There might be something rural or at least Midwestern in my reaction to memoirs. I enjoy reading them, but unless they are leavened by a self-deprecating wit I get bored very quickly. If the authors can’t laugh at themselves, just a time or two, I find myself wondering about their humanity. Mardi Jo Link’s Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm is exactly the kind of memoir that keeps me coming back.
As difficult as Link’s situation is–single mother of three boys trying to keep her family together and her farmhouse just outside Traverse City functioning with no money and only a small circle of support–it is not unique. Other people have suffered more; other women have shown equal amounts of grit in the face of what appears to be an unrelentingly bleak future. But fewer show Link’s ability to experience the joy in the despair, the laughter that is never too far from the tears. Fewer yet have her ability to write it all with a lively and direct prose that never gets in the way of the story.
Readers who might know Link’s earlier true crime books published by U-M Press (When Evil Came to Good Hart and Isadore’s Secret) will be surprised to find that the author of those somber and deeply researched books actually has a wild sense of humor. When she can’t pay her gas bills and realizes that she can heat her place with wood, she packs her boys in the minivan–not yet given to her ex (“Mr. Wonderful”) in the divorce settlement–and drives the back roads looking for wood to pilfer. “I am the kind of woman who is not above using juvenile tactics in adult conflicts,” she writes. “Nor am I above driving around our township in search of firewood that has fallen off someone else’s truck. And having my children get out of the minivan to retrieve it. That’s right, I will stoