by Erin Evans
One morning, Peter Damm was taken by his mother to get his tooth pulled— already a dreadful enough ordeal, especially considering the dentist’s tendency to treat pain like a mildly annoying fly on the wall. Worse, his mother surprised him with a visit to the doctor to get a polio shot the very same morning.
When Damm winced at the pain, the dentist told him not to be a baby. And then his mom didn’t even give him the usual reward of animal crackers. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, as they say in the famous children’s book.
In his recently published book Wild Blueberries: Tales of Nuns, Rabbits, and Discovery in Rural Michigan, Damm tells the bad tooth story and many others from his childhood in Flushing and Grand Blanc, both suburbs of Flint, as well as some northern Michigan locales.
Wild Blueberries, published in 2019, was a finalist for the Great Lakes Great Reads Award for nonfiction and was a Notable Book in the holiday edition of Grand Traverse Scene. Showing the world through the eyes of a child in stories, Damm makes the reader think, laugh, and, most likely, recall their own childhood memories. He tells of the horror of having his last name of “Damm” during roll call at his Catholic grade school; how he and his sister snuck a stray cat into the house against their parents’ wishes; and how he and his friend were fishing on the lake and stayed out so late that his parents feared they drowned and sent out a search party.
“I was very concerned about the language because [the book] is from a young person’s state of mind,” Damm says.
To get back into the mind of his younger self, he took a mental journey back to the “sensations, the confusions, the curiosities” of his past.
After moving to northern California as a young adult and realizing how shockingly infrequently the seasons change, Damm returned to Michigan every year during autumn, his favorite season here, to visit his parents.
“I decided to get some more information about my parents’ generation,” Damm says. “We would have these sessions … where I would ask them questions and they would talk.” These recordings were the starting point for the book, and he often retrieved more memories by listening to them.
“One has to pry into a memory,” Damm says. “It’s hard to get to the middle portion of it.” In Wild Blueberries, he describes his memories as Rosetta stones. He says that the process of “living but also the process of writing this book was my way to find the lessons, the history, the life of my family.”
“I’ve been in writing most of my life,” Damm says.
As a child in the 1950s, Damm says he and his friends had to search for ways to entertain themselves and learn things.
For Damm, one of these ways was writing. “Language always touched me in some way,” he says. He majored in literature at the University of Michigan.
After he graduated, Damm used the money he made from his job as part of a road construction crew to travel to places in Europe, including Germany and Greece. Growing up, he felt like the only possible paths he could take were becoming a doctor or lawyer. Traveling, he says, “really opened [him] up,” showing him other possibilities. He wanted to see, hear, and learn what he could about the world. He said that traveling “made [him] thirsty to see other cultures, other places, other languages.” He might do more traveling before he starts his next writing project.
In a story about finding wild blueberries, Damm writes that “the memory of our species is short.” When asked to elaborate, he discusses how the development of our society is continually speeding up. “The things like wild blueberries in a meadow, … those are from original times,” he says. He didn’t have a sense of what life was like a few hundred years ago and says that “the old ways just go by the wayside as the speed amps up. … This leads to a shortness of memory of the old ways.”
Damm says his book in some ways evokes the life, time, and spirit of how people lived in the periods between World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War.
Wild Blueberries is available for purchase at Horizon Books and online from Barnes and Noble and Amazon. An online version of the book is available at barnesandnoble.com and kobo.com.
Erin Evans is a senior at Bellaire High School and in her second year of the Front Street Writers program. She plans to attend the University of Michigan in the fall, tentatively planning on a creative writing major. You can find her blog at www.frontstreetwriters.com.