Have you had enough information about severn city Michigan? It is fully represented in Station Eleven, a Patrick Somerville-created American post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction miniseries based on Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel of the same name.
The Traveling Symphony came across me just outside of Traverse City. I bumped into them, across a chasm of time and fiction, when I realized that their story, which I’d picked up because it’s a celebrated post-apocalyptic novel, moved through territory right around me, up and down Michigan’s northern coast.
Reading about your town being a plague hotspot gives you a creepy feeling.
In Station Eleven, the entire world is plagued, though the character stories it focuses on are more localized: to Toronto first, but then to the Michigan shore, in a line from Mackinaw City down to Severn City that basically sticks to the edge of the mitten’s fingers and runs right through Traverse City in both directions.
If you are unfamiliar with the book, it is about a group of actors and the people who play starring and supporting roles in their lives before and after the Georgian flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population.
Those who survive seek refuge wherever they can, whether in makeshift towns built around strong personalities both benevolent and bent or as road travelers and scavengers.
Kirsten, Tyler, Jeevan, and Clark are central in both times, as they are all linked to an enigmatic actor who died on stage just as the flu was spreading. Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony in the post-plague world. In Michigan, the troupe performs Shakespeare and beloved concertos; she’s the one whose Traverse City memories merged with mine.
I was sucked in.
But here’s the problem with a book that moves through familiar towns: when the details change, its new world becomes a puzzle you must solve.
New Petoskey was simple to find, it’s a revitalized version of the current town. Traverse City and Mackinaw City retained their original names. But what about Severn City, which is home to the Museum of Civilization?
And what about St. Deborah by the Water, where the Traveling Symphony meets the Prophet and everything goes wrong? These are not actual locations at the moment. So, where do they fall on the spectrum?
There are hints: Severn City is located outside of a semi-major city and has a regional airport large enough to accommodate ocean-crossing jets. The airport has multiple terminals, however, it is also a short distance from the woods and the lake. It could be entirely an invention; the book mentions a new airport.
Except for that detail and the fact that it’s supposed to have had its name before the plague, it is easy to identify it as Cascade, just outside of Grand Rapids, which has the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, which has a layout that fits the bill.
St. Deborah by the Water is a little more difficult to pin down. It’s far enough outside of Traverse City that the Traveling Symphony refers to it as a recent memory not fresh enough to be measured in days, but stale enough to be measured in days.
On that basis, I rejected the Great Michigan Read map. It positioned St. Deborah by the Water just across the Leelanau Peninsula, near Frankfurt, and what shenanigans are these?!
Realistically, that’s a straight shot, a day or two of walking away from the Severn City Airport, where the book ends, and which is only a day or two away from St. Deborah in terms of book events. Furthermore, Frankfort lacks an IHOP, which is mentioned several times as an active location in St. Deborah by the Water. I needed the IHOP as evidence.
Is this sound obsessive? Well. I suppose it is. But I wanted to see every detail of the story, and given how close the Traveling Symphony’s stops were to me, precision seemed possible.
I did something silly: I Googled IHOPs in towns that fit the book’s descriptions of St. Deborah by the Water, towns close enough to the big lake that the water glinted from their centers (5 miles away, according to the book), and towns near a national forest. Muskegon, located just over a hundred miles from Traverse City, was the only town that met the criteria for size, proximity, and IHOP ownership.
I’d never been there before.
I enjoy literary pilgrimages, but this one would only be a day trip. I resolved to go investigate.
I put gas in the car, decided against making a temporary “Survival is Insufficient” bumper sticker, downloaded some audiobooks to my phone, and drove away.
Audible finished the last few chapters for me en route; in fact, I finished Station Eleven in Muskegon, while my hunt for a paperweight with a cloud inside was already in full swing.
Muskegon seemed to fit the story well and not just because I was completely immersed in the book for a portion of my time driving around there. Its high-treed cemetery, just off the town center, was both eerie and beautiful, a little too wide to fit the church cemetery that figures into the Prophet’s punishments, but quiet enough to drown out noises and escape the active world.
Its row of buildings above the waterline appeared to be a safe haven.
On a slow Saturday in August, it had the air of a place that could weather the apocalypse; some aging buildings appeared to have already done so.
I found a paperweight that fit the book’s description and took it home for my own mini Museum of Civilization (though laden as it is with books, my collection may be of more interest to New Petoskey’s collectors), driving through the Manistee National Forest on the way.
I didn’t take pictures because it felt intrusive, and this is a world without the plague, the alternate universe that Kirsten and another troupe member are concerned about. The images would be inaccurate.
And I’m not sure if it was the location that Emily St. John Mandel had in mind. Muskegon was a close enough match for me to connect the images in the book to the Michigan of my experience. You could understand why a troupe of actors would want to avoid those tree lines in the Manistee forest, and how a home could go undiscovered for twenty years in those woods. You could imagine crossing the bridge into
Muskegon’s downtown and seeing a young sentry. On a quiet street, you could squint your eyes and imagine both the before and after.
You could, however, see and participate in city life while free of the novel’s Georgian flu.
Post-apocalyptic novels remind you of what’s important is the bonds we form, the value of prioritizing a call to say “I love you” over one focusing on work matters. How the phrase “everything happens for a reason” can be a dangerous mantra that allows us to do unthinkable, unreasonable things.
They serve as a reminder of the small miracles that underpin the resources we take for granted: electricity, running water, air travel, and tetanus shots. I never consider the shelf life of the gas in my car. Newspapers. GPS. Water in a bottle.
Even on a dreary day in a mundane town, these aspects of our daily lives seemed priceless.
You only need to compare them to Station Eleven‘s “after” to understand, and then, like the residents of that imagined world in the sky, you want nothing more than to go home.
Characters List in Station Eleven
Here is a list of characters in Station Eleven:
Tyler Leander/The Prophet
Finally, Station Eleven can be described as an audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, telling the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.