Thursday, Aug 17, 2017
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Woman finds answers in Michigan's 'U.P.'

The first thought I had while reading South of Superior, the debut novel by Ellen Airgood, was: "Madeline Stone must be nuts."

Why else would a 35-year-old engaged woman living in Chicago decide to pack up everything, leave her job and her relationship, and move to one of the most remote towns in Michigan's Upper Peninsula? And to top it off, she makes the move to help take care of an aging woman she doesn't even know.

Seriously, I couldn't think of a reason why. That is, until I became engrossed in Madeline's quest for self-discovery.

From the opening pages of Airgood's novel, it was apparent that Madeline was looking for something. She had been raised in Chicago by a kindly woman who took her in after she was abandoned as a toddler.

But now her dear Emmy is deceased and she finds herself in a relationship with a man she's not sure she loves. And that's when she receives a letter from Gladys Hansen, the former "lady friend" of her deceased biological grandfather who she never knew because he refused to take her in when her teenaged mother abandoned her.

The letter is an invitation, perhaps even a plea, asking Madeline to come to northern Michigan to help care for Gladys' sister, who is crippled with arthritis. Gladys knows that Madeline has what it takes — she took care of Emmy for all those years — and she notes that maybe it's time for Madeline to finally see her hometown and her true beginnings.

Despite some misgivings, Madeline accepts. She rationalizes it by insisting it was to be an adventure. But the reader learns that the decision "was to maybe fix what was broken in her, if anything could, but that fact she kept to herself."

So Madeline moves to McAllaster on the southern shores of Lake Superior, where the air is brisk, everyone knows everyone, and "the effect of the stillness was primeval."

She definitely was not in Chicago anymore.

Eventually, Madeline works her way into the community: She becomes just as enraged as the locals when the grocery store owners — transplants from downstate — cut off those customers who have for years taken food on credit with the promise to pay. She takes in the young son of a teenaged mother who was seriously injured in a car crash. And she makes up her mind to finally sell her Chicago apartment and invest in a boarded-up hotel that she intends to return to its former glory.

In essence, she decides to make McAllaster her home.

But although Madeline loves the serenity, the beauty, and even the unpredictable weather, it is the Stone history — namely that of her grandfather — with which she falls most in love. And little by little, she continues to dig into her past, even discovering that she has a great-uncle who is still alive and living in a nearby home for disabled adults.

The pieces are starting to fit. But she still needs help figuring out — and more importantly, accepting — why her grandfather would say no to taking her in when she was only 3 and without a mother.

That help could only come from Gladys and for most of the book, the hard-nosed woman is unwilling, or perhaps unsure how, to open up Madeline's past.

Airgood is successful in creating an emotional novel about family and the strong ties that exist within a small, nearly isolated community. A big city transplant herself, Airgood moved to a remote town in Michigan's U.P. after a camping trip with her sister led her into a small diner where she fell in love with the diner owner who cooked her up a grilled cheese sandwich.

Today, she works long hours alongside her husband as a waitress and full-time baker at the diner.

Airgood is quick to point out that although there are notable similarities between herself and Madeline, she built Madeline's story "block by block" and did not fashion the character's romantic life after her relationship with her husband.

The town of McAllaster — although fictional — is based on reality, though. And despite what some note as the isolated and brutal conditions of the Lake Superior shores, Airgood harnesses in her story what is addicting about it.
But although Madeline's independence prompts her to move to this out-of-the-way part of the country, it is her realization that she has become a member of a "tribe" that leads her to make it home. McAllaster is a place where its people do not always get along and often they take pleasure in another's mistakes. "But when there was trouble, there was help."

And with that Madeline found what she was searching for: an understanding of her past, a place where she belonged, and eager anticipation for what would happen next.

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.

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