Riverhead Books (Penguin Group)
Published: June 9, 2011
Trade Paperback, 384 pages
Reviewed by Sandra
South of Superior is a gentle, clean, non-violent novel that is at the same time poignant and heartfelt. The author has a “feel” for people that comes through loud and clear. I was impressed on many levels with this debut novel.
This is the story of 30-something Madeline who has just lost a beloved woman that had taken care of her since babyhood. Madeline receives a letter from her deceased grandfather’s “lady-friend," Gladys, asking for help to care for her aging sister, Arbutus or “Butte.” Madeline has never met either of these women, nor knew her own mother, nor her estranged grandfather. However, she decides to leave her life in Chicago, including her boyfriend, and move to McAllaster, Michigan, her birthplace. Questions began to form in my mind at this point in the novel and they were all successfully answered by the end.
Most of the people in the fictional town of McAllaster, somewhere in upper Michigan, south of Lake Superior, lead hardscrabble, old-fashioned lives. Some of them are desperately poor but at the same time helpful and kind to others. People living there have been friends for decades and know each others’ business. Madeline has to learn to fit in somehow. She meets a variety of people that she comes to respect and love, many of whom knew her great-grandmother, grandfather and mother. “You look like your great-grandmother” some of them remark. Then Madeline finds sketches done by these family members and a link is forged to her past.
I loved some of the descriptions as they reminded me so much of growing up in Northern Ontario.
“In McAllaster, the winter was like living in a painting. Starting at Christmas the snow poured down, and the wind blew, and the cold got deeper. On clear nights, she (Madeline) went out to see the stars. Often when she stepped outside she’d hear coyotes howling….their eerie, thrilling voices always made her shiver.”
I experienced a similar feeling this past March when visiting in small-town Ontario, north of Superior and not that far from Upper Michigan. In the middle of the night wolves howled and coyotes yipped, seemingly just outside the window. It was eerie and it did make me shiver. I enjoyed the author’s comment about Lake Superior: “The Lake was so deep and cold and large that it created its own weather, and made a kind of weather inside Madeline, as well. A stark, beautiful weather that was unlike anything else. Intoxicating and grounding both. Just like life.”
I laughed when a woman named Mabel gave Madeline a hat she had made. “I knitted you a “chook” - read tuque or hat. That is exactly how my mother and grandmother pronounced it. Madeline finds sepia pictures of a lumber camp in the 30’s where her great-grandmother had been. The author’s description fit in with what I had heard my Dad talk about. He lived and worked in a lumber camp around the same time. For me this novel was full of reminders from the past.
This is definitely a feel-good story as Madeline comes to grips with resentment and hurts of the past and embraces life. It’s a love story and a story of community, friendship and compassion.
Ellen Airgood runs a diner in Grand Marais, Michigan. This is her first novel.
Visit her at her website and on Facebook.