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Marquette professor blends love of nature and history, plus magic, in first novel

A man standing in front of books
Susan Bence
Ben Pladek's first novel is "Dry Land." He's working on his second.

Ben Pladek has been writing short stories for years. For much longer, Pladek’s been passionate about nature.

“And this does really go back to my childhood. I spent my youth mapping the boggy forest behind my house … and this is a forest that is maybe two acres wide and it backs onto some farm fields, but it was magical for me,” Pladek shares.

After earning a poetry-focused PhD from the University of Toronto, Pladek joined Marquette University’s Department of English in 2014.

That's when Pladek learned to his surprise and delight Wisconsin is home to an “enormous and beautiful wetland complex all over the state … there are marshes, there are fens, there are bogs, and I fell in love with those in the same way I’ve fallen in love with all of the wetlands that I’ve encountered in my life.”

book cover
A book cover of "Dry Land."

Recently, he released his first novel Dry Land. The story is set in part in Wisconsin as well as in Europe.

The book has three main characters.

Twenty-two year old forester Rand Brandt discovers he possesses a magical power “to grow plants with a touch and then quickly thereafter discovers that all of his plants die very quickly,” Pladek explains.

The character dreams of bringing a natural area he grew up loving back to life.  “Clearwater Marsh, which was a marsh based on the real Horicon Marsh, was dredged early on his life and he would really like to restore it,” Pladek says.

 Jonna is Rand’s best friend. “She is a socialist, journalist, cartoonist who desperately wants to escape her life in the United States and flee to Paris, which she sees as better, queerer, freer place,” Pladek says.

Finally, Rand’s love interest is classical musician Gabriel, who is from a wealthy Mexican American family in the southwest and "has fallen out with his family and desperately wants to play the violin at some sort of major orchestra."

The characters spend the span of the novel trying to realize their dreams.

Ben Pladek reading an excerpt from "Dry Land."

Pladek set the story during World War I, one of many periods in history that fascinates him.

“The early 20th century was a watershed moment in history because it reconfigured the social, cultural and political landscape of the entire world … and in a very real way, the configurations of what we know as modernity were set by what happened during and after the war,” he says.

In his research, Pladek learned that forestry was central to America’s role in World War I. “The largest regiment that the U.S. sent over to Europe was a regiment of foresters and their job was to cut down all the trees in France to build bridges and piles and fortifications in trenches." Pladek decided to fold this little-known history into his novel.

Pladek says Dry Land's central characters still live in his head — particularly Rand.

“I would say that a lot of Rand’s ideals and impulses are also my own … his desire to save the world by himself … Figuring saving the world into a heroic myth often does more harm than good, but it’s still incredibly compelling,” Pladek says. “Even though I wrote a book that is very skeptical of that ideal, I still feel its pull in that way that Rand does.”

What does Pladek hope readers take away from Dry Land?
That it contributes to the love of what he calls “local natures."

“As much as they love the wild natures of Yosemite or Colorado anything that Americans tend to think of as wilderness, which is wonderful and ought to be preserved, Dry Land is grounded a love for the stuff that’s in our backyard and that doesn’t get celebrated as much,” Pladek explains.

He understands it’s hard to celebrate a swamp. “They’re kind of flat and boggy and hard to navigate. .... [But] wetlands are one of the types of landscape that are most easily destroyed and are being destroyed at a rapid rate in the U.S.”

Pladek adds one more hope — that readers take away why heroism is both attractive and a problem.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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