Whitehills, gold anniversary

By Bill Castanier

Local women's book club celebrates 50 years of literary greats

The Whitehills Book Club is unlike typical book clubs, which gravitate toward bestsellers and popular fiction. It’s not because the women who compose the group, mostly residents of the Whitehills subdivision in East Lansing, are book snobs — instead, they like to push their collective literary taste beyond traditional fare. That’s why, over the years, they’ve routinely dipped into the past to read and discuss such selections as Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play “The Importance of Being Ernest” and Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”

So it’s fitting that in April, in recognition of the club’s 50th anniversary, its members are finally getting around to reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was just starting its bestseller status when the book club’s founding women decided to expand their horizons by inviting a Michigan State University English professor to lead them in a discussion of a noteworthy book. The Whitehills Book Club’s first reviewer, Gordon Rohman, will lead the discussion of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“The book is as fresh today as it was 50 years ago,” Rohman said. “I am impressed by a group of people that hold it together for 50 years. It is a remarkable tenure for people, and whenever I review, I have a full parlor.”

Rohman, 84, a retired MSU English professor, says he attributes the group’s longevity to the women’s “breadth of taste.” One of the last books Rohman reviewed for them was Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which he admits was an unusual choice for an adult book club.

“The book is obviously a classic, but it had been unfairly consigned to the nursery,” Rohman said. “I gave it a fresher look.”

Club President Mary West said the group is limited to 35 members, with new members added only by referral when someone retires. West, who asked that her age not be mentioned, began her one-year turn as president last May. Each member contributes $130 a year, which is used to pay reviewers. The group meets eight months a year, with meetings mostly held in the members’ living rooms and great rooms in the tony Whitehills estates. At a recent gathering hosted by Lauri Dragoo, members milled around enjoying coffee, tea and pleasant conversation before they sought comfortable chairs to listen to guest reviewer Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s bookstore in Ann Arbor.

In a notable exception, members, who range in age from early 60s to their 80s, had selected the mystery “Still Life,” by Canadian author Louise Penny. Several longtime members said they could not remember having ever picked a mystery to read, but they were pleasantly surprised with Penny’s sophisticated writing.

Before members developed an aversion against more popular works, they read and reviewed books such as “The Rector of Justin,” by Louis Auchincloss, which was on The New York Times Best Sellers list in 1964. That year, the group also read William Golding’s controversial “Lord of the Flies” and Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” which won the National Book Award for 1964.

West said she recently enjoyed the 1961 novel “Revolutionary Road,” by Richard Yates and “all 947 pages” of Robert K. Massie’s “Catherine the Great.”

West, who is one of the group’s newest members —joining the club 10 years ago — said she believes part of the group’s success is due to its having very little turnover among members, as well as its policies and procedures for selecting books, which have changed very little over time.

For a book to be selected, members and reviewers are first polled for suggestions; two members then read a proposed book and agree on its inclusion before it can be considered. Following that process, they look at the book’s genre to make sure it is fairly represented among the overall selections (for example, to ensure that they’re not all fiction) and to make sure certain categories, which may have been previously overlooked, are covered.

In its early years, the Whitehills Book Club was mostly made up of housewives who didn’t work outside the home, who chose instead to raise families and volunteer. In recent years, however, new members have included professionals, such as Susan Brewster of Okemos, who joined the group after retiring from a career in art education. She said that part of the group’s longevity comes from the founders´ deciding to use outside reviewers rather than the traditional method of having group members review books.

“They wanted to do it right,” Brewster said.

The next piece up for the group is the play “Other Desert Cities,” a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist by Jon Robin Baitz. It will be reviewed by Kenneth Beachler, longtime area actor, producer and retired executive director of the Wharton Center.

“In the end what sustained the group was the intellectual stimulation,” West said.