In Michigan in the 1960s, I was a kid with little understanding of the world outside my small town other than TV news footage of hippies, flower children, race riots, and the Vietnam War. I attended kindergarten with both black and white children, with no clue why some grown-ups hated dark-skinned people. The only military person I knew was my dad who’d served in the army during the Korean War a decade earlier.
But now I know another serviceman: Mike Jacobson in All Manner of Things by Susie Finkbeiner. Brother to Annie and Joel, son of Frank and Gloria. The author brings to life a troubled decade with the angst and fears of people whose loved ones spent time in Vietnam.
Last time I shared Susie’s The Nature of Small Birds. I read several of her books to catch the flavor of her writing. Since I liked what I found, I want to pass it along to you. As Sir Christopher Wren once said . . .
“Choose an author as you choose a friend.”
How do you choose friends? I gravitate to people who are compassionate, trustworthy, and wise. Susie Finkbeiner’s novels demonstrate each of these qualities.
If you need a reminder of how I select books to share, go here. I choose ones that I believe are worthwhile, stories with strengths that far outweigh any flaws.
All Manner of Things is a Michigan Notable Book, a Selah Award winner, an INSPY Award finalist, and a Christy Award finalist.
Back Cover Blurb
When Annie Jacobson’s brother Mike enlists as a medic in the Army in 1967, he mails her the address of their long-estranged father. If anything should happen to him in Vietnam, Mike says, Annie must let their father know.
In Mike’s absence, their father returns to face tragedy at home, adding an extra measure of complication to an already tense time. Letter by letter, the Jacobsons must find a way to pull together as a family, regardless of past hurts. In the tumult of this time, Annie and her family will grapple with the tension of holding both hope and grief in the same hand, even as they learn to turn to the One who binds the wounds of the brokenhearted.
The prologue gripped me with beautiful loons, a tender father-daughter talk, then surprise and anguish. In 1955, Annie Jacobson is only six, and the culmination of that 24-hour period impacts the rest of her life.
Chapter one begins twelve years later in 1967, when Annie is eighteen and post-high school. She works at the diner in Fort Colson, Michigan. Her brother Mike just had an appointment with an army recruiter.
For Annie, contemplating Mike’s heading to Vietnam is wrought with misery. What if he never comes back? Or what if he returns in the same condition their father did after serving in Korea the previous decade? He was never the same.
In October after training, Mike visits the family before his one-year stint in Vietnam. He and Annie are in the boat before the loons migrate south. He warns her that he might not come back. But in his inimitable way, Mike says, “Don’t duck and cover,” reminiscent of classroom air raid drills. In other words, “You can’t worry about something that might not happen.”
He lives by his own adage: “Don’t duck and cover.” He’s a young man who seizes the day, never more obvious than when he initiates an unconventional birthday surprise.
But more trouble is in store besides Mike’s leaving. After a family tragedy, Annie’s estranged father returns.
The best part about this story is the development of distinct characters, and their wrestling together with both outer forces and inner dynamics challenged by choices that have severe consequences for all.
There’s Frank, the estranged husband and father, and Gloria, the mother. Younger brother Joel admires his older brother Mike. Grandpa Jacobson has Alzheimer’s. Grandma Jacobson blames Gloria for Frank’s leaving, and withholds vital information from the family.
Bernie runs the diner, grouchy but ever loyal to the Jacobsons. Dave, a young black man new in town, befriends Annie and draws anxious looks from townsfolk. Annie’s friend Jocelyn leaves for college but writes to comfort Annie’s worries, quoting a fourteenth century writer: “All manner of things shall be well.”
I love stories with a small town setting, and this novel has just the right amount of setting details to put you in Michigan in 1967. Though Fort Colson is fictional, you’ll encounter Chippewa Lake (east of Big Rapids), Bliss, Grand Rapids, Lake Michigan, and Grand Haven’s musical fountain along the channel.
References to the 1960s are plentiful: the pea green, two-door Chevy Corvair, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the Beatles on the radio, along with Mama Cass, Fats Domino, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix; TV news footage of Vietnam, Detroit race riots, President Johnson and Lady Bird, hippies, and NASA’s launch of Saturn V with Walter Cronkite commentary.
Of course coffee at the diner is only ten cents, and pedal pushers on girls is a common sight, perhaps even “groovy.” Annie’s brother Joel has a Les Paul guitar.
