South of Superior by Ellen Airgood


South of Superior‘s a fairly straightforward rural romance novel, about finding (and making) family and small town life in rural Michigan. Well, village life really.

For non-Michiganders: yes, it’s like that pretty much everywhere in northern “mitten” Michigan and the U.P.1—the sources of employment in the area often do boil down to tourism, farming or the prison. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were communities like this throughout the country, though not with so much snow; someone in a similar community in Washington State told me “You make your money in the summer2 to get through the winter.” Under the table just about everything is the norm in communities where there’s little in the way of employment for money, and trading venison or fish for wood for maple syrup for fixing the car is how people have to manage in situations like that.

South of Superior begins with the protagonist Madeleine moving from Chicago to a minuscule town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to help care for the sister (Arbutus) of her late grandfather’s girlfriend (Gladys), after Arbutus’ return home from a hospitalization. Madeleine undergoes what can only be described as culture shock in her transition from the cosmopolitan anonymity of a large city to a village in rural Michigan, closely knit enough that friends and enemies alike are in their neighbors pockets—privacy is an alien concept—and businesses are so thin on the ground that the nearest movie theater is 100 miles away in Sault Ste. Marie. Madeleine settles in, deciding to restore and reopen the hotel Gladys ran for years, and even finding love.

The book itself is fairly slow-moving; it’s a portrait of a small town, and how people living in rural poverty scrabble to make ends meet. Even the mystery of how Madeline ended up in adoptive care is mundane—a young girl, possibly dyslexic at a time when such things meant being labeled “slow”, chafes against the restrictions of life in her town too small to have its own high school, makes a choice and later regrets it. Many of the plot points are telegraphed well in advance. I’m not quite sure I buy the basic plot point: why would a 35 year old woman with a decent job as a waitress, a comfortably well off fiance and plans for art school pull stakes and leave Chicago for Nowheresville, Michigan3 at the request of a family with whom she’s had no personal contact for thirty years? As long as you’re willing to accept that, however, it’s an interesting lightweight book, head and shoulders above mere chicklit and beach reading such that I’m interested in seeing what the author produces next.

1Upper Peninsula…take a look at a map if it’s been a while since grade school geography.
2tourism there was largely in the summer, though there’s a smattering of snow enthusiasts throughout the winter in the U.P., who come up from gentler southern climes like Chicago and Green Bay.
3with apologies to residents of the actual U.P.

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