Essay: The Homeless Book Club

Mar 7, 2018

We feature a lot of books on Lake Effect.  Many of them are the subjects of discussion among the scores of book clubs in the area.

Lake Effect essayist Marnie Mamminga is the author of one such book.  She recalls the unique circumstances surrounding a talk she gave to the members of one Wisconsin book club:

The Homeless Book Club may sound like an oxymoron, but for those who participated, it was very real.

With a warm room in a church as its meeting place, a retired doctor as its organizer, and the offering of hot coffee and egg sandwiches as nourishment, those who wanted to forget the wanderings of the street for one hour a week, could join the Homeless Book Club.

And many did.  For not only did the Homeless Book Club offer a moment’s rest from the struggles of the street, it also recognized those who were marginalized as being thinking, feeling human beings. It gave them an opportunity to speak and listen and discuss as the people they really were: a retired veteran, a mom, a professor, a truck driver, and not, as so many think, just another nameless person under a blanket on a bench.

Through the generosity of others, the books the members chose to read were newly purchased and given to them to keep as their own. As an added bonus, the savvy director often invited the author of that month’s selection to come and speak to them.

I was one of those authors.

I was honored that they had chosen my book, Return to Wake Robin: One cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts, and eagerly began preparing my book talk. And although I was excited, I was also a little nervous.  What would this group be like?  All the stereotypical images of the homeless began to haunt me: unkempt, addicted or mentally unstable people of the street.

If this were the case, would I be up to the challenge?

Because of this anxiety, it wasn’t until two days before my talk that the irony of my subject hit me. My book was not only about the history of a cherished family cabin on a lake, it was about a second home.  This to a group of people who had no place to call home?

Suddenly, everything about my presentation seemed wrong, insensitive, even hurtful. But it was too late to back out now.  The director had kept me abreast of the group’s progress and reported that over the course of several weeks they had already read and discussed the book, prepared questions to ask me, and were looking forward to my visit.

I couldn’t let them down now.

And so, on the chilly morning of my presentation, I nervously climbed the steps to the third floor meeting room of the church and with butterflies in my stomach, walked in.

“She’s here!’ someone shouted, and suddenly the room burst into applause. You would have thought I was some rock star instead of a middle aged Midwestern author with her first book in hand.

There were at least 20 in attendance including a few extra guests, and as they enjoyed their hot coffee and egg sandwiches, I set up my materials and took the opportunity to discreetly look over the group. Some were old, some young; mostly they were men but there were also a few women sprinkled in; all were neat and clean and chatting amicably with each other. So much for the power and fear of stereotyping!

Gripping the hot coffee they had politely offered me, I took a deep breath, and began my talk. I could not have had a more attentive audience. They smiled back at me as I spoke, laughed at my attempts at humor, and listened intently. No one fell asleep, which I must admit, has not always been the case.

When I began to read from a selected chapter, the young man sitting next to me opened his book and helped the man sitting next to him follow along by pointing to each word with his finger.  This gentle act of kindness continued throughout the entire reading.  I had to concentrate hard to hold back tears for they reminded me of my own sons when they were young and learning to read.  Had lack of strong reading skills contributed to these young men’s homelessness? I could only wonder.

When I finished my talk, the group went around the room and one by one and asked me questions they had prepared.  In doing so, many also shared wonderful memories of happy times they had gone to a lake or a cabin or camping. A poignant reminder to them and to me, that they had not always been homeless.

And then came the zinger.

“Were you afraid to come here?” one of the last to speak asked.

I hesitated for just moment.

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?” he countered.

“I guess I didn’t know what to expect, and I was worried I would hurt you talking about a precious vacation home to me when you are homeless.”

They nodded quietly in understanding. And in that moment, we were not the homeless and the author, we were on common ground, each seeking to understand and be understood.

Over the last few years whenever I see a homeless person on the street curled up on a bench, I often think of the Homeless Book Club and wonder how my friends are doing and what they are reading. But mostly I think of them, of their dignity, of the kindness they showed to a nervous visitor and to each other, of their strength to try and change their circumstances, and I am humbled by the lessons they taught me.

Lake Effect essayist Marnie Mamminga is the author of two books, including Return to Wake Robin.