Author Treasures U.P. Childhood


Published Sunday, November 18, 2007 4:25:26 PM Central Time


Globe Staff Writer

In the title story of her new book, Coralie Cederna Johnson writes:

“Nobody wanted to go to Trout Creek. There was nothing there. Nothing but a lot of trees. Trees, trees and more trees.”

Overlooking the forest for a single tree, Johnson’s Finnish grandfather from Minnesota was bringing a small mountain ash tree to plant at the home of relatives in Trout Creek.

To a 9-year-old girl, this made no sense.

In “A Tree Grows in Trout Creek,” Johnson, of Ypsilanti, tells tales from her Upper Peninsula childhood.

She grew up in the mining community of Stambaugh and Iron River. Her father worked in the mines. Her mother raised six children.

In 26 stories, Johnson recounts her memories of making friends, raising pet dogs, walking a mile to town for Saturday movie matinees, the joy of an ice cream cone on a hot summer evening, the drudgery of planting potatoes.

Dialogue and details bring her memoir to life.

Unlike many authors, Johnson writes dialogue that rings true.

“I have a memory, and I expand upon it, but I can hear those voices, especially with my family,” she said from her home in Ypsilanti. “My Dad was a very private person … I can hear his voice, and I can hear my Mom’s voice. That’s how I write.”

When she describes mile after mile of trees out the window on a car trip, even a reader who doesn’t know the U.P. can feel the tedium of travel. Her word pictures — of backyard fences where she exchanged secrets with a young friend, the nuzzle of a puppy’s nose on her knee, the gleeful look on an elderly aunt’s face when she beats Johnson at a game of cards — are vividly drawn.

Johnson draws the reader in, then ends some of the stories with a surprise twist. Black-and-white family photos and recipes accompany some stories.

The cover photo shows a pretty, smiling teen in shorts sitting on the fender of a Model A Ford. Her Dad let her drive the 1929 Ford on U.P. backroads years before she was of legal driving age.

Of those Indian summer drives, Johnson writes:

“Gravel dust swirls up from the wheels, whirls around the side of the old Model A and drifts in through the windows — settling in a misty tan haze on the dashboard.”

“…I slip the shift back into first, press slowly down on the gas pedal and ease the clutch up carefully, never once grinding the gears. Enraptured with the moment, I experience a sudden rush of relief that I’ve been born to this wondrous wilderness.”

“A Tree Grows in Trout Creek” is Johnson’s second book. She wrote “The Wishing Years” in 1995.

“I had so many stories for the first book, I couldn’t fit them all in,” she said. “I still have more stories that I want to write.”

Leaving Childhood and the U.P.

Johnson grew up in Stambaugh and Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula.

Johnson worked as a manager in the University of Michigan School of Dentistry for more than 20 years. Nearing retirement, she went back to college to complete her undergraduate degree, then a master’s.

She is an adjunct lecturer for the women’s studies program at Eastern Michigan University.

“It was really bothering me that I hadn’t finished my degree,” she said. “I had accomplished a lot of things, but those educational values were instilled in us even as children growing up in Stambaugh.”

Her father died in 1980, before she published her first book. Her mother died in 2000.

Johnson’s siblings are scattered from Chicago to Dearborn. Two brothers live in Iron River and Escanaba. Her brother John, closest to her in age and mentioned in many of her stories — notably the potato planting saga — practiced dentistry in Marquette until retiring to North Carolina.

“We all get up to the U.P. frequently,” she said.

They haven’t yet read her new book, “A Tree Grows in Trout Creek,” but her sister is hosting a book signing party in Chicago the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

“It’s been such a pleasure having the book out and then reading it and getting the response from people,” Johnson said. “That’s the thing for me, to have people say ‘I love the book.'”

The title story of “A Tree Grows in Trout Creek” has made new memories for Johnson.

“The result of that story is that I have reconnected with relatives that I haven’t been in touch with for many years,” she said.

One of them, Bob Knivila, a cousin from Trout Creek, remembered the farm Johnson writes about and put her in touch with other relatives.

— “A Tree Grows in Trout Creek,” by Coralie Cederna Johnson, Wildwood Press, 317 pages. Order from Wildwood Press, 1112 S. Durand St, Jackson, MI; $14.95 plus $5.60 postage; or online at


  1. My neighbor, across the street, grew up in the UP. I need to tell her about this.

  2. Yes! Please let your UP neighbor know about the stories. Guaranteed to please (Yooper or not)!

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