Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”): Although I actively dislike the cover art on this book, I picked it up because I am on the quest to find an amazing contemporary female author. This is Ms. Ellen Airgood’s debut novel, so I decided to give her a chance. Right away I could tell that while her passion for writing does not translate into stunning prose, she loves her characters and is determined to make you love them, too.
The characters definitely kept me reading and are staying with me even days after finishing the book. Lake Superior is a character in this book. Ms. Airgood mentions the lake frequently and uses it as a mirror to the townspeople in the book. Growing up a few hours ‘south of Superior’ myself, I found some nostalgia in reading the book. I had my own lake love affair, with Shell Lake. There, I would sit on the dock and pour my feelings out to the waves lapping at my feet. In the winter, I would pretend I could hear the waves under several inches of ice, waiting to come back and hear my new secrets in the summer. Lake Superior is a friend to the book’s main character, Madeline Stone, too.
I recommend this book to anyone who has ever imagined moving away to an exotic location and getting away from “it all.” The book is honest about how hard such a life is, even if you do it with a big bank account. It is also honest in showing the types of rewards that are available in such small town settings – access to nature, a community with a long memory, and time to discover all the wonderful things about yourself that you push aside in favor of big city distractions.
The story is that of a city woman, Madeline Stone, in her early 30s who is thrust into the geriatric social circle of a small town on the shores of Lake Superior, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A few unique twists give Ms. Stone sympathetic standing right off the bat – she has spent the last five years taking care of Emmy, the woman who mothered her from age three; she was able to charm a man who is desperate to marry her, but not willing to compromise for her and she promptly leaves him (before we even know him); and she agrees to the adventure of moving north to take care of an elderly long-lost relative. How could you avoid sympathizing with her?
Well, pretty easily if you care to try, but Ms. Airgood’s writing is much more enjoyable if you buy into the logic behind these choices. They are solid choices by the end of the story, and it is true that none of us make completely rational choices in life, we just justify them to be rational with the benefit of hindsight.
While Airgood builds in some mild suspense with the mystery of the Stone family heritage, a budding romance, and a community land battle, her strengths are more in using relationships to explore the themes of her book.
Big city v. small town: Direct comparisons are relatively few, Ms. Stone rarely comments on the differences but for a frustrated moment when she doesn’t want to drive 90 miles to see a movie in a theater. However, implicit comparisons are rampant – the way neighbors function, the way gossip serves to protect and warn, the connection to the natural world, how values are applied to daily living. The author is severely biased in favor of small town values, which makes sense since she choose her small town 20 years ago and has been living there since then.
Technology in a small town: The inclusion of computers and ebay help remind us that the story takes place in the early 2000s rather than the early 1900s. This is a small theme, but an important one. What does globalization mean to a tiny town without a movie theater? Does it make it more accessible or does it corrupt the town? The webcam that scans the main street is particularly amusing, as when one character checks the camera for traffic before driving three blocks to the bank.
Personal relationships: Disapprove v. dislike: Ms. Airgood uses a mix of contrasts to underscore the nuances between actively disliking someone (like the Bensons who run the grocery store) and merely disapproving of their choices (like Randi who is both flighty and loyal). She brings in young v. old, educated v. self-taught (most characters are self-taught), and money-grubber v. community member (can’t you be both?).
Money: Something you need to get by v. something to collect: The book unquestionably disapproves of those who aim to “get rich” or to collect money at the expense of the community. It idolizes giving to those in need and taking care of each other. Ms. Airgood glorifies the anonymous few who tidy up after those community members who serve a community good, but can’t manage their finances. This also comes up in the sense of what housing is necessary to allow someone to lead a happy life. I thought she could have explored this theme a bit more within the characters themselves, but it is largely left as a community theme.
Power grabs in family, in community: Airgood raises situations in both personal family relationships and in community relationships where one party has a decided advantage: the advantage of knowledge in the family and the advantage of money in the community. She shows how the seemingly disadvantaged parties empower themselves by acting in their own interest despite the risk of losing the power struggle. By doing so, she is saying that self-love will sustain you and maintaining strong community ties will protect a community from moneyed outside interests.
Family: Bloodlines v. Time & Tenderness: Emmy adopts Ms. Stone after her mother abandons her, Ms. Stone rears a child not her own for a time, and Gladys Stone (Madeline’s step-grandmother) adopts Madeline even though they are not blood related. These relationships argue that blood is not the only way to form a family. Yet, the Stone bloodline is at the heart of Ms. Stone’s story; a bloodline will wait, and it will accept you, it might not nurture you and keep you safe, but it will help you find out who you are.
“The produce looked good and the prices seemed fair, and she thought it was no wonder the grocery didn’t want the fruit man coming to town, although she doubted the Bensons would consider him significant competition. Even if he did cut into their business, she didn’t suppose they would do anything to stop him. Wasn’t competition the gospel of the free market, and weren’t they more patriotic than the president himself with their two oversized flags flapping at the front of the store?” – p. 77
“She was older now, and possessed of more ability to want. There was more depth to it, more poignancy. She didn’t have forever anymore. No one did. She had to try for the things she wanted now.” – p. 196
“Sisu. The Finnish word for “courage in the face of trouble.” Well, to give Madeline her due, she did have courage. But she cringed too much. No use in that. Gladys had learned by experience that there was no use in trying to protect yourself from the blows life was bound to rain down on you anyway. Stand up and face them.” – p. 200
“The old-timers, the old ways of looking at the world, were being pushed out. It was the end of an era, a way of life, a whole culture. But even as Madeline had these thoughts she had to admit that it wasn’t just a matter of old versus new, it wasn’t that simple. It was a matter of philosophy. Some people had a sense of humor and proportion and some people didn’t, and this trait was scattered on both sides of the divide.” – p. 204
“Overall the story was not surprising. Just one with an overabundance of human frailty. No heroes or villains, exactly. Just people who’d done what they’d done, too late to change any of it, and in the end that wasn’t the worst news in the world.” – p. 319
“There are no facts, only interpretations.” – p. 79
“That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” – p. 85
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – p. 113
Book website: http://ellenairgood.com/southofsuperior.shtml