The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
By Dan Egan
384 pp. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017
In 2012, journalist Dan Egan, his wife, and their four children moved to New York City for a year so he could pursue a fellowship at Columbia University. Part of the program was to write a book proposal. "There were sixteen students in the classroom," he recalled several years later. "I don't think any of them were from the Great Lakes Basin. There was a lot of discussion about what we were pursuing, and every time I started telling Great Lakes stories, they just became rapt. It was really eye-opening to me, because of what we take for granted here [in the midwest]—the story of the Great Lakes."
By that point he had been reporting on the Great Lakes for nearly a decade for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He imagined his various stories, on everything from invasive species to algal blooms, and "they seemed to stack up like chapters." He hadn't planned to actually write the book—just fulfill his course requirement—but he got good feedback from his peers and professors. "Basically," Egan said, his professor told him he would be "crazy not to harvest a decade's worth of reporting and put it all between two covers. It was good advice."
A lifetime of fishing on the lakes—and fifteen years reporting on the lakes—makes Egan a knowledgeable and passionate guide to a wondrous and complex fresh-water system. He grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and lives in Milwaukee. As a child he vacationed with his grandparents on the Door Peninsula, swimming in the clean waters north of industrialized Green Bay. His expertise runs far beyond childhood fancy, however. His work on the Great Lakes has made him a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting, first in 2010 for writing on how invasive species have disrupted the ecosystem and economy of the Great Lakes, and again in 2013 for reporting on efforts to keep new invasive species—especially Asian carp—out of the lakes. Both of these topics make up the bulk of his book. Egan's knowledge of the subject is apparent in the clarity with which he explains the various environmental, economic, social, political, and historic factors at play.