Being Dutch, I love the references to Dutch idiosyncrasies, names, and food. In the Christian Reformed Church, work isn’t allowed on Sunday. Note Huisman’s Market, Mrs. Veenstra the librarian, and Dr. DeVries. Annie’s Dutch grandma–Oma, rather–is so frugal she won’t waste a stamp. Oma cooks erwtensoap, split pea and ham soup. She and Annie make stroopwafels–two thin waffle-type cookies oozing with syrup.
After a long winter, in the spring of 1968, the loons return. But much has changed since they left.
This is another slow-building story, but Annie is the right narrator for it. I found myself with her at every turn, gripped by her concerns, hopes, and heartaches. Faith is a part of her journey without excess spirituality.
Join me for an interview with author Susie Finkbeiner.
What was your inspiration for writing All Manner of Things?
Susie: You might not believe me when I say that I can’t remember. But it’s true! It’s been so long since I started dreaming of writing this novel (six years!) that I have no recollection of what inspired me to write it.
Two of your books are set in the 1960s. What made you choose that decade as a setting? Did you live through the 60s yourself?
Susie: My parents came of age in the 1960s (I didn’t come along until the tail end of the 70s). All during my childhood I heard about the 60s and their experiences as teens during a decade full of change and chaos and bellbottoms. I always knew that I’d spend some time in that decade as an author. I have plans to return to it. There are just so many stories I can tell from that era.
What intrigues you most about the 1960s? Do you have favorite songs from that decade?
Susie: Oh, so much interests me about the 60s! The history, the societal changes, the war, the fashion, the books, the movies. But you nailed it when you asked about the music. I think that was what got me interested in the decade originally.
I grew up listening to The Beatles and Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and The Supremes. I’m not sure that I have just one favorite song, but one that has always held special meaning for me is “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel.
I’m partial to 1960s music, too, and also to Michigan since I grew up there. At least two of your books have Michigan settings. What is your personal connection to that state?
Susie: I was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan and now make my home on the west side of the State. I write books set in Michigan because I love living here!
Similar to The Nature of Small Things, you have a bird metaphor: the loons. How did that come about?
Susie: I’ve long been enamored of loons. I think that started when I was at camp in Northern Michigan and heard them calling back and forth across the lake at night. I remember learning that they sing to one another to keep track of where the others are located, to make sure everybody’s all right. Such a beautiful image.
One of Annie’s grandmothers is her Dutch Oma. Many characters have Dutch names–typical for southwest Michigan. Do you have any Dutch connections or heritage?
Susie: I’ve traced my heritage and have found exactly zero Dutch ancestors. However, I’ve lived in West Michigan and many of my friends have Hollander blood. A few even speak the language fluently. It’s such an interesting community. An interesting community with really great baked goods.
Did you consider other points of view before settling on Annie’s? Explain your decision.
Susie: From the beginning the story only came to me in Annie’s voice. I really didn’t have any choice. She was it from the start. Of all my characters, I relate to her most, so writing as her came naturally to me.
Are you planning to write any other novels set in the 1960s? If not, can you share something about another future project?
Susie: Oh, I’m sure I’ll return to the 60s for future novels. There’s just so much material there to be mined. For now, though, I’m spending time in 1952 with my character Bertha Harding and enjoying every minute of it.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy All Manner of Things, you might enjoy my novel Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, Michigan, this split time novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. It has a Dutch oma, too. My own Dutch roots go deep in southwest Michigan. Go here to learn more. Watch the trailer here.
If you like stories set in the 1960s, you may also be interested in my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, Though it is set in southern Appalachia rather than Michigan, the setting is 1968 in a small rural town that finds itself victim to changing times. Learn more on my website here. See the trailer here.
Susie Finkbeiner Bio
Susie Finkbeiner serves on the Fiction Readers Summit planning committee, volunteers her time at Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and speaks at retreats and women’s events across the country. Susie and her husband have three children and live in West Michigan. Check out her other books on her website. Find her at Facebook, Instagram, and BookBub.
Join me next time as we explore one more book by Susie.
Meanwhile, feel free to comment below. Have you read All Manner of Things? Did you grow up in the 1960s or hear your parents talking about it? How were you or they impacted by the Vietnam War at that time?