Words on Water is a gem of a book authored by Richard (Dick) Purinton and published recently by Norb Blei’s Cross+Roads Press. The subtitle, “A Ferryman’s Journal, Washington Island, WI” is more instructive about the book’s contents than is the title. The ferryman is, of course, Purinton, who is also the president of the Washington Island Ferry Line. In addition to his experience on board he brings another skill to the task of writing his journal: that of a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This fact is very apparent in content and style, neither of which are pretentious.
Two topics are commonplace in the almost daily journal entries. First, the weather and its impact on the seas through which the ferries must pass understandably receive considerable attention. Second the mechanical operation of the ferries and the problems related thereto are addressed at some length. These topics clearly occupy the mind of someone who is ultimately responsible for maintaining the lifeline between Washington Island and the mainland. These are very serious matters for Purinton.
Other than the weather and the ferry operations, there are not constants in the remaining entries. Subjects addressed are wide-ranging, interesting, and informative. They fall into two broad categories: The land and life on Washington Island, which the author knows well; and water and life on Death’s Door, the passage between the island and Northport on the tip of the mainland. Here about most anything is fair game. Purinton is at his best when he shares with the reader his observations about what is going on around him and makes sense out of these details within the broader context of things.
Mundane or trivial are not words that can be used to describe Dick’s interests, involvements, and inquisitiveness. He is deeply interested in, and writes knowingly and with concern about island traditions – the St. Pat’s parade, ice fishing, church activities, and so many other relevant examples. Journal entries about his involvements with the American Legion, the Island’s fire department, bringing international travel writers to Washington Island, or carving religious artifacts for the Stavkirke are par for the course. The author is a “closet geographer,” curious about other places reached on his motorcycle, a sculptor who wonders how parts from an old disc can be welded into a garden sculpture, or what happens to all the stuff that ends up at the Island recycling center.
Features of the physical and cultural geography of Washington Island and their associated place names are well known to Purinton, and he uses place names liberally throughout his journal. Included as a frontispiece is a map with these names to aid the reader in getting their bearings. The only other graphics are individual black and white photos of island features placed at the beginning of each month’s journal entries. These add interest and serve to provide a transition from month to month journal entries.
For people seriously interested in Door County books, this one is a must. Buy it knowing that it is not at all similar to any other publication dealing with the Island. Dick concentrates primarily (though not exclusively) on the contemporary scene. His previous work, Over and Back, is pictorial history of transportation to and from the island and is now out of print. Other publications concerning Washington Island including Conan Bryant Eaton’s Island series, Raymond McDonald’s Four Islands: A history of Detroit, Rock, St. Martins and Washington Islands, Island Tales, and Arthur and Evelyn Knudsen’s A Gleam Across the Wave (recently reprinted by Cross+Roads Press) all also have a strong historical emphasis. Words on Water is a nice compliment to them.
We should all rejoice in the existence of small presses and their publications. But one of the facts of life for small presses is small press runs. I am certain this is true for Words on Water. Buy a copy of this important contribution to the literature of Door County before the first edition goes out of print. If you don’t, you may have to wait for the second printing, already in progress. Much of the success of the first printing results from the fact that Purinton writes well – as well as he pilots the Arni J. Richter across Death’s Door.
Charlie Calkins is a retired geography professor, a part-time Door County resident, and an inveterate collector of printed material related to the county. In his spare time he operates the Badger Bibliophile, a business specializing in buying and selling gently used Wisconsin books and maps. His wares are sold at several antique malls in the state, including the Old Orchard Antique Center in Egg Harbor. Email him at [email protected].