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Lake Superior phantom island inspires new novel for young readers

A blustery visit to Split Rock Lighthouse sparked Juliana Brandt's "Monsters in the Mist," set on an island that early explorers believed to exist.

An 18th century map of Lake Superior, showing large "L. Philippeaux" island in the center of the lake.
This 1744 map shows the "phantom" Isle Philippeaux where it was then believed to exist, in the center of Lake Superior.
Contributed / Michigan State University Map Library
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DULUTH — Is there such a thing as a "real life" phantom island? If there is, Isle Philippeaux qualifies. Until the 1820s, maps of Lake Superior placed a sizable island right in the middle of the lake. Mistaken double-mapping of Isle Royale is one plausible explanation for the error, but novelist Juliana Brandt found herself contemplating a supernatural explanation.

"What if this is an island that exists," Brandt said via Zoom from the Hastings, Minnesota, classroom where she teaches kindergarten, "and then it doesn't exist for some reason, but it'll come back — it's just this haunted place that pops in and out of existence?"

Book cover: Juliana Brandt's "Monsters in the Mist," featuring stylized illustration of lighthouse.
Split Rock Lighthouse inspired the fictional setting of Juliana Brandt's novel "Monsters in the Mist."
Contributed / SourcebooksKids

That's where Glennon, the young protagonist of "Monsters in the Mist," finds himself stuck in 1989, staying at a lighthouse where his uncle is one of the keepers. When the survivors of a shipwreck climb ashore and start acting very strangely, Glennon and his sister Lee start to realize the island and its inhabitants may not be quite what they seem.

"When I started playing with idea of monsters and ghosts," said Brandt, "I really wanted it to be a story of what are we haunted by in our lives ... everybody is haunted by something in our past, and it's really about how we deal with it. Do we look at that trauma, and do we confront it?"

On Saturday, Brandt will be at the Bookstore at Fitger's from noon to 2 p.m. to sign copies of "Monsters in the Mist." Though it's the author's third novel for young readers, in-person appearances are still a happy novelty for her. Brandt's first book, "The Wolf of Cape Fen," was released in April 2020.

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"It was the worst timing," she said. "I've been trying to be published for a decade, and all of those dreams of, 'I'm going to have a book launch' ... just kind of collapsed on themselves."

With "Monsters in the Mist," she's living those dreams — even if they are spooky dreams. The first inspiration for the novel, she said, came in 2019 when she and her mom took a trip to Two Harbors to see the fall colors. "It ended up being this terrible weather," she said, "but this beautiful weekend."

When the two went to Split Rock Lighthouse, said Brandt, "it was this atmospheric, incredible day. I remember standing on the edge of the big cliff by the lighthouse and just thinking, this needs to be a book ... the wind was whipping off the lake, and the cold weather just sinks into your bones."

A young white woman and an older white woman stand together, smiling in hooded jackets, in front of a waterfall.
Juliana Brandt, left, and her mother on the 2019 North Shore trip that inspired "Monsters in the Mist."
Contributed / Juliana Brandt

After the Fitger's appearance, Brandt plans to return to Split Rock. "I'll bring my book with me and I'll be able to take pictures and take TikToks," she said. "That is going to be so fun to be able to say, 'This is the actual book that exists because I came and visited this place.'"

(In an eerie coincidence, shortly after this interview Split Rock Lighthouse was affected by a lightning strike during Monday's storm and closed for an expected two days of repairs on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Minnesota Historical Society, which maintains the property, said in a statement that "none of the historic buildings were damaged.")

Now that Brandt's on "cloud nine" with the experience of bringing her book to readers in person, she's doubling down: She hopes to write not one, but two books this summer. "I get to be a full-time author in the summer," she said, "which is a great thing about teaching."

While "Monsters in the Mist" is set in the 1980s and features some colorful characters — including a morbid neighbor girl in a motorboat — don't crack the book expecting "The Goonies." The novel's mood is closer to "The Twilight Zone," with a supernatural twist that forces Glennon to confront his inner demons.

"The ghosts and the monsters seem to be the perfect setting," said Brandt, "to be able to talk really honestly and openly about what it means to be haunted by events in our life."

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READ MORE FROM JAY GABLER
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Dozens of people packed the Zeitgeist Zinema on Sunday for a screening of the new holiday movie filmed in Duluth. Carmody Irish Pub hosted an afterparty in what's now advertised as the "home of 'Merry Kiss Cam.'"

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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