As reported already, this summer has been a feckless quest for something satisfying to read, with an occasional bright stop. I quite enjoyed A Game of Thrones, but am still undecided about reading the next book before the HBO series starts again in spring of next year. I started The Hakawati with great excitement, and it’s enjoyable for very short bursts, but not really compelling in an “I have to see what happens next” kind of way. Before heading to my parents’ house to do some serious pool lounging on Friday night, I made a last ditch grab for something off my shelf and ended up with South of Superior, by Ellen Airgood. This was an ARC sent to me in a big box o’ books by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads!).
Don’t you love it when every now and then you stumble onto just the right book for the particular kind of reading mood you’re in? South of Superior had me hooked after the first two pages when I realized it’s tone and subject were just exactly what I wanted at the moment. I’m not so good with genres, so I’m not sure how to explain exactly what South of Superior is. My friend called it a relationship book. It’s in the vein of Sarah Addison Allen, without anything more magical than human relationships and the power of place. And I happen to believe that those two things are plenty magical in and of themselves.
The novel is the story of Madeline Stone, who lost the woman who raised her in Chicago a year ago to cancer. She gets a letter from the lady friend of her grandfather who abandoned her as a child, asking her to please come live with her and her aging sister in McAllaster, a small town on Michigan’s U.P. (Upper Peninsula). After meeting the sister, Arbutus, Madeline decides to give up her job as a waitress, her fiancé, and her life in Chicago to move to the barren, desolate, poverty-ridden town on the shores of Lake Superior to take care of Arbutus and live with her sister, Gladys.
At first glance, the plot sounds a lot like Elizabeth Berg’s The Year of Pleasures, but Airgood’s version of this story is better. Madeline’s grief and her decision to move to McAllaster are believable. Gladys, the sister who loved Madeline’s grandfather, is a character with definite echoes of Olive Kitteridge. She doesn’t want to be the cranky and cantankerous one, but she can’t help it.
I love this novel because it is a romance, and Madeline certainly falls in love. But the things she falls in love with are the community of McAllaster and the place itself. And Airgood does a good job conveying the ways in which neither of these are necessarily easy or uncomplicated things to fall in love with. I did not find her characters stereotyped and sugar-coated, as they sometimes can be in novels of this sort. They are real people, and as such, sometimes hard to love. As is true of all small towns, the sense of being a part of a close community can be equally comforting and claustrophobic. It’s good to feel known in a small place like McAllaster, but people can always use what they know against you. Airgood’s small town, like the real thing, is no fairy tale.
The novel also conveys how loving a place isn’t always the feel good experience it’s cracked up to be in the movies. How many movies have you ever seen that actually look like a real place? As in, they show not just the quaint neighborhoods, or the clearly ghetto neighborhoods, but also all the places in between that don’t so clearly fit into the cut-and-dry movie narrative. I remember watching SlingBlade when it came out and thinking this was the first movie I’d seen whose setting actually looked like any Southern town I’d ever seen. In a similar vein, Mystery Train is one of the few movies that actually looked like what most cities (in this case, Memphis) actually look like. Rant on the missrepresentation of places in Hollywood now over.
Anyway, if South of Superior was a movie, tt would show you the good, the bad and the ambiguous. Yes, there’s the beauty of the lake. The pristine landscapes in winter. But also there are the trailers and the houses in disrepair. A landscape littered with the signs of rural poverty, which is often true of our wild and beautiful places in the United States. I appreciate that Airgood doesn’t flinch from those vistas in describing how Madeline falls in love with McAllaster.
Yes, South of Superior hit all my most important buttons. Place, people, the idea of coming home and finding out who you are by discovering where you’re from. But it’s also incredibly well written. At no point does Airgood’s writing get in the way of her story, which I cannot say about many of the novels I’ve been trying to plod through lately. So let me here briefly celebrate the beauty, not of stunningly beautiful or lyrical prose, but just of writing that’s good enough not to jar you out of the story for a moment blinking and saying to yourself, “Jesus, that sentence sucked!” or “Did he really think that would pass for characterization?” Here’s to solid writing. Let us celebrate it wherever it appears, because this summer, it has sometimes felt few and far between. And especially in a first novel, which this is for Ellen Airgood.
I’m currently enjoying some other solid writing in Jennifer 8 Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Look for that review soon.