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Father and son collaboration yields The Woodscrit Manuscripts

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


In the summer of 2005, while vacationing on Michigan’s Leelanau peninsula, Fort Wayne attorney Tom Shoaff happened to see a massive, gnarled elder box tree lying on the ground, felled by storms the night before.

The tree had a special resonance for Shoaff; his grandfather Fred Shoaff (also an attorney and founder of Fort Wayne National Bank) first came to the peninsula in 1900, and ever since then the Shoaff family had spent summers there.

“It was one of these huge, marvelous Wind In the Willows type trees,” Shoaff says. “So, one day I drive by and there it is lying on the ground. As it’s lying there, here comes this guy with a chain saw…”

Shoaff stepped in. “I said ‘this tree deserves better than that,” he recalls. “I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but give me some time. I’ll come back tomorrow, and I’ll mark the tree with big red tape. You can cut everything above the tape, but leave everything below the tape.’ Which basically left me with the trunk and sprouting arms.”

It took over two months, but Tom had the massive 8,000 lbs. tree trunk moved to his own property, planted in a hole and set with concrete. “We all thought he was nuts,” laughs Shoaff’s son Matthew.

Nuts or not, Tom Shoaff was thinking about the episode several weeks later during a long night drive back to Fort Wayne. A story began to come together about the ancient, gnarled box elder tree and woodland creatures of the area…

Shoaff was so inspired that when he finally arrived in Fort Wayne in the wee hours of the morning, he broke out his Smith Corona and got to work. “I always liked writing, and of course as a lawyer you do a lot of writing, but I had never written fiction before,” he says. “But I was so pumped up by this idea that I just wrote a draft right away.”

He showed it to family and friends, who told him that a story like this needed pictures. Shoaff didn’t have to search too hard for an artist. His son Matthew, who was studying psychology at Dickenson in Pennsylvania at the time, is a talented illustrator who could, as Shoaff pere puts it, “do anything with a pencil.”

The project eventually became The Woodscrit Manuscripts, a lavishly illustrated book about the “critters” of Michigan’s Leelanau peninsula spying on the various humans who vacation around the lake and storing what they learned in an ancient box elder tree. One day, the tree is felled by a violent storm, and the squirrels, foxes, geese and other animals fear that it will be chopped up by the humans. Instead, the humans save it, keeping it for future generations of all species.

The book features 27 oil paintings in addition to a number of etchings and water colors. Matthew Shoaff says he didn’t get any specific directions from his father. “He just said do whatever you think is right,” Matt explains. “However you see these images, match them with the text and we’ll go from there.”

Despite being an accomplished illustrator, Matthew had never experimented with oil painting before, but decided to go in that direction when a quick survey of children’s books revealed that many of them featured pencil coloring. He felt The Woodscrit Manuscripts called for something different. “The answer was: let’s go bold,” he says. “Let’s do it oil paintings and use really vibrant colors. I think it worked out.”

Indeed, the remarkable paintings do more than just tell the story; they capture a real sense of place, and convey some of what the Shoaffs feel is magical about the Leelanau peninsula — the purity of the air and the sunlight during the warmer months, and how even though there are plenty of lake houses and vacationers compared to when their family first started going up there in 1900, it still seems quite remote. “You still feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” says Tom Shoaff. “You’re not, but you feel like it.”

“That sense of place was something that was absolutely at the forefront of our priorities,” adds Matt. “There’s this giant spread of the lake when you open the book, and that holds a lot of personal value to me, since there’s so much tradition and history and memory behind images like that that resonate with me.”

That personal resonance is evident on every page, but judging from the reaction Tom and Matthew Shoaff have had to the book, The Woodscrit Manuscripts strikes a chord with people who are completely unfamiliar with the Leelanau peninsula or the facts that inspired the story. It’s also proven to be more than “just” a children’s book; adults respond to the feeling behind the story and the illustrations. “This is a timeless story,” says Tom Shoaff. “It comes from a feeling about a whole experience.”

The father and son team are currently collaborating on another book project called The Animal’s Story As Told to the Humans.

The Woodscrit Manuscripts is available locally at Mitchell Books and those other two national retail outlets in town.

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.