Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Books! Wisconsin Death Trip

Wisconsin Death Trip is a nonfiction book written by Michael Lesy in 1973. It's one of those books that I ran across quite by accident, and it completely amazed me. It collects photos taken in turn of the century rural Wisconsin by Charles Van Schaik and pairs them with newspaper clippings from the same area and same time. The photos are incredible, like a peek through a time machine window. Lesy found several thousand glass plate negatives that somehow survived to the seventies, and the book is worth buying for the historical value of the images alone. The news stories are actually quite shocking. American history was hardly the stuff of Hollywood movies or even classroom lectures, and that's why this book is so effective. It strips away the myth entirely, and gives you real time information from the era. Murders, disease, insanity, suicide, poverty--it's anything but shot in soft focus. What will surprise you is how little things have changed over the past century. People have always killed one another. There has always been a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Crimes such as arson, theft and vandalism are not new activities. Newfangled antibiotics, decent plumbing and cable television aside, today and the reality of the darkness of the good old days are not that different.
This is a haunting and beautiful book. It's like taking a walk with a herd of ghosts and finding out their stories and the sources of their joys and sorrows. There are faces in this book that I will never forget. Recently, this was shot as a semi-documentary movie that is also worth a watch, and the book has influenced many writers, artists and musicians. It's not an easy or sweet read, but it's an amazing piece of work, even more effective on a chilly winter night, like tonight, with the wind howling at the door.


  1. Ooh...sounds like an interesting, creepy read. Have you seen the film version too? I recently saw a photo book at Barnes & Noble filled with crime photos from way back when. It contained everything from old photos of pick pockets to jail cell lineups to crime scene photos. I just had to sit there and page through the whole thing!

  2. Omg, I am totally getting this book!

  3. OMG this book sounds fantastic! Does the movie go by the same name?
    I would LOVE to see it!

  4. I got the movie from Netflix, and watched it last night. It was pretty cool, but the book is one of my favorites ever. If you are interested in either history or photography, this is a great book for you.