Michigan author’s latest novel dissects the Bath school bombing

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A long discarded Lansing Fire Department phone log contains a simple entry indicating an emergency call from Bath on May 18, 1927.

The simple entry belies the death and destruction wrought in this quiet community by Andrew Kehoe. In a disturbed notion about what he perceived as his high property taxes, Kehoe blew up the Bath Consolidated School — killing 38 students and seven adults.

Over the years, much has been written about the bombing, its causes and the aftermath. Most notable are the booklet “The Bath School Disaster,” by M.J. Ellsworth, published contemporaneously and containing the transcript of the inquest; “Mayday: The History of a Village Holocaust,” by Grant Parker; “Life is Fragile: One Girl’s Story of the Bath School Disaster,” by Betty Spencer and, most recently, “Bath Massacre,” by Arnie Bernstein.

There have also been short documentaries, including one produced this year by Michigan State University journalism student Ben Goldman. In addition, Lansing filmmakers at Ahptic Film and Digital Media Production are working on a documentary, which they expect to land as a cable series. They have already shot numerous scenes on location and are looking at next year for distribution.

Marquette author John Smolens has written “Day of Days,” a soaring work of historical fiction recreating the terrible tragedy through the lives of two young survivors who must learn to cope with the physical and psychological aftermath of the bombing.

Smolens tells the story primarily through the eyes of the precocious Beatrice Marie Turcott. On her deathbed, decades after the tragedy, she recalls that fateful day and the events leading up to it.

Turcott, along with her friend Jed Browne, are central to the story and are on the cusp of adulthood when their innocent coming-of-age tale becomes a nightmare that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Smolens said both characters are fictional.

“Blending real historical figures with fictional characters really brings the narrative to life,” he said.

Within hours of the bombing, photographers were on the scene documenting the carnage for daily newspapers. Some of those photographs were turned into real photo postcards, which, although ghoulish, were sold across the state.

Smolens walks a tightrope as a historical fiction writer — especially when writing about a tragedy of this magnitude, since ancestors of the victims and survivors still recall the destruction wrought by Kehoe on the community. At the 90th anniversary of the bombing, children of the survivors, now in their 70s, recounted how they were forbidden by their parents to talk about “the day.”

For relative newcomers to the Lansing area, a short recap of the event may be in order. The bombing, at the time, was the worst example of school violence in the United States. The perpetrator, who at one point served on the school board, spent a great amount of time planning and executing the bombing. In a flourish, he took his own life right outside of the schoolhouse. He had killed his spouse and burned down his farm a short distance from Bath.

In his book, Smolens points out that “tens of thousands” of gawkers drove to the scene, causing traffic jams in the rural community.

While lying in his bed, Browne recalls “after being a headline story in virtually every newspaper in the country, the Bath School Disaster would be forgotten once the world learned that Charles Augustus Lindbergh had landed his plane the Spirit of St Louis in Paris. The world forgot, but we had to live with what happened in Bath, Michigan.”

Smolens believes that the “Day of Days” was a harbinger of the future when mass bombings, terrorist attacks and school shootings became more common.

“I wanted to show how the world has been a tragic place all along,” Smolens said.

For certain, the tragedy is not forgotten in Bath. A memorial park has a state historical marker and the cupula from the original school, complemented by a tasteful museum in the middle school across the street. The bombing is still taught as a class in the school.

Smolens follows the lead characters as they go about their mundane chores in the farming community while trying to hold themselves together. He also takes Turcott and Browne into adulthood with some surprising outcomes. The characters are an amalgam of Smolens’ fruitful imagination but are certainly believable and give the story a personal connection.

It is through Turcottt and Browne’s own relationship with Kehoe and his spouse, Nellie Kehoe, that we learn how the killer’s mind works. In this fictional account, both Turcottt and Browne assist in farm chores and caretaking at the Kehoe farm, creating a personal relationship with the killer.

Smolens has written several works of historical fiction, including “Assassination,” about the murder of President William McKinley, and “Quarantine,” about a plague in an East Coast sailing city at the turn of the last century.

Due to the coronavirus, Smolens is joining with the Historical Society of Greater Lansing for a livestream book release on Oct. 15. Matt Martyn, Ahptic executive and executive producer of the documentary, will facilitate the conversation.

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