Wild Blueberries

Tales of Nuns, Rabbits & Discovery in Rural Michigan

Non-Fiction - Memoir
226 Pages
Reviewed on 08/10/2020
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Author Biography

Peter Damm’s life has traveled varied tracks. He was raised in small town rural Michigan and graduated with honors from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He later studied with National Book Award winner Wright Morris, and Guggenheim Fellow and National Jewish Book award winner Leo Litwak in the Master’s Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State. He has lived abroad and traveled widely in Europe, India, Bali, Mexico, and parts of Indonesia, South America, and New Zealand.
He worked on the grounds crew of a golf course, road construction crews, the staffs of magazines, and as a freelance writer and editor. He has taught European travel classes, English language and American culture to Japanese university students, co-founded an import gourmet food business, was co-owner of a residential real estate brokerage, earned a doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology, and worked as a psychotherapist and grief counselor, and with families of the chronically mentally ill. His book of poems, At the Water’s Edge, chronicles a 5-month journey in Bali, Indonesia and New Zealand. Peter lives and works in Berkeley, California.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Kimberlee J Benart for Readers' Favorite

Wild Blueberries: Tales of Nuns, Rabbits & Discovery in Rural Michigan is a memoir by Peter Damm sprinkled with family photographs and pencil illustrations by Suzanne Anderson-Carey. The black and white photographs are identified in a list at the end. The first part of the memoir is centered largely on Damm’s 1950s small-town Catholic boyhood and flows into his college years in the 1960s and his first travel outside the United States in 1971. The tales from childhood are largely humorous and touch on relationships with family and friends, Catholic beliefs and practices through the eyes of a child, adolescent sexuality, the loss of a pet, boyhood play, and Viet Nam-era college life. The second part sees a move to California and recounts Damm’s emotions and thoughts at the passing of his father, whom he describes as the anchor of his life.

I enjoyed reading Wild Blueberries. The stories from Peter Damm’s childhood and young manhood are impeccably written, emotionally evocative, and utterly engaging. We chuckle at the childhood attitudes and antics he portrays so skillfully and sympathize with the poignant events of disappointment and loss which he experiences. For those of us who share a childhood in the rural 50s or in a Catholic family, the stories are particularly relatable, but everyone can look back at another time when the adventures of childhood weren’t defined by the technology of today and wonder how many of our children are losing out on something important. Love of family shines through these stories even when tinged by hatred for a father’s alcoholism. Love of life shines through even more with all its wonders and challenges. A touching, almost poetic memoir that has me seeing blueberries and bugs in a new light. Highly recommended.

Deborah Holdship, Editor Michigan Today

Another Time, Another Place

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It lures you into its comforting thrall with a scent, a song, a vision. You smell Coppertone and you’re a blissful 11 years old at Lake Michigan. You hear Dionne Warwick and you’re bouncing along in a 1972 station wagon with no seat belt. You see a hand-painted sign that reads “Cold Pop” and you are home.

But nostalgia also can break your heart – in the best possible way. The fonder the memory, the sweeter the tears and Peter Damm, BA ’71, plays with that tension in his wistful and sensitive book of essays, Wild Blueberries: Tales of Nuns, Rabbits & Discovery in Northern Michigan (O’Brien & Whitaker, 2019). The youngest of six Catholic children growing up in Flushing and Grand Blanc, Mich., Damm spent his boyhood summers at the family cottage on the south side of Platte Lake. The setting is as much a character in the book as the people who animate Damm’s stories. The wild blueberries are a recurring theme.

Now based in the small town of Albany, near Berkeley, Calif., Damm writes about autumn in Northern Michigan with lyrical wonder. When late September and October come to California, he writes, “I experience an almost physiological need to be amidst trees that are changing colors, to walk in the autumn forest. This is a feeling beyond my ability to describe.

“It is memory, connection, reverence, and sensation. There exists in those trees for that short span of time a mixture of color and light, of dryness and moisture, chill, warmth, and foreboding that moves me to silent awe. It portends death while being unshakably bound to a basic force of life and renewal.”

Read it and weep. I did.

As summer 2020 heats up and COVID-19 rages on, Damm’s book transports the reader to another time, another place, for much-needed respite from the present.

The writer was born in 1949. But at age 71, his vivid boyhood is at the ready. He goes back to a world with only two camps: people who love snakes and people who are terrified of them. In this world, boys marvel at the shiny chrome bumper on the front side of a sled – ideal for slamming into oak trees without damaging the vehicle. They take pride in getting as dirty as possible, start working for pay at about 12 or 13, and travel to each other’s houses through backyards and over fences.

