Throughout her career, author Sally Cole-Misch has advocated for progressive environmental conservation and policy, urging people to recognize the value of nature in their lives in order to protect it. This passion and appreciation for the natural world comes through in her immersive debut novel The Best Part of Us (on sale September 8, She Writes Press), a Where the Crawdads Sing for the Great Lakes region. After a young woman discovers Native artifacts on her family’s island, which was purchased from the Ojibwe by her Welsh grandfather in the 1940’s, a dispute coupled with a storm sets in motion decades of family turmoil and secrecy. The Best Part of Us is an exquisite ode to the essential and inherent roles that family, nature, and place hold in all of our lives.
The novel is informed by both Ojibwe and Welsh traditions and shows sensitivity regarding cultural differences. It also honors the natural world with dazzling imagery…A dramatic, rewarding story about a woman reconnecting with family, nature, and herself.
This is not just storytelling, it’s a lived experience…At a time when we seem to have lost our way in navigating the human relationship with place, Sally has provided a true compass to help us find home.
-Dave Dempsey, 2009 Michigan Author of the Year, author of ten books and renowned Great Lakes environmental policy expert
A potent burst of wind grabbed Beth’s book out of her lap. She woke in time to see it careening over the cliff, even as she lurched forward to try to retrieve it. Another angry gust wrapped her long hair around her face, blinding her. She tripped and fell into the grass just inches from the cliff’s edge. The adult eagles below watched with their broad ebony wings partially extended, ready to escape or protect their young if she fell—she wasn’t sure which.
The east bay was still bright and vibrant with activity, the sun just past noon. Maegan was almost to the far bay, the boat leaning hard to port, her body leaning backward over starboard for counterbalance. Beth knew her sister was grinning, maybe even laughing as she raced with the wind. She peered down the cliff wall at her grandmother’s book lying on the bottom ledge just before the water, as Taid had teetered on the brink last summer.
Taid, the meeting—were they still down there? Beth searched both island docks for the powerboat. Nothing. Dylan was drawing by the fire pit, in his own world as much as Maegan was enthralled in hers. The western sky had turned dark, crouching, with heavy rolling clouds brooding over the horizon. Their heavy shadows enveloped the western part of the lake in an eerie film. Pinpricks of people were walking onto the Akeenes’ dock and climbing into the boat. They were too far away to see body language, whether they were happy or mad. Either way, they’d be back soon. Maegan needed to head home, and so did she.
She scanned the western sky, now pulsing eastward in a massive frown. Waves were slamming into one another in a raucous mishmash of conflicted energy, striking the shore in angry booms and receding in thick foam before the next surge advanced. At least one storm came through every summer, each with its own personality. If from the north, the rain lasted several cold, dreary days. Southern storms were brief, impish, filled with heat and lightning. The north shore still held the remains of the last eastern storm’s powerful winds, which had flattened several cottages and turned a wide swath of forest into grassland. A western summer storm usually ripped across the lake in a matter of hours.
From her view on the cliff, the lake seemed split in half. To the west the water was churning, its hue matching the cloud’s hanging underbellies, and the waves jumbling and swelling as the power of the encroaching storm gained steam. Beth cupped her hands over her eyes to shield them from the contrast as she looked east, the high sun still floating in a vivid blue sky and reflecting in diamond bursts off the lake. Maegan was farther east, but she had tacked to face the island. Could she see the looming darkness beyond Llyndee’s Peak? Was she heading home? Dylan was safely ensconced on the rock shelf by the fire pit, the island’s girth blocking the wind and clouds.
Ben was struggling to keep the boat from lurching in the rising waves, trying to balance between the crisscrossing whitecaps like a cowboy on a wild stallion, even though he was hovering near the shore and away from the strongest currents. She studied his path, knew Ben would opt for the safety of land if he thought they were in danger. As long as he didn’t panic, she wouldn’t either. Maegan was still heading west, so she must have seen what was coming. Beth peered over the cliff’s ledge again and pondered whether she could get to her book with the kayak before the storm arrived.
