a short journey. Instead, he fashioned a travel bundle inside a blanket, and on the first day of September, he shook his father's hand, kissed his mother's cheek, and boarded the ten o'clock train for Traverse City.

But at the dock in Traverse City, things began to go wrong. Two weeks before, during a sudden and ferocious storm off the Muskegon coast, the passenger ferry had sunk, a grizzled old glass-eyed harbor- master informed him, and it would be spring before a new ferry could be commissioned. Walter asked what other boats took passengers. In reply, the harbormaster rolled his glass eye and spit into the gray harbor water. But Walter didn't relish the thought of explaining to his father how he'd failed even to cross Lake Michigan. He pestered the old fellow until he admitted that sometimes, possibly, arrangements could be made. He would ask around. Walter should come back in the morning and not before.

Walter slept that night in a rundown boardinghouse near the wharf. At sunrise he was standing in the harbormaster's shack again. The old man gestured at one of the piers. "Sit," he said. "Wait." Walter sat and listened to the shorebirds squawking, until, midmorning, a man left the harbormaster's shack and approached him.

"Looking for steerage?" he said. Walter stood. "To Green Bay."

"Can't get you to Green Bay. But we've got an empty lumber hold to fill in Menominee."

"Where's that?"

"A day north overland from where you want to go." The man looked him over. "Ever been at sea? I won't take a puker."

"I'll be fine," Walter assured him. "Are you the captain?"

The man chuckled. "As far as you're concerned, I'm the captain." He pointed down the wharf toward an uninspiringly dour three-masted schooner.

"She's the Lake Smoke. Be at the dock half an hour before sunrise. Stand there and keep quiet. I'll find you. If you start asking around, you'll stay behind." The man quoted a price double the ferry rate, payable half in advance, half in the morning. As none of this seemed open to negotiation, Walter simply agreed and paid the man and spent a second night at the boardinghouse. An hour before sunrise he arrived at the dock. A cottony fog swathed everything; he could hear men's voices aboard the Lake Smoke, though he could barely see the schooner. He sat with his back to a pier log and his bundle under his elbow. As the fog thinned, an orange sky salted with stars grew visible overhead. The first rays of sunlight lit the top of the Lake Smoke's masts. Just when he decided he'd been duped, that he was going to be left watching the ship depart, the man materialized out of the white flannel of fog.

"The money," the man said. Walter handed across the bills he'd been folding and unfolding as he waited. The man counted them and jammed them into his pocket and led Walter up a gangway, then across the top deck of the ship. They came to a ladder leading downward into a dim, empty chamber.

Walter squatted and looked in. "Who's in there?"

"You think you're the only one who needs to cross?" the man hissed. "Climb down and keep quiet. We'll be in port late tonight. Stay put until I come get you."

The lumber hold, though pooled with tree sap, and dark with the hatch closed, was not unpleasant. The sailor must have spirited him aboard at the very last minute, for already Walter could feel the ship being towed away from the dock. In the gloom he made out a dozen other stowaways sprawled about.

"Psssst," a voice said. "What'd you pay?"

Walter squinted around, trying to identify which of the shadows had spoken. "Two dollars yesterday and two this morning," he said.

"Bastard charged me three and three. I heard you could get across on the Brunhammer for five in all if you're willing to work."

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