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Monumental themes like civil rights, the Vietnam War and women’s equality are common storylines for baby boomer novels. Lansing author Diane Petryk has added the space race to the fray with her new young adult fiction novel, “Walter Hudson and the Mackinac Island Affair.”
Petryk, a veteran journalist, has always had a bent for science. In her new book, the space race is front and center for 11-year-old protagonist Walter Hudson.
“I wanted to portray the excitement of the space program, so kids today could at least understand why we were going,” she said.
Petryk also weaves the seemingly bucolic atmosphere of Mackinac Island into the book when Walter and his mother leave Brooklyn, New York, for the island after Walter’s mother inherits its only newspaper, the Huron Shores Herald. But, despite Walter’s objections, they are in for an adventure involving former Michigan governor George Romney, his son Mitt, faculty of the Mackinac College (founded by a shadowy religious rights group called Moral Rearmament) and an attempt to bribe the governor to prevent a black family from moving into Bloomfield Hills.
The author also has found a place in this plot for Jane Briggs. In real life, Briggs and her husband, U.S. Senator Phil Hart, had a “cottage” on the east bluff of the island just up the hill from Moral Rearmament’s fledgling college.
“She’s the best character in the book.
She’s real, but larger than life,” Petryk said.
The author delves into some of the famous aviatrix’s accomplishments, including becoming the first woman licensed in Michigan to fly a helicopter. Briggs actually passed the grueling test to become an astronaut, but could never be one at the time because she was a woman.
The plot to bribe the governor is revealed when Walter records a secret meeting of the perpetrator putting himself and his mother’s newspaper at risk.
Petryk knows the island’s history and its eccentric residents intimately after working for three years at the St. Ignace News — parent newspaper of the Mackinac Island Crier, the island’s real weekly newspaper.
“For three years the island was our private playground,” she said.
The book is peppered with pop culture references to the ‘60s, including “Star Trek,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” Phyllis Diller and, of course, Sonny and Cher. Fortunately for contemporary readers, Petryk has compiled a comprehensive 50-page glossary of pop culture. Since her book reads like a veritable Forrest Gump, it comes in handy.
Petryk also introduces an agoraphobic genius, MontesQ, who has sequestered himself in the Grand Hotel year-round. MontesQ, named after the famed philosopher Montesquieu, becomes a good friend to Walter and his friend Fletch. Coincidentally, Montesquieu’s working as a consultant to the space program and has a maquette of the proposed lunar excursion module to show the boys.
Petryk said, “The book is aimed at anyone who lived in the ‘60s and those that didn’t. Even if you didn’t live in the ‘60s, your jaw is going to drop,” she said.
One such jaw-dropping incident described in the book involves a writer for one of the Detroit dailies, who, when confronted with a no trouser for women policy at a Detroit restaurant, just takes them off and enters the establishment.
“True story,” Petryk said. The author works this journalist into portions of the book, including having her own a rare Apollo, one of only five created, for a retail exhibit.
Petryk also uses her extensive newspaper experience in places as varied as Sanford, Florida, New Zealand, North Carolina and Savannah to provide a real life glimpse into running a small town newspaper.
She describes her own journalism experience as “going from one fairy tale place to another.”
Petryk’s book is reminiscent of the young adult mystery series “The Hardy Boys,” punctuated by Forrest Gump-like experiences. There are also lessons about race, equal rights and social justice running rampant through the plot line. The book will also remind readers of how far we’ve come — especially in terms of women’s equality.
One scene in the book takes place at the Lansing Sears Store where Walter’s mom is buying a camera for the newspaper. The saleswoman waiting on her tells her she has to have a male salesman ring up the camera, since women aren’t allowed to ring up big ticket items.
The rationale is men are supporting a family and need the commission money more. Petryk once worked undercover at a car dealership for a feature story that revealed the tricks of a used car salesman. It brought her death threats.
Petryk also wants to make the point in her novel about the important role newspapers play in democracy. In the book, Walter’s mom and another journalist are jailed for refusing to reveal a source. In the dramatic denouement Walter and his band of friends help capture the bad guys.
“Throughout a newspaper career, in between editing press releases, typing obits and covering late night school board meetings, you occasionally get to nail a bad guy,” Petryk said. “My fictional character helps nail some bad guys. He helps me feel justice will be served, as long as there’s a journalist left standing.”