‘An Enduring Christmas’ in pioneer Marquette

Shown is a view near the Carp River and Lake Superior circa 1850. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — As we get tucked in for another winter here in the north woods, most of us are fortunate enough to have heat in our home and food in the cupboard. For those who do not have either, the community of the Upper Peninsula is very strong and supportive through multiple charitable organizations.

It may be difficult to communicate hardship to young folks who are cozy in their homes and wishing for the latest plastic toy of the moment under the Christmas tree. This is not to suggest making young people of 2018 feel sad or guilty for what they have. Rather, we who have the opportunity to educate must inspire a deep-rooted human empathy within young people. Finding an effective way to do this is the tricky part.

An area teacher many of you may remember knew just how to reach young people. Ragene Henry (1947-2014) wrote four historical fiction young adult novels set in the Upper Peninsula. Because these books do the hard work of truly reaching young people and their particular way of thinking, they are still used in many regional classrooms today.

Fellow teacher and editor of Henry’s books, Judy Parlato, wrote: “Ragene loved to teach, loved to write, and most of all loved her students. She knew how to inspire her students to read and write well. No one I ever knew could climb into the mind of a 5th grader like Ragene. She connected with their imagination and way of processing and living life. Ragene’s desire for relevance in her teaching prompted her to use regional history as a setting for her adolescent literature.”

One of Henry’s books took place at this very time of year, during the cold days leading up to Christmas in the small settlement of Marquette, Michigan, in the winter of 1850. “An Enduring Christmas” tells the story of a girl’s experience here in the wilderness settlement, her first winter here after journeying with her family from Vermont. It was a very hungry December for the 138 citizens of Marquette as the “… sudden unexpected onslaught of winter weather in the Lake Superior region has forced the steamer Napoleon to postpone its final delivery run of the year.”

The book takes you through the harrowing decisions the pioneers have to make in order to survive. Henry hooks the reader and uses their empathy to carry the story. She knew that fifth-grade readers would have to hear the end of the tale, after reading through a graphic nightmare, a big lie, the hard truth of a barren Christmas, love for one’s pets and family, and sheer starvation.

Recently our youth history club at the Marquette Regional History Center read the book, “An Enduring Christmas”, and we are preparing to present it to the public in form of a reader’s theater. The students were indeed compelled to read to the end of the story, and they learned quite a bit along the way. Afterwards they had many questions about Marquette as a pioneer settlement, which we were able to answer here at the museum and research library.

Kathryn Russell, MRHC Board trustee, had the initial idea to use this reader’s theater as our annual holiday open-house event at the MRHC. Kathryn worked with Ragene as a fellow educator and said in regards to her writing, “We read all the books about Michigan history for this age group and there were none about the U.P. Ragene knew we needed to tell that story.”

The elements of this U.P. story find common ground with all ages and sensibilities. Our reader’s theater holiday program will illustrate how Ragene Henry used relevance of place and empathy for one another to tell a compelling tale. Join us, as you may find this tale quite compelling too. After the 30-minute program there will be a taffy pull. The holiday open house is free, donations are always appreciated. Wednesday, December 5th, 6:30 p.m. at the Marquette Regional History Center. Take a step back in time to get a glimpse of Christmases gone by, and please bring a donation for the TV6 Community Canathon while you’re at it.