There are potato chips that arrive on one’s porch in gold metal tins, mysterious places to play like the “Bomb Hole,” and a mother who barely survived “an assembly line of traumas visited upon her by her darling and decorous children.” Damm’s attorney father is that classic mix of warm and remote (raising five “Damn Boys” and a girl) who showed up at the cottage every weekend.

“Dad was a major Tigers fan and we would listen to Ernie Harwell on the radio,” says Damm, who also writes of his own obsession with baseball and a mitt that rarely left his hand. “My identity was as a centerfielder. Al Kaline was my guy, even though he was a rightfielder.”

While they bonded over baseball, the father and son clashed over the youngest Damm’s choice to major in literature at Michigan with a minor in speech. The plan had been to study law or medicine, like his siblings.

But after graduating with honors from U-M in 1971, Damm studied writing in the Master’s Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University with Guggenheim Fellow and National Jewish Book Award winner Leo Litwak. (The book is dedicated to Litwak.) Damm also holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute in Berkeley and has worked as a psychotherapist and grief counselor.

A longtime freelance writer and editor, he began writing Wild Blueberries some 30 years ago, shortly after his father died. It was nearly published three times, the author says, yet it crashed “in utterly unforeseen ways that had little to do with the book and more to do with circumstances.”

Wild Blueberries was a finalist for the Great Lakes Great Reads Award. Damm also is a published poet. At the Water’s Edge (O’Brien & Whitaker, 1999) chronicles a five-month trek through Bali, Indonesia, and New Zealand.

June 25, 2020

Sherri Daley, Book Club Network

“Wild Blueberries:” Nostalgic and Funny Essays That Tip Their Hats to Rural Michigan

A little bit Huckleberry Finn, a little bit Spanky and Our Gang, Wild Blueberries (O’Brien & Whitaker) is a delightful and beautifully written collection of essays by Peter Damm about growing up in rural Michigan. We meet the whole Damm family: young Peter, his four older brothers, one formidable sister Susan, a soldier of a mom, and dad, a Tigers fan who, we learn, might drink a little too much.

There’s a bunch of loosely disciplined friends, a stray cat, random neighbors and fearsome nuns who beat the fear of fire and brimstone into their charges before they were old enough to question it.

Wild Blueberries is nostalgic and funny for Boomers who remember when there was no internet or cell phones, only four television channels and no video games — and it probably reads like a historical novel for the kids of Generation Z.

A WORLD OF DISCOVERIES MADE IN YOUTH

Damm and his siblings played outside till the streetlights came on, loved to go to the drive-in movies, snuck up on the fish they hoped to catch and, because there are basically no mountains in that part of Michigan, sledded recklessly down into a natural crater they dubbed “The Hole.” They made up their own fun: clean, healthy and spontaneous. Like throwing snakes at Peter’s sister.

Damm’s memories of sexual self-discovery are naughty and familiar, written with self-deprecating humor. Young Peter slides and bungles his way through his childhood, successfully negotiating Midwestern Catholicism, puberty and the politically sticky University of Michigan campus.

GROWTH AND REFLECTION IN ADULTHOOD

Grown-up Peter arrives late in the book when we have already learned to love him and his entire family, quite likely siding with his father when Peter decided to wander Europe and the Greek Islands instead of getting a job after graduation.

Grown-up Peter has learned how to balance his world — the peace of an inland lake near Traverse City, MI — against the bullies of the Church and the playground. He acknowledges questions he’ll never be able to answer. “What is this force? … Is it spirit? Soul? Is it God inside us, inside all living things?” But the answers don’t matter.

The last 30 pages are aptly titled “Moonrise.” Day is over, the conclusion of so much, yet there is the moon, beautiful and burning and rising in the August sky. There is hope and the promise of another day.

A DELIGHTFUL COLLECTION OF VIGNETTES

Wild Blueberries is a breath of fresh air, and particularly handy because the short chapters don’t need to be read in order. Readers can choose at random what they want to visit: Peter’s amusing confusion about nuns and babies, the ecstasy of baseball and snowballs, the terrors of hell, the irresistible joy of fishing or the Detroit Tigers. Damm makes even the subject of California’s relentlessly sunny weather a joyful little read.

Readers should tuck this slender book of vignettes into a pocket for reading wherever and whenever their spirit needs refreshing.

Wild Blueberries was recently named as a finalist for a Great Lakes Great Reads Award and is now also available from Blackstone Audio in audiobook format, narrated by industry veteran Joe Barrett (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Puzo’s The Last Don, Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer).