A dense gust whipped across the cliff, then another and another, each one lifting the oak and birch trees’ leaves to expose their pale undersides. A wall of rain extending across the entire width of the lake’s southwestern end was approaching the boat with Ben, her parents, and her grandparents. He must have realized they couldn’t outrun the storm, because he was steering toward the south shore to wait it out under the forest’s canopy. Beth spun to check on her sister, who was heading east again, away from the island. Shit, Maegan, turn around! That old wooden sailboat was sturdy, but it wouldn’t make it home if she didn’t come about soon. Beth ran to the cliff’s north edge to see how rough the waves had become between her and the island. Even if she could run down the trail in a few minutes, could she get across the three hundred yards of now unruly lake in her tiny kayak and get to Maegan in time with the fishing boat?
The storm was moving fast, rain and lightning pelting the lake’s western third. Dylan was futzing with the fire pit, shoveling out old ashes and adding new logs. Beth waved her arms and yelled at him. Nothing. He had to notice the wind getting stronger, even in that protected space. She paced as she gauged the storm’s speed and Maegan’s path. She’d come about and was heading west again, toward them, but that was almost worse. If she stayed near the far bay, she could find land—now she was heading back into open water. Beth jumped up and down to try to get her sister’s attention and point her toward the east bay, but she knew it was pointless. The distance was too far, and the mainsail kept blocking Maegan’s view.
Dylan. He was the closest option, the only one now. Beth grabbed two long sticks to wave in circles as she yelled down to him. He looked up but not at her. She’d stayed too long, damn it. The eagle mother lifted its enormous body and flew over her, calling in a weak staccato, kleek kik ik ik ik. It hovered in the growing power of the wind and then flew toward the island and circled high above Dylan in dips and climbs, reveling in the storm’s gusts. She tried to mimic the eagle’s call, but he was taken by the real bird. Maegan was still heading west, now in the widest section of open water.
The rain was halfway across the west end. She had to do something fast. The eagle had caught his attention. What else would do that? What had Ben taught them that Dylan would recognize? She cupped her hands around her mouth and leaned over the cliff’s north edge. Oo-AH-bo, oo-AH-bo-oo-oo-oo, she yelled over and over. Her vocal cords strained to hit the loon’s night-wailing notes as best she could to span the distance. Sam appeared and landed on the boathouse roof, staring up at her. Great, maybe he could help to get Dylan’s attention. She waved the sticks again and pointed at Dylan, but Sam just angled his head to the side and stared at her.
She tried again, another series of six loon calls, and at last Dylan searched the air for the wail’s source. Beth waved and wailed again until finally their eyes connected. She pointed west and mimicked rain, then pointed toward Maegan and formed a triangle with her hands above her head—the warning sign Naina taught them to express fear or danger whenever they were on or in the water. Dylan ran to the south dock and saw the impending storm, then looked east toward Maegan. She was still in open water, losing her battle against the rising whitecaps and strong crosswind, almost in irons. He looked at Beth and pointed at himself, then at Maegan, to Beth, to her kayak, back to himself and the kayak again. After he got Maegan, he’d come for her. Beth shoved both thumbs into the air.
Dylan took off for the north dock, blocked from Beth’s view. She hopped on her toes, alternating between watching for him to reappear and watching Maegan, who was a bit closer, though the sail was still blocking her view of Beth and the western sky. Finally Dylan came around the island’s point in their dad’s Carling wooden boat. What the hell was he doing in that? It was faster than their or Ben’s fishing boats, but would it hold up in the pounding waves? Beth jogged back and forth across the clearing, anything to release her frantic energy as Dylan sped over the waves.
She could tell Maegan saw him when she lowered the main- sail and secured it and the boom to the rudder. As Dylan reached Maegan, she climbed onto the bow to grab the front of the power- boat and push it forward so she and Dylan were side by side. The two boats careened off each other with each monstrous wave. Beth screamed, “Faster!” even though she knew only the eaglets could hear. Lightning loomed, and they had to get home before the metal mast made them an easy target.
Maegan pulled the wooden boat farther forward so Dylan could tie both back ropes to the sailboat’s bow. As he floored the throttle to spin the sailboat around behind him, Maegan dove into the back of the boat. He finished a wide arc to face the island just as the first pellets of cold rain hit Beth’s back. Dylan pointed to the cliff, and Maegan waved with both arms. Beth grinned and returned the gesture, heavy drops already soaking her head, back, and thighs.
A bolt of lightning lit the sky just west of the cliff, and its thunder rumbled the ground underneath her. As much as she wanted to stay until they reached the island, Dylan would get her next, and maneuvering the path’s rocks and carpet of pine needles—as slippery as ice from the rain—would demand extra time.
Her brother and sister huddled together in the driver’s seat behind the low windshield of her father’s prized possession, the sailboat bucking across the angry waves as they advanced by inches toward the island. The sailboat might not make it back in one piece, but at least they were safe. Beth took one last look at the nest. The mother had covered the eaglets with sticks and brush before she’d disappeared high above the clouds to avoid the rain. Beth escaped into the safety of the forest canopy as another round of lightning and thunder exploded above her.
She traversed the trail quickly, slipping only once. Her feet flipped into the air, and she fell on her back so hard that she bounced a few times before the slick layer of wet pine needles sent her sliding down a steep section of trail. She regained her balance and breath in time to dig her heels into the loose soil just before a steep drop-off into the deep woods. As she straightened her legs to stop from sliding over the edge, a protruding corner of granite sliced through several layers of her calf like a chunk of cheese. Tiny beads of blood erupted into ugly rows as they mixed with the dirt and dead pine needles already stuck to her leg. She rolled onto her hands and knees and patted down the thick section of skin hanging from the top of the cut, where the rock had dug the deepest, screaming at the fierce pain. Dylan would come to get her soon; she had to keep going. She hobbled back to the trail and stayed close to one side so she could grab nearby trees for balance. The blood drooled down her calf, soaked her sock, and congealed inside her sneaker.
When Beth reached the lake, she grabbed a downed birch branch for support against the waves and walked in up to her knees, eager for the cold water to numb her calf’s spurting blood vessels. The lake was still at war with the shore, the wind and rain shoving wave after wave into the tall grass, stones, and boulders in wild bursts of attack. She buried her feet between the underwater stones for balance against the raging lake and lifted the long patch of loose skin. The water swirled around and into the open wound and turned red, then maroon as the blood from her sock and shoe escaped. Streaks of exquisite pain pulsed through her leg and up to her heart as she held the cut open so the waves could lift the dirt out and freeze the open blood vessels. She counted thirty quick breaths before the numbness took hold and she could hobble a few steps to look to the west. The rain still pelted the lake, now an odd shade of greenish brown, but the sky above the far western shore was clearing. Their southern dock was still empty. Shouldn’t Dylan and Maegan be back by now?
Once she’d crawled onto a grassy portion of shore, she folded the sweatshirt in half, wrapped it around her calf twice, and tied it to her leg with the sleeves. Huddled next to her kayak, her calves pressed tightly to the back of her thighs in a low squat, she positioned herself under the tree cover but still kept the south dock in sight. Within minutes she was shivering uncontrollably. Every time the waves seemed to subside, the lake taunting her to try to kayak home, she’d stand, and the lake would respond by pummeling the shore again in a booming pulse that pounded deep in her eardrums. Even the spray from the strongest waves tasted different—uglier, harder, without oxygen. She buried her head between her chest and knees and rocked from heels to toes in a desperate attempt to control her shivering and panic. “Please let the storm stop,” she whispered. “Let everyone be okay. Please let Dylan come soon.”
Excerpted with permission from THE BEST PART OF US: A Novel by Sally Cole-Misch. © 2020 by Sally Cole-Misch. She Writes Press, a division of SparkPoint Studio, LLC.