Scott Jacobs has that not-so-uncommon perspective of someone who grew up in the Badger State and now occasionally motors up I-94 as a tourist from Chicago.
Jacobs’s Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin (And Other Delusions of Grandeur) is a comical compilation of thirty short essays that reflect both of those worlds … and then some. Wryly humorous and often historically wistful, the essays were originally published between 1995 and 2012 as columns for Jacobs’s online Chicago magazine, The Week Behind.
A Wisconsin native born in 1950 and raised in the Milwaukee suburb of Pewaukee, Jacobs reminisces about summer youth baseball, gently pokes fun at Wisconsin’s audacity to calls its ski resorts “mountains,” and remembers sledding on local hills and golfing on Milwaukee’s public links.
His deadpanned truisms smack dead-on: “An astute observer of the Wisconsin scene would notice that there are no mountains in Wisconsin, but the state is indeed blessed with an abundance of snow. So the task of forming a downhill ski industry in Wisconsin falls into the category of drawing blood from a rock.”
As a modern-day tourist who has lived in Chicago for four decades, Jacbos reflects on the decline in of waysides in Wisconsin, antiquing in the Northwoods, the ultra-fattening holiday goodies still sold by the Wisconsin Cheeseman, and on taking his son to The Wilderness, a mega indoor water park in the Wisconsin Dells.
He nails the essence of the love–hate relationship between Illinois and its neighbor to the north. “Every summer,” he writes, “along with about half the population of Illinois, I find an excuse to go up north and sit by a lake in Wisconsin annoying the natives with my presence.”
Often, it’s the little things that illuminate Jacobs’s Wisconsin roots. Along with “hearts, poker, bridge, gin rummy, pinochle,” and spit in the ocean, he actually knows how to play sheepshead. The card game was once, but no longer so much, a ubiquitous Northwoods cabin and farm table pastime.
Then, donning his Chicago hat, Jacobs laments the long-losing record of the Chicago Cubs and shares a holiday story about riding the CTA Santa Train with his preschooler.
Some of the essays speak more generally to the book’s “delusions of grandeur” subtitle, dredging up along the way some interesting bits of history. There are essays, for instance, on the origin of paperclips, sort of the antithesis of grandeur; rock collecting; men’s cologne; the modern-day war between Barbie and Bratz fashion dolls; and tributes to 1950s Life Magazine and to the songwriter who composed “Over the Rainbow,” for The Wizard of Oz.
The book also often speaks to mundane but universal experiences: family reunions, home movies, and fishing.
And some of the essays were simply were born out of questions that clearly dogged Jacobs enough that he finally researched the answer and turned it into a column for his magazine. What, for instance, was a plank road and why were they of vital importance to turn of the twentieth-century Milwaukee breweries? What does it mean that Budweiser beer is beechwood aged and why should we care? And who wrote our college cheers?
Pulling the University of Wisconsin into the college cheer fray, Jacobs muses that in its two beloved songs, “On Wisconsin,” and “Varsity,” “Wisconsin can rightly claim it is so enthusiastic it has two fights songs: one for when they win and the other for when they close the bars.”
Although the essays are generally timeless, one that originally appeared in 1997 on the Cubs’ long losing streak, a piece from 2009 on library internet services, and a 2006 piece about the five days its took to restore the author’s lost internet connection, do feel slightly dated today.
And while Chicago, Wisconsin, and family are the common themes, the reason for including some of the essays in this collection is not readily transparent. While interesting and as well-written as the rest of the book, “Jesus Has a Bad Day,” nevertheless hits a bit out of the blue. In modern language, it retells the Biblical story of Passion Week, culminating in Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. Of the Last Supper, Jacobs writes “Simon the Leper threw a private party for Jesus and his entourage. From all accounts, it was a pretty wild night.”
And although the book’s cover features a Wisconsin-brewed can of Miller Lite, Miller beer is really only mentioned in passing in the discussion of plank-road breweries. One entire essay, meanwhile, focuses on the beechwood-aged brewing process of St. Louis-based Budweiser.
Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is not all about Wisconsin. It is not all about Chicago. But wonderfully engaging, wickedly funny writing, and an authentic Midwest lens make that okay.
Mostly, Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is a nostalgia trip that reflects on a simpler, bygone era, and weighs how advances like the paper clip and the Internet have—and have not—changed our lives.
Family reunions, home movies, and Northwoods cabins pretty much look the same as they did two generations ago. Kids still outgrow Santa too soon. The Cubs still lose. And University of Wisconsin alumni still belt out “Varsity” at bar time—with the gusto one exhibited by their parent and grandparents.
Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is a lighthearted view of where we’ve been and where we’re headed, a perfect cabin read for anyone who’s ever lived in or loved the Great Lakes region.
April 2014, Dead Tree Press
$27.95, hardcover, 173 pages
—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann