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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

The author's mother graces the cover of "Return to Wake Robin."

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Five generations of Chicago author Marnie Mamminga's family have spent summers at the cabin on Big Spider Lake.

Mamminga memoir celebrates cabin culture


Last summer, visiting a friend's cottage, I chuckled at the phrase painted along the top of a kitchen wall: "What happens at the cottage, stays at the cottage."

It seems like a good rule to live by, although Marnie Mamminga's new memoir, "Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts," may change my mind. I'm glad Mamminga decided to tell the story of her cabin, Wake Robin, on Big Spider Lake, where five generations of her family have vacationed.

"Return to Wake Robin" is a family memoir and a celebration of youth spent in the idyllic Northwoods of Wisconsin, but Marnie Mamminga expands her reach and looks, too, at the golden age of Northwoods camps and cabins, through the story of Moody's Camp, adjacent to the land where her grandparents built their cabin, which they dubbed Wake Robin.

The result is a nostalgic celebration of summer fun; one with depth and spirit that will draw you in.

Though she doesn't hit Milwaukee until July 19 for a 7 p.m. book signing event at Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, we asked the Chicago author – who has, among other things, contributed to several "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books – about Wake Robin and the tribute she's penned to it.

OnMilwaukee.com: What does Wake Robin mean to your family? Clearly, it's not just four walls and a roof next to a lake.

Marnie Mamminga: Yes, Wake Robin means a lot more to us than just a log cabin by the lake, though that is a great part of its charm. To us, it means many things: family history, togetherness, simple pleasures, friends, traditions, fulfilling work, fun, rest and peace. It consistently provides a place for us to pause, renew and to dream.

OMC: Do you think the "up north cabin" idea is one that's fading as people perhaps prefer to take varied vacations rather than invest in a place they'll keep going back to?

MM: To stay or not to stay, that is the question! Although there is an understandably distinct pull for many to seek adventure in various extended travels, the cabin culture is still very strong. Easier access and familiarity are both big draws. For those of us who love it, the cabin offers the best of both worlds – consistent adventure and a place to come home to, a retreat for the soul.

OMC: The lake cabin is sort of a survivor of a simpler age, isn't it?

MM: Yes, the 1920s-1960s era that I write about in "Return to Wake Robin" was a much simpler and quieter time, but it was packed with joyous fun. There were no technological distractions, big boats, or Jet Skis-not even a phone in many cabins including ours – so it was a lot easier to completely unwind and relax. You came to the lake to fish, canoe, visit with friends, see wildlife, swim, picnic and enjoy and appreciate the natural beauty surrounding you. Believe me, no one was ever bored!

I think people are still looking for that calm especially in this busy, high-tech arena that our world has become.

OMC: Was writing "Return to Wake Robin" a labor of love? It sure has that feel.

MM: Totally a labor of love! It took me 15 years to do it from the moment I came up with the idea to its publication by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press this spring. Like the long journey Up North that I write about in the book, there were many stops and starts, delays and detours. Most gratefully, I was able to complete the manuscript and read it to my mother Woody, who is pictured on the cover, before she died.

OMC: What was your mom's reaction to the book when she read the manuscript?

MM: Reading the manuscript to my mother was a very moving experience for both of us. Near the end of her life, although Woody was very mentally sharp, she was legally blind, on dialysis, diabetic and confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home. On each of my visits, I would read a chapter or two to her. We sat very close together with our heads almost touching so she could hear as we tried to block out the various nursing home noises.

After each chapter, we would reminisce and laugh and sometimes shed a tear. I would hold the manuscript up close so she could see the photos, and at times, I think we both felt we were almost back at Wake Robin together again.

I tried to draw this happiness out as long as I could, and we were both sad when we finished the book. She told me how much she loved it and didn't want it to end.

She knew Wisconsin Historical Society Press was considering it for publication and was so excited and thrilled for me. She died in June of 2010 and WHSP accepted the manuscript in August.

OMC: Did you write any of it "at the cabin"?

MM: Not really. That seems odd, but I think when I was away from the cabin, I was better able to separate myself to visualize and articulate what the cabin means to me and my family. When I was at the cabin, I just tried to be still, soak up inspiration and let the memories float back.

OMC: How often do you get up to Wake Robin each year? Sounds like your family has no intention of giving it up; does that make you happy?

MM: Currently, there are 17 third, fourth and fifth generation family members who use Wake Robin in varying degrees of visits throughout the course of the spring, summer and early fall. It is not winterized, so we pack it in. It is our family's intent to try and keep Wake Robin going for as long as we can. On a wing and a prayer, we hope we can do it.

That would make us all very, very happy.

"Return to Wake Robin" is published in hardcover ($22.95) by Wisconsin Historical Society Press and is available at bookshops everywhere.

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