June 7, 2020

J. Ruth Gender, Author

In Wild Blueberries Peter Damm tenderly sketches out the delights and tribulations of a seemingly quiet Midwestern childhood. Wrestling with the riddles of his Catholic inheritance, we hear the questions of a smart, sensitive young man trying to puzzle out the mysteries of sin, sex, and spirit, and make sense of the adult world. Damm traces a path that reaches for light without denying the shadows. There is a gentleness and humor to Damm's stories that invites the reader to reflect on his or her own journey to maturity.

William Rodarmor, Journalist, Translator

Peter Damm’s stories about growing up in Michigan made me laugh aloud, cry, and occasionally wince when they hit too close to home. He infuses his stories with a deeply felt sense of place. The lakes and forests of his Michigan youth take on the presence of characters in his narrative. This is a lovely collection of stories, well conceived and beautifully told. The clean economy of the language and its cadences possess a quality that is almost poetic. I know that they will touch people, as they touched me. Wild Blueberries is a gem of a book.

Leo Litwak, Author

Peter Damm’s memoir, Wild Blueberries, is a joy to read. What emerges is a lyrical, rich and complex account of growing up in rural Michigan. The story of his Catholic coming of age is skeptical in tone, at times profane and amusing, and yet we see how a sheltering tradition can comfort and unify. I read Wild Blueberries in two sittings, held by its directness and simplicity. It was a pleasure to be in the hands of an intelligent and generous author.

Susan Harper, Editor, Writer

Once Wild Blueberries is between bound covers, I will wear it out to my heart’s content: keep it on my bedside table and dog-ear my favorite pages. In my work over the years I have read at least 1,500 manuscripts. Only a handful have affected me in this way, in terms of the quality of the writing. I appreciate the integrity of Wild Blueberries, a quality that seems to grow more and more rare. I like the unassuming tone, the unadorned language, the unaffected narrator who shares his search for an assembled, integrated version of the past, and conveys so clearly the idea that what counts here is the truth.

Richard F. Hill

Wild Blueberries: Tales of Nuns, Rabbits & Discovery in Rural Michigan
An Excellent Memoir of Childhood

Is there any literary ambition more daunting for an author than writing a memoir of childhood? It seems to me there are two enormous problems to overcome in the course of composition of an autobiography of one’s early years. First, one has to have an exquisite memory that permits one to be able to reconstruct events from early childhood with the particularity that makes those events compelling to the reader. We all have some memories—good and bad—from our earliest years, but few of us can recall incidents and emotions in the fullness of their actual occurrence. Second, and even more rare, the author has to have the ability to avoid imposing on his or her child-self/protagonist the knowledge, feelings, experiences, disappointments and accumulated “stuff” that were acquired in the years following childhood. How difficult it must be to recall the feelings and events of our first years when the recollections of those feelings and events have inevitably been filtered by all that has happened since.

Peter Damm has overcome both of these autobiographical hurdles in this remarkable memoir of growing up in 1950s Michigan, Wild Blueberries. In telling stories from his earliest conscious days, he is able to give extraordinary visual and aural texture to those stories. When he describes conversations held, or rooms occupied, or injuries sustained, his prose is completely credible—the reader can immediately tell that Damm hasn’t given into the temptation to write a “better story” by tampering with the details. His memory is so capacious that it marvelously re-creates the world of his childhood and allows us into that world.

And, he never muddles up that world with the detritus of the worlds that followed. Had I ever been inclined to tell the story of my own childhood, I suspect that I would have repeatedly imposed my adult self and world-view on the five-year-old that I once was, to show how I have matured. Damm never takes this easy approach; the child-Peter as we meet him here is in a sort of literary bubble, safe from the experiential infections that come with growing up. Even the “voice” found in Damm’s prose reflects this freedom from infection: while the writing is anything but simple (quite the contrary), these stories of a very young boy are told with sentence structures that are consistent with how that boy actually lived his life. Adults describe the world in dependent clauses and subjunctives because we have learned that things are complex. To a child, life isn’t complex, it’s new (whether joyful or painful), and Damm’s writing is consistent with that child’s way of seeing the world. As the young Peter grows, his world view inevitably becomes more complicated—and Damm’s writing from chapter to chapter subtly mirrors this evolution.

This is the second “remembrance of things past” I have had the pleasure of reading this year. Before I came across Damm’s book, I read Amos Oz’s remarkable 2005 autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness. The two books are in many respects as unlike one another as are the lives of the two boys told: growing up among Eastern European Jewish immigrants in war-torn Israel/Palestine is certainly far from growing up in Eisenhower’s Michigan. Yet both wonderful books share a common success in recreating long-disappeared times and places, and picturing the very sensitive and intelligent boys who inhabited those times and places.