South of Superior, by Ellen Airgood, New York: Riverhead Books, 374 pages, $25.95
- a book review by Tim Bazzett
I LOVE THIS BOOK! Can't tell you how many times I said so out loud to myself, to my wife and anyone else around, while I was reading it. And I'm not really sure how to explain it, because it's such a quiet story, a sadly sweet, wise and wonderful look at all the ups and downs of regular folks, many of them barely scraping by, in a small town at the top of Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.). And it's told in the most delightfully simple and ordinary language--none of that so-called "muscular prose" often employed by the products of countless MFA programs around the country. Because author Ellen Airgood, who has run a diner in Grand Marais, Michigan, for nearly twenty years, seems to have learned how to write by waitressing! Which, when you stop and think about it, would indeed offer endless opportunities to meet and observe people of all sorts and draw some interesting conclusions. And since her fictional town of McAllaster is also a tourist town, just “south of Superior,” i.e. on the stony shores of Lake Superior, the mix of humanity Airgood had to observe and draw from was even further leavened.
And Airgood is a masterful observer of people, with all their strengths and weaknesses, faults and frailties. I think what makes this book so pleasant to read is the way the author and her protagonist, 35-year-old Madeline Stone, have learned to focus on the positive things in life. Airgood seems to have absorbed this attitude very well and employs it to her advantage in the telling of her heroine's tale. Madeline, who was born in McAllaster but abandoned by her teenage unwed mother in Chicago at a very young age, was raised by a loving adoptive single mom, Emmy. After Emmy's death from cancer, Madeline is unmoored and grief-stricken and decides to leave her long-time waitressing job in the Windy City and return to the town where she was born, hundreds of miles to the north. She breaks off her engagement and takes a pseudo-job in McAllaster as live-in helper with two aging sisters, Arbutus and Gladys. The latter had been the late-in-life companion to Madeline's now-deceased grandfather, Joe Stone.
Madeline has many "issues" to work out in regard to her biological family, who loomed large in the lives of McAllaster folks for generations. Here's my nutshell synopsis: Sometimes motherhood goes beyond biology and is more than an accident of birth. Sometimes motherhood is a conscious decision that has nothing to do with biology. This first becomes clearly evident when Madeline begins to realize her love for neglected, wise-beyond-his-years, four-year-old Greyson Hopkins. Grey is the son of Randi, a wild and undisciplined teenage unwed mother in McAllaster, and Madeline becomes Grey's caretaker following a sad if predictable chain of events. Sound familiar? Then you're starting to get why this book is so "together" - so GOOD.
... [I]t fell to Madeline to entertain and watch over him. It turned out she didn't mind this at all. Taking care of Greyson helped her keep her mind off herself. Plus she loved him.
And yes, there is an adult love interest for Madeline too, in the person of divorced and physically damaged Paul Garceau, a transplant from downstate who runs a pizzeria in McAllaster. But that's enough of the story. Here are smaller things I loved about South of Superior, details that I connected with on a more personal level:
1) A nine o’clock curfew siren that blew every night in McAllaster, at which time the kids would run for home. I remember such a curfew from my own childhood more than fifty years ago, but this story takes place in the present. The curfew makes McAllaster seem even more caught in a time warp, but in a good and charming way.
2) The character of old Mary Feather, living alone in a makeshift shack in the woods, selling fish and maple syrup to the locals and tourists for a living, yet respected and loved by all the old-timers. She reminded me of "Apple Mary" an eccentric and mysterious character from my own childhood in the fifties, who also lived alone in a shack in the country, surrounded by a grove of old twisted apple trees. Seldom seen, she was a source of wonder to my brothers and friends and me every time we passed her place on the way to a nearby lake to go swimming.
3) The long abandoned and closed-up Hotel Leppinen, which Madeline buys from Gladys and Arbutus and restores and reopens. Airgood bases this on an actual old hotel in Grand Marais, but I thought of a similar one I once walked through with my mother several years ago, then long closed but retaining all of its ancient fixtures and furnishings. It was the Birch Lodge Resort and Sanitarium, dating back to 1911, on Carp Lake in the U.P. After a bit of online research, I've learned the Birch Lodge has been bought and is being restored. Hooray! Shades of Madeline Stone and the Hotel Leppinen! There is also the Osceola Hotel, right here in my own small town of Reed City, closed up, crumbling and for sale for several years now, after a rich and storied history of more than a hundred years.
4) An expression Mary Feather uses about Greyson's hapless mother, Randi: "Some folks are just born to suck hind teat for life." My own grandfather used to use that expression, "sucking hind teat" to describe the loser as he added up our scores while playing “Michigan 500” rummy with my brothers and me. It always made us boys snicker and my mom frown disapprovingly.
5) This spot-on description of the scrubland of much of the interior of Michigan's UP (and some of the Lower Peninsula too):
It got worse as they headed inland. They passed the scattered cabins and camps that were too lonesome and poor to be quaint. There were old trailers surrounded by broken-down cars and trucks, discarded toilets and cast-off woodstoves, black plastic garbage bags stuffed with God knew what. It all sat listless in the sun, as eternal as the big lake and the pointed firs. Dogs lay panting on short chains in bare yards, and everywhere was the barren, thin-lipped look of poverty.
This passage brought to mind the pages-long description from the opening of Wolf: A False Memoir, the first novel of another Michigan writer, Jim Harrison, which I read in college forty years ago.
6) Although Madeline has a cat, Marley, which she brings with her from Chicago, and of which the two old sisters become very fond too, Airgood also makes a gracious and wise nod to dog lovers in this line, as old Mary Feather strokes her dog's head:
...[T]he truth was that a dog was a good thing to have. A dog steadied you. Just the smell of a dog, the feel of its fur, the way a dog lived, up front and simple.
Enough said. I have two dogs. Love 'em to death.
But I blather on and on, I know. I'd better stop. Suffice it to say that this "waitress" Ellen Airgood can write like nobody's business, and South of Superior has taken its place on my list of favorite books. Five stars, hell! I'd give it TEN stars! I will recommend it highly and without reservation to all of my booklover friends.
And there you have it, a second opinion on Books in Northport, confirming the first. Booklover Tim Bazzet and his books can be found online at Rathole Books. He lives in Reed City and is the author of the Reed City Boy trilogy and a new memoir, Booklover. Check him out! And thanks again, Tim!
Now, who will bring the old Osceola Hotel back to life for travelers coming Up North?