It took three decades before Steve Fortney could even bear to look at them; the pain was too much.
Part poet, writer and journalist, the 82-year-old Stoughton resident has covered a lot of ground in a prolific career of prose and poetry, but until last year, he had never confronted a subject that still cut too deep: His brother’s death in Vietnam in 1968. In the novel “Empire’s Children: Vietnam, The Home Front,” released last November, he quotes family letters to and from Kendall Thomas Fortney before he was killed at the age of 26 while serving as a medic in Saigon. He waited 30 years to read them, and felt compelled to write Kendall’s story.
Fortney’s latest novel, “Tempest North,” released last month, also contains a personal touch from his decades of enjoying the wonders of Wisconsin’s northwoods, where he’s spent lots of time fishing, as well as writing. The story is a “family saga” based in part on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and looks at how environmental and corporate interests collide, both in northern Wisconsin and in Canada.
Fortney called the middle section of the book “maybe the best nature writing I’ve ever done.”
“It all comes down to a trout stream and a giant brook trout and if you can’t save that, you can’t save anything,” he said.
While Fortney had written about his brother before privately, and in letters to the Hub, this was the first time he “officially” got something down in print – 50 years after his brother’s death.
“I kind of knew I was going to do that at some point,” he told the Hub last week.”(Finally) enough there was distance, and I could go look at the letters.”
Fortney calls the book, with several letters from his mother and cousin, “a bit of caution about the call to war, a bit of skepticism about the call to war, a bit of resistance about the call to war.”
“It ends with a kind of meditation on my grandchildren and great grandchildren, and a question,” he said. “It turns out to be about Vietnam and about Kendall, but much broader than that.”
A memoir with a fictional element, the story follows Kendall Fortney as he declares himself a conscientious objector and “turned himself into a medic” before being sent to Vietnam, where he was soon killed during a mortar attack.
“Apparently he’d just successfully delivered his first child from a Vietnamese woman,” Fortney said. “A little bit of irony there.”
Several letters home are printed verbatim, Fortney said, with a goal to try to “stick as close as I possibly could to the facts.”
“You can read letters from a man in Vietnam just before he died,” he said.
What started as more of a family history turned into a novel examining the context of decision-making of the U.S. government during the war, “in the context of a contemporary thinking about it, and the nation at war.”
And while time has healed some wounds, others remain.
Fotney said later admissions long after the war by people like former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that it was a mistake are anything but gratifying.
“The whole idea of that war to begin with as a mistake was pretty current in my thinking pretty early on, so I was not surprised by McNamara,” he said. “(But) that just makes it worse. There were 50,000-plus Americans who should not have died for that kind of thing.”
Fortney’s latest three-part novel stems from a 2015 book, “The Cabin: A North Woods Memoir,” which takes place in Bayfield County.
He stays in that part of the state, with a fictionalized account of a family responding to the attempt to create a ruinous copper and iron mine in Ashland County on Native American reservation territory; based on the real-life Gogebic mine controversy in that county.
“They begin to see that the impact of the mine on the area would be devastating, so they turn into protestors and turn themselves from protesting into almost ecoterrorists; trying to do something to stop the madness,” Fortney said.
The second part, based on Herman Melville’s “The Enchanted Islands,” he said, deals with the same mining company, but up in Ontario, the site of a pristine, valuable trout stream. Other family members who travel north discover a mining operation that could endanger the stream, while having “a bunch of adventures with a giant brook trout.”
In the third section – the “real surprise of the book,” Fortney said – the family helps create an “ecological, spiritual almost religion liturgy,” similar to the “ancient liturgies of the church of the Middle Ages and even up until the present day.”
“These liturgies created the worldview that a lot of people agreed to, and they know their place in nature and relationship to God and the king and society and the world,” he explained. “So they’re going to create a liturgy that rethinks those relationships in ecological terms, at the end of the book, they have created the liturgy and perform it to help save the planet, even though it may be too late.”