April 28 2010 12:00 AM

Politics become personal in Dave Dempsey’s novel

It may look like a U-turn for noted environmental author and biographer David Dempsey to try his hand at fiction, but Dempsey says he has been doing that since he was 16.

“I have to admit I dreamed of being a writer. In my 20s and 30s I wrote several novels that I am glad now weren’t published.”

His first journey into fiction, however, borrows deeply from his love of the environment and is aptly called “Superior Shores: A Novel of Conservation.” The book follows an environmental activist, Linda McBride, as she attempts to block Kevin Kelly, a Chicago developer, from building a 50-unit lodge and condominium project on the shores of Lake Superior.

Although Dempsey has fictionalized the characters the scenario is not an unusual one in northern Michigan. He says he has seen it time and time again when the environment is pitted against job creation.

He said the book is also a love story, but on many different levels.

“It’s a love story about Keweenaw peninsula and the best way to protect it. The two protagonists have differing viewpoints.”

Dempsey shares that love of the Peninsula, and that’s why his scenes about the nearly pristine area are so lyrical. His previous four books have been well-received, and his biography of former Michigan governor William G. Milliken was named a Michigan Notable Book in 2008.

In 2009 Dempsey was selected for the Michigan Author Award for his conservation- and environmentally themed nonfiction books. Dempsey developed his insight into the machinations of state government and land use while working for former Michigan governor James Blanchard in the 1990s.

He said he chose fiction for his newest book (which he self-published) because he believes it is the best form to change people’s attitudes about the environment.

“You can reach people better with stories rather than policy. My novel is about the human perspective on how we relate to the environment.”

He said setting the novel in the Upper Peninsula provides “a lot of color and a bit of the U.P. charac ter.”

In his day job, Dempsey is the communication director for Conservation Minnesota, an environmental watchdog group.

Dempsey traces his love of writing about the environment to Wallace Stegner who he believes may be the “best nature writer,” and to Edward Abbey, who, in addition to his cult classic and eco-terrorist book “The Monkey Chain Gang,” penned “Desert Solitaire,” which Dempsey points to as one of the best environmental books written.

Dempsey is co-authoring a book on Lake Sturgeon, which he calls a hybrid between science and storytelling.

A prolific writer, Dempsey also contributes periodic columns on the environment to City Pulse.

In his newest book, his protagonist, Linda McBride is the classic “earth mother” who does not drive and adopts few, if any, modern conveniences. On the other side is a big-city lawyerturned-developer who wants to save the environment by building on it.

McBride first confronts the developer by taking a bus ride to Chicago for a face-to-face discussion. Their complex relationship continues, even though they disagree strongly about the environment.

She ends up telling him, while dressing him down in a polite way, that “I’ve been around long enough to know when somebody genuinely doesn’t care and when they simply don’t know. You think you are doing the right thing.”

The education has begun, and Dempsey generates enough tension between the couple to hold your interest as plans for the development proceed.

Although the outcome is not quite what you’d expect, it certainly lays bare the human tensions between environmental activists and developers. It also digs deeply into the deal-making that surrounds major developments.

"Superior Shores:

A Novel of Conservation" by
Dave Dempsey

Available from Dave Dempsey’s website at www.dempsey.org