By Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli
South of Superior
By Ellen Airgood
Riverhead Books/Penguin Group
As small towns go, McAllaster, Michigan, isnt much. Typical UP town. Its got plain people, a lot of characters, a few newbies out to change a culture in place for a few hundred years, and some who just want to fit in. This towns got elderly sisters and down-at-the-heels oldsters who live off the land. Its got struggling businesses, and people with hope, and those without hope. Everything small towns have is here in McAllaster, the centerpiece of a first novel by Ellen Airgood, who runs a diner in Grand Marais, and captures people, places, life, and small stories writ large in South of Superior.
Change is coming to McAllaster. It comes in through the Bensons who buy the grocery store and cut off credit to people whove had an arrangement with the store since they first got credit. It comes through others with pretensions, trying to do away with those eyesores out near the highway. Youve seen them: rusting truck in the yard, at least one car up on blocks, and the old sofa sagging on the porch. Change comes in through Madeline Stone, a 33-year-old wannabe painter, who leaves Chicago to avoid a marriage that didnt seem right to come to McAllaster to care for an elderly woman entwined with the family Madeline never knew.
The change in Madeline Stones life comes with a lot of angerMadelines mother abandoned her as a young child and her grandfather, Joe, alive in the UP, didnt want her though no one in McAllaster wants to talk about her past. In change comes through dreams of making a living in this small town, among these people slow to accept anything new, in this tiny place on the shores of Lake Superior.
Madeleine, a Chicago waitress with an old car that barely runs and a stack of questions for people in her family, arrives in McAllaster on a sleety night. From her first look at the town, something stirs in her: The town sat at the base of a steep hill at the edge of the water, a lovely collection of buildings she could take in all in one glance from this distance. Huddled under the sleet that had been falling for hours, it looked stark and desolate. And beautiful.
Its the beautiful part that grabs her first. And then Arbutus and Gladys, elderly sisters caught in a trap of no money to help themselves until they decide to let loose of things holding them to a past slowly strangling them. There is Mary, a very old woman who lives in a couple of clabbered together sheds, and Emil, the town alcoholic and hunter and firewood provider. In the way of human beings, everybodys got a story that entwines with other stories until the end, or at least change, comes about.
This is Ellen Airgoods first novel and what an accomplishment it is. Much like her autobiography, she faces the lives of her characters straight on. Airgood says her philosophy about life and people is that life is a big, hard, wonderful mess -- an amazing ride: that were meant to savor at every turn.
Airgood tells about visiting Grand Marais with her sister when she was 25 years old and falling in love with the owner of the local diner. That was it. She moved north and has waitressed for the last 20 years in her now husbands diner. My husband Rick and I run the diner together . . . Most of what I know about maturity and compassion, not to mention story, Ive learned from waiting tables. We work 80 to 100 hours a week almost year round. Weve been faced with a constant barrage of setbacks and frustrations and equipment failures.
Yet she found time to write.
TWIST OF FATE
On writing this novel, she says, I didnt get an MFA or study writing in school. I could have learned about life anywhere, but fate brought me here, to the end of the earth and a tiny town that time forgot.
Her ear for the northern voice is perfect; her humanitylooking at people caught in time and placerefreshing. This is a fine Michigan novelist at the beginning of her career. The waitressing, learning lifes lessons every day, will keep her voice authentic and individual. Shes a writer much like Ann Tyler, with a kind of Hardyesque knowledge of place. Airgood pulls off what could be dull stuffsmall town secrets and battles; a bunch of old timers; forgiveness of the worst sinners among themand makes it all into a story impossible to put down. Even after finishing the book, the characters haunted me as if theyd taken on separate lives in my head where I keep Tess of the DUrbervilles, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, and just about all of Ann Tylers people.
The stories reveal lost loves and found loves and new loves at every age. Its a story of digging to find out who you really are and where you belong and of forgiving just about everybodyeventually. It is truly a Michigan story. Madeleine eventually takes on the old hotel in town, sinks all shes got into it, and ends with a lot of hope, very little money, but a circle of family and friends she would never have found anywhere else.
South of Superior is the kind of book you want to curl up with and sink into. It unravels slowlycharacter by character, event by event. Nothing in here is earth shaking or deeply revealing. This is about real peopleindividuals, who find their worth in what they believe, how they take on the world.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzellis fourth novel in the Emily Kincaid mystery series, Dead Dogs and Englishmen, comes out from Midnight Ink Books in July. Shes inviting everyone to come celebrate the launch of the new book on Friday, July 22, 6:30 pm, Brilliant Books in Suttons Bay.