A little bit Huckleberry Finn, a little bit Spanky and Our Gang, Wild Blueberries (O’Brien & Whitaker) is a delightful and beautifully written collection of essays by Peter Damm about growing up in rural Michigan. We meet the whole Damm family: young Peter, his four older brothers, one formidable sister Susan, a soldier of a mom, and dad, a Tigers fan who, we learn, might drink a little too much.

There’s a bunch of loosely disciplined friends, a stray cat, random neighbors and fearsome nuns who beat the fear of fire and brimstone into their charges before they were old enough to question it. 

Wild Blueberries is nostalgic and funny for Boomers who remember when there was no internet or cell phones, only four television channels and no video games — and it probably reads like a historical novel for the kids of Generation Z.

A WORLD OF DISCOVERIES MADE IN YOUTH

Damm and his siblings played outside till the streetlights came on, loved to go to the drive-in movies, snuck up on the fish they hoped to catch and, because there are basically no mountains in that part of Michigan, sledded recklessly down into a natural crater they dubbed “The Hole.” They made up their own fun: clean, healthy and spontaneous. Like throwing snakes at Peter’s sister.

Damm’s memories of sexual self-discovery are naughty and familiar, written with self-deprecating humor. Slipped into the book somewhere between unwanted kisses on the playground and stepping on June bugs the size of robins are descriptions of the wonders of women’s lingerie and the horror of finding out that “touching one’s self” is a mortal sin. Young Peter slides and bungles his way through his childhood, successfully negotiating Midwestern Catholicism, puberty and the politically sticky University of Michigan campus.

GROWTH AND REFLECTION IN ADULTHOOD

Grown-up Peter arrives late in the book when we have already learned to love him and his entire family, quite likely siding with his father when Peter decided to wander Europe and the Greek Islands instead of getting a job after graduation.

Grown-up Peter has learned how to balance his world — the peace of an inland lake near Traverse City, MI — against the bullies of the Church and the playground. He acknowledges questions he’ll never be able to answer. “What is this force? …  Is it spirit? Soul? Is it God inside us, inside all living things?” But the answers don’t matter.

The last 30 pages are aptly titled “Moonrise.” Day is over, the conclusion of so much, yet there is the moon, beautiful and burning and rising in the August sky. There is hope and the promise of another day.

A DELIGHTFUL COLLECTION OF VIGNETTES

Wild Blueberries is a breath of fresh air, and particularly handy because the short chapters don’t need to be read in order. Readers can choose at random what they want to visit: Peter’s amusing confusion about nuns and babies, the ecstasy of baseball and snowballs, the terrors of hell, the irresistible joy of fishing or the Detroit Tigers. Damm makes even the subject of California’s relentlessly sunny weather a joyful little read.

Readers should tuck this slender book of vignettes into a pocket for reading wherever and whenever their spirit needs refreshing.

—∞—

Wild Blueberries was recently named as a finalist for a Great Lakes Great Reads Award and is now also available from Blackstone Audio in audiobook format, narrated by industry veteran Joe Barrett (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Puzo’s The Last Don, Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer).

For more on the author, visit his BookTrib author profile page.

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About Peter Damm:

Peter Damm’s life has traveled varied tracks. He was raised in small-town rural Michigan and graduated with honors from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has lived abroad and traveled widely in Europe, India, Bali, Mexico, parts of the Middle East, Indonesia, Central America, South America and New Zealand. His book of poems, At The Water’s Edge, chronicles a five-month journey in Bali, Indonesia and New Zealand.

Peter lives and works in Berkeley, CA.