DA summary of the developing book
Discovering Belwah: Stories Too Good to be True?
T his novel is about a high school journalism class that is a futuristic successor to ones that I took decades ago. The teacher and students are in the midst of unsettling times: the decline in the newspaper industry. Their task: become investigative reporters.
I have been smitten with the allure of journalism for decades. My earliest experience was as a paperboy, for the Rockford Register Republic and the Chicago Daily News. Those pre-teen jobs fascinated me at several levels: the smell and stains of the newsprint; the challenge of learning to fold a paper tightly (so that it could become an airborne missile honing in on a porch door); the customers, especially those who waited each day for my arrival; the process of collecting money each month (The groveling for tips); the newspaper-sponsored contests where success was measured by the number of new subscribers one signed up; and the daily stories themselves whose headlines I read while folding the papers.
F or example, from front pages above the fold: Korea Invaded! McCarthy Sees Commies in the State Department! Illinois Chooses Ike over Adlai! Rockford Celebrates its Centennial! From inside sections: I Love Lucy is loved by TV viewers,(I loved “High Noon” and wanted to find out “All About Eve.”). Cubs mired in last place. A four-lane highway may someday link Chicago and the Stateline area.
W hile peddling news was my first tangible participation in the Fourth Estate, enrolling in high school journalism classes was the most significant factor in my becoming a life-long devotee. I ultimately became sports editor of the East High Highlights. The sweet memory of those years brings back to me the quality, dedication, and good humor of my fellow students and teachers.
I n mid-career as a professor at Beloit College I became active in a national professional organization called the Association of Liberal Arts Colleges for Teacher Education, a group affectionately known by the challenging acronym AILACTE (Pronounced Uh LACK tee). For eight years I was the publications editor, overseeing the creation and distribution of newsletters, monographs, and books. Since retirement from Beloit College in 2001 I have written two non-academic books: An Old Caddie Looks Back: Reflections from a Town that Loves Golf … and Tiger and Discovering Lake Superior and the Western Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They are described elsewhere in this website.
S o I am an amateur journalist with a little experience combined with deeply held respect and affection for the power and potential of wordsmithery. Here in 2012 I hold and read two newspapers each day: The Beloit Daily News and The New York Times. Each week a copy of the Ontonagon [Michigan] Herald is delivered to me by United States mail, and on Sundays I sometimes purchase the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal. I also read it and the Wisconsin State Journal on line. I subscribe to several periodical magazines and check into others online. All of these sources directly or indirectly inform me about the challenging times confronting the newspaper business.
A s print journalism shrinks in readership and as quality is actually or potentially compromised, the diminution of investigative reporting concerns me. It is a matter that I am trying to explore via Discovering Belwah, mostly in a light-hearted and often times tongue-in-cheek manner. It is enjoyable, fascinating hard work.
Overview of setting and characters
Discovering Belwah begins in 2017 at the start of the school year in a place I name Turtle Creek High School, located in Beloit (aka, Belwah), Wisconsin, my home town since 1970. Protagonists are members of a small class named Issues in Newswriting taught by a guy I call John Marshall Bridlington, affectionately known as “Gov.” Students include Roald Amundsen, Brooksley Bourne, Claire Bridlington, Stu Brand, and Frank Peterson. Roald, Claire, and Stu are modeled after students I knew back at East High and keep in touch with these days; namely, Ron Adamson, Stuart Brandes, and Beverly Burlend Fiege. Frank is a guy with the same name as my maternal grandfather, and who is modeled after various people I have known.
M y young “Ms. Bourne” is inspired by Brooksley Born (sic), the person who was Chairwoman of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission from 1996 to 1998 and who during this period warned of the potential economic meltdown waiting to happen, and who also tried to convince the country’s key economic powerbrokers to take actions that could have helped avert the crisis that we now call the Great Recession. I was so taken by her story in the PBS show Frontline, that I couldn’t let her spirit escape. She emerges here as the sixteen year old daughter of a fictional visiting professor at Beloit College.
I n the book Claire is John Bridlington’s daughter, reminiscent of the relationship that Bev Burlend had with the beloved East High Social Studies teacher, John “Gov” Burlend. Bev was a varsity debater on her dad’s team. In Discovering Belwah Claire and the resurected Gov plan and scheme together out of school and in. They know secrets that the rest of the class does not, and unfold them as the story moves along. These days Bev is a teacher of French and Spanish in Maryland, an incurable student of government, and the mother of a film maker.
S tu in the story is modeled after my fellow East High School sports editor Stuart Brandes who ultimately became a History Professor in the University of Wisconsin system. These days he lives on the shore of Lake Monona in Madison, and has developed a keen interest in the recuperative properties of tactile communication and neurorehabilitation. He is in close contact with the TCN lab at UW-Madison regarding this fascinating avenue of treatment for neurological disorders.
R oald in the story parallels Ron Adamson, a person that was Mr. Everything in high school and whom I think of as a Renaissance man in his adulthood. Out of the blue I thought of the handle Roald Amundsen (named after the explorer) for Ron’s character and ran it by him. He said, “I’ve always liked that guy a lot,” so there you are, a done deal. These days Ron, the retiree from a career at General Electric, travels the world lecturing on the mineral zircon and learning about wildlife. He resides in Fremont, California with his wife Alta Jo (Nee Fortin) Adamson. Growing up in Rockford, she attended East High School and later the University of Wisconsin. For many years she has taught food sciences. As Discovering Belwah develops my character, AJ Fortino, assumes an important role, based on some aspects of Alta Jo’s life.
B ev, Ron, Stu, and Alta Jo each impress me by their curiosity, knowledge, and zest for life. [At this point] I cannot and will not depict their fictional counterparts in any malevolent roles, but qualities that I do remember about them pop up here and there along with some springing fully from my imagination. I know very little about the personal qualities of Brooksley’s namesake. In my fictional student I attempt to characterize what a bright, young precursor of a national treasure may look like. Frank takes some hits in the book, but the depth and breadth of his behavior are still waiting to unfold.
T hese characters as high school students will sniff out stories that haven’t been told, namely, the tasty treats of investigative journalism. And then they will share them in one way or another. For me, it’s pretty easy up to this point. However, my big ongoing challenge is to interweave the various strands and show a bit about this representative American place, Beloit, … in 2017 while emphasizing how we all need to be investigative people (Journalists without portfolios?). I hope to get the message across that what we perceive about lots of things is not necessarily the way they are, and that sharing details with others is a necessary part of staying fresh… along with some other conclusions.
Here and there I am contacting and interviewing folks who can widen my eyes to their professional and deeply held perspectives on the investigative role in the future of journalism. I tell them what I am up to and ask their opinions. These include, but not necessarily be limited to: columnists, reporters, editors, teachers, and others. I also will stay in contact with the friends who have inspired their own and my fictional alter egos.