Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Jack & the Ghost,' a picture book written by Chan Poling and illustrated by Lucy Michell


'Jack & the Ghost,' a book by Chan Poling and Lucy Michell.
'Jack & the Ghost,' a book by Chan Poling and Lucy Michell. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

According to publisher the University of Minnesota Press, Jack & the Ghost "might call to mind the likes of Wes Anderson, Edward Gorey, or the Decemberists." Music fans, though, are most likely to be immediately reminded of the Top Ten Troubadour, Gordon Lightfoot.

"The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy," sang the Canadian folk singer in his iconic 1976 song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

In the first words of Jack & the Ghost, Chan Poling writes, "The November storms on the great lake could be deadly."

Poling doesn't name the lake, where Jack Cooper lives in a little house "perched high on the cliffs above the little town of Greyshore," right next to "the loneliest cemetery you've ever seen" where "one stone was always swept clean" no matter how deep the snow — but if you know Poling's home state, you might make an educated guess as to which great lake swallowed Jack's ship and left him the sole survivor.

Jack & the Ghost is a new picture book written by Poling, well-known to his fellow Minnesotans as a co-founder of the Suburbs and the New Standards. Music fans might also recognize the name of the book's illustrator Lucy Michell...but wait, isn't that last name missing an E? It would be if we were talking about Lucy Michelle of the Velvet Lapelles and Little Fevers, but in this case we're talking about Lucy Michell the visual artist. (Yes, they're the same person.)

Poling and Michell have collaborated musically, on projects including the latter's 2013 album Attack of the Heart; Poling played on that album, and joined his fellow singer-songwriter in The Current studio when it was released. Now, they've joined forces on this elegant little book, a North Shore ghost story.

Fundamentally, Jack & the Ghost is a story about grief. Fisherman Jack carries "a great sadness within him." He "often did not sleep at night," and "his heart felt as black as the sky." He has one friend, a chipper longtime friend named Red (guess what color her hair is) who "respected his grief" but pointedly advises Jack to "grab what's alive and real, what's right in front of you, and let go of ghosts."

Ultimately, another storm will whip up and draw Jack back to the site of his shipwreck, forcing him to choose between the past and the future. That scene provides a few tense pages, but by and large Jack & the Ghost is a ruminative read, a meditation on loss set against "the endless expanse of the great lake."

It's a simple story, though not simply told: Poling incorporates flashbacks and scene shifts, with vocabulary ("anomaly," "bereft," "breakwater," "quay") that will challenge some young readers. A little challenge can be good, though, and Michell's evocative illustrations are there to help children along. Painting in an appropriately rustic style with the flattened perspective of folk art, Michell brings Greyshore alive with a palette ranging from the deep blacks and grey wash of a nighttime scene (with a yellow crescent peeking through the clouds) to the bright hues of Red's coffeeshop.

Poling and Michell will showcase their new book in an unusual set of readings this coming Sunday and Monday at the American Swedish Institute. Veteran actors Mark Benninghofen (Sunday) and Sally Wingert (Monday) will handle reading duties while the author and illustrator provide "musical underscore and commentary."

Jack & the Ghost has won advance praise from jeremy messersmith and Dessa, who quipped, "Finally, a book with pictures that can put a waterproof mascara through its paces."

The Current's Jack & the Ghost giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Jack & the Ghost giveaway between 7:45 a.m. Central on Wednesday, November 6, 2019 and 11:59 p.m. Central on Tuesday, November 12, 2019.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of the book Jack & the Ghost, written by Chan Poling and illustrated by Lucy Michell. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $17.95

Winners will be notified via e-mail on Wednesday, November 13, 2019. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. Central on Thursday, November 14, 2019.

This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2019 Official Giveaway Rules.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Nov. 13: Wham!, George Michael and Me by Andrew Ridgeley

Nov. 20: Janis: Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren

Nov. 27: Horror Stories by Liz Phair

Dec. 4: Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day by Joel Selvin

...and mark your calendar for The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads Reveal at Number 12 Cider from 4:00 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13! The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads is presented with support from AARP Minnesota. Vote now and tell us what you think are the best music books of all time.

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