Bootstrapper: A Memoir, by Mardi Jo Link
NY: Knopf, 2014
Northern Michigan readers have known Mardi Jo Link prior to this memoir. Her first book, When Evil Came to Good Hart (2008), revisited a cold case in a Grand Traverse Bay resort area, the murder of a family come to vacation in their summer home, a book I didn't want to read and studiously avoided for a long time. True crime is not the genre for me--my imagination generates pictures that are far too vivid--but then came Isadore's Secret....
Okay, fast-forward here to Link's second book of nonfiction, Isadore’s Secret (2009), the story of the young Polish nun who mysteriously disappeared over a century ago in a tiny Leelanau County crossroads community. Without a word of invented dialogue (everything in quotation marks comes from depositions or trial transcripts), Isadore’s Secret carried me back a hundred years to inhabit a vanished world of rural immigrants: Polish farmers and nuns, farm children who boarded at school during the week at the Catholic school because getting there on a daily basis was too difficult in the winter, classes taught in Polish, insiders and outsiders. I could feel the wind blow and see the locals combing the fields for the missing nun. The book won a well-deserved Michigan Notable award.
So then I said (to myself), Okay, Mardi, you're a really good writer, and I'm going to read your first book. I've always wondered what draws a writer to a particular true crime story. The genesis of When Evil Came to Good Hart made perfect sense to me when I learned it: as a girl, Mardi first heard the gruesome news story over the car radio as her own family was driving north for their summer vacation. Yes, the young mind of a writer-to-be would certainly be impressed by the parallels and unable to forget something like that!
But now, a memoir? It's a departure from Link's earlier books, but a writer's memoir addresses questions many people have about making a living by pen, typewriter, or, these days, laptop. There are general questions, and then there are specific questions particular to a particular writer. How, for example, in Link's case, while struggling to cobble together a serious career, does one also hold a family together when marriage disintegrates into divorce and “single mom” is added to one’s resume? This is the story told in Bootstrapper, out this spring in paper after its hardcover launch in 2013.
Character traits to be inferred from Link’s previous books appear undisguised in her memoir: she sticks unflinchingly to facts, even unpleasant, revealing ones about herself that sometimes operate as a cruel mirror; the research skills that have always informed her work help her overcome seemingly insoluble financial problems; and she never gives up until the job is done. Hers is not a glamorous literary “lifestyle” but a life, some parts consciously chosen, others the price exacted by the choices.
Link and her boys depended substantially on their garden for survival (one season they bought a share in a pig, anticipating a winter of farm-raised ham and bacon, and in later chapters a flock of chickens come home to roost), but food is only one challenge. There are also taxes to be paid, an old house to be heated in winter, aging vehicles to nurse along, and blizzards and power outages to survive. At least some of these challenges will be familiar to every resident of northern Michigan who sticks it out between color season and blossom, but money or lack of money makes a big difference.
If you've hoed this tough row yourself, you'll realize that nothing in Link's story is exaggerated, and if your life has never been as hard as hers, these glimpses into "how the other half lives" may trigger new empathy. We're told over and over again that “getting old is not for sissies.” Well, neither is a writer’s life in northern Michigan.
Still, for all the struggles recounted, Link’s story will also make you laugh out loud. I laughed a lot while reading this book. And I'd almost call it a tale of suspense, too, in that it will keep you turning pages eagerly from start to finish. Funny, well written, with a trajectory that never lets up--don't miss this book! If you live in northern Michigan, you owe it to yourself to read and share it.