My fifteen-year-old son is reading Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories for his high-school English class. He started with “Indian Camp,” the story in which Nick and his father leave their summer cottage in the Michigan woods and row across Walloon Lake to help a Native American woman give birth. My son could easily picture their journey because he’s seen that lake and the summer home beside it. Through a lucky literary accident, our family has become friendly with Hemingway’s nephew, Ernie Mainland, who inherited the iconic Nick Adams cottage.
Ernie’s mother, Sunny, was Hemingway’s favorite sister. (He had three other sisters and a brother too.) She was the model for Littless, Nick Adams’s devoted younger sibling in the unfinished story “The Last Good Country.” The real-life Sunny married Kenneth Mainland in 1938, and when she had a son, she named him after her famous brother. Ernest Hemingway Mainland, though, didn’t become a writer; instead he remained in northern Michigan and went into the insurance business in the nearby town of Petoskey. I got to know him because Ernie and my father-in-law were both members of the Petoskey Rotary Club.
My in-laws live in Harbor Springs, about ten miles north of Walloon Lake, and my wife and I have vacationed there every summer since 1990. Several years ago, my father-in-law asked me, “Would you be interested in meeting Ernest Hemingway’s nephew? He’s a heck of a nice guy.” Needless to say, I was interested. Hemingway is a touchstone for all fiction writers, but his influence is particularly strong for those of us who specialize in thrillers. His short story “The Killers” is often cited as one of the first examples of “hard-boiled” fiction (although some academics argue that it was Dashiell Hammett who influenced Hemingway and not vice-versa). What’s more, because of my connections to northern Michigan, I feel a geographical kinship with Hemingway. Although he spent most of his formative years in his hometown of Oak Park, Illinois, every summer his family trekked north to their Walloon Lake cottage, a simple twenty-foot-by-forty-foot cabin built in 1899. The author’s mother named it Windemere. This was where Hemingway learned to fish and hunt and have a good time. Because he knew and loved the area so well, it became the setting for much of his fiction, including most of the autobiographical Nick Adams stories as well as The Torrents of Spring, Hemingway’s early novel set in Petoskey.
My father-in-law hosted a lunch so I could meet Ernie Mainland and his wife Judy. I’m happy to report that they’re wonderful people. Ernie has a face like his uncle’s, square and ruddy. The resemblance is especially striking if he’s growing a beard. He’s also a terrific storyteller. Although he hasn’t written any novels or short stories, he’s passionate about his family’s history, and he’s invested lots of time and energy in the restoration of Windemere. Over lunch he described how he’d rebuilt the cottage’s porch, taking great care to match the way it looked during Hemingway’s boyhood. I asked Ernie what he remembered about his uncle, but he didn’t have much to say about that; he met Hemingway only once, during a visit to Cuba when Ernie was nine years old. Still, it was a great lunch, and at the end Ernie promised to invite us to Windemere the following summer.
This was a rare opportunity. Windemere isn’t open to the public. So when the next summer rolled around, my wife and I happily accepted Ernie’s invitation. The best moment was taking that first step into the cottage and seeing the fireplace in the center of the room. I really felt like I’d just stepped into a Nick Adams story. On the cottage’s walls is an amazing panoply of family history: oil paintings done by Hemingway’s mother, pencil lines showing Ernest’s height at various ages, a battered medal worn by Hemingway when he was wounded in Italy. There are also shelves holding century-old books and pamphlets, the eclectic collection of reading materials that young Ernest probably perused during rainy summer afternoons when he wasn’t hunting or fishing or carousing. As I gazed in wonder at the bookshelves, an idea occurred to me. I’d brought along copies of my own novels as gifts, so I asked Ernie to put them next to Hemingway’s. That was deeply satisfying.
In 2012, Ernie informed me that the Hemingway Society was going to hold a conference in Petoskey to celebrate the author’s ties to northern Michigan. The society’s conferences are fairly serious academic affairs — most of the talks are delivered by professors rather than novelists — but I really wanted to participate. And as it turned out, it wasn’t that difficult to get invited. I just proposed a topic — “Hemingway and the Modern Thriller” — and they put me on the schedule as an “independent scholar.” I was planning to speak extemporaneously, which is what I always do when I talk about my novels, but my professor friends were aghast. “You can’t just wing it!” they said. “You have to deliver a paper!” So I wrote a paper analyzing Hemingway’s influence on Lee Child. Although I didn’t know Hemingway nearly as well as the academics did, I was better versed on bestselling thrillers, so I could pretend to be an expert on them.
The paper was a big hit. (Or at least I think it was. It’s hard to tell with these academic types.) But the real highlight of the summer came a couple of months later when Ernie and Judy invited us to Windemere again. This time my wife and I brought along our kids, and Ernie entertained them by letting us fire his signal cannon. It’s the kind of cannon typically used to start a sailing race; you load it with blank shells and fire it by pulling on a string. (And don’t forget to cover your ears!) While we played with the miniature artillery piece, Ernie told us a story about how it had proved useful. Not so long ago, he said, a pontoon boat full of partying vacationers was looking for an anchorage spot along the shores of Walloon Lake. Now, it’s not so pleasant when one of those party boats is anchored near your property. Their noise spoils the idyllic atmosphere. So when Ernie saw the boat approach his shoreline, he brought out the signal cannon and fired it from his porch. The boat’s captain wisely chose another location.
It’s not a good idea to antagonize Ernie Mainland. If provoked, he’ll display some of the belligerence that his uncle was famous for. But he’s also one of the most generous, cheerful men I’ve ever met. Meeting him and visiting Windemere has given me a deeper appreciation of Hemingway and his fiction. And when my son told his English teacher about visiting the Nick Adams cottage, she was suitably impressed.
Mark Alpert is a contributing editor at Scientific American and the author of four science thrillers: Final Theory, The Omega Theory, Extinction and The Furies. His first Young Adult novel, The Six, will be published in July.