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Keith PhippsProbably the only doctoral thesis with a cult following, Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip sets out to capture a time and place--Black River Falls, Wisconsin, shortly before and after the turn of the 20th century--that's not too far into the past but in some ways as alien as another planet. The book combines photos from the collection of commercial photographer Charles J. Van Schaick (taken between 1885 and 1915) with pieces from the area's newspaper, case histories from a mental institution, excerpts from appropriate writers, and Lesy's own Faulknerian accounts of regional history. Chosen for reasons other than its evocative name, Black River Falls serves as an extreme example of what Greil Marcus calls "the old, weird America," the one knowable through Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music and echoed in Bob Dylan's basement tapes, a dark, open place of extreme passions that's readily acquainted with insanity and death. Dead babies, diphtheria, suicide (by acid, gunshot, hanging, drowning, and, in one instance, dynamite), murder, armies of vagrants, arsonists, incest, and the mentally unbalanced (or, as one excerpt puts it, the "shack happy") fill the pages of Lesy's book, playing off Schaick's sometimes chilling, sometimes mundane, and sometimes just odd photos to powerful effect. Is it responsible as a work of history? Yes and no. Lesy could have filled a book with wedding and birth announcements just as easily. But instead of these accepted human practices, he chose to focus on the less accepted but no less eternal events, offering a reminder that whatever madness seems to be destroying society at any given time has always been around in one form or another. But it's also a vivid portrait of its peculiar subject: While most of the rest of the country grew, Black River Falls and the surrounding region faltered, serving as a sort of magnet for calamity and tragedy. In its odd, unscholarly way (the meat of Lesy's work holds up much better than some of the hoary Freudian theses that sandwich it), it makes history almost tangible, re-creating a place you wouldn't want to visit, albeit one where you might already live.
— Onions A.V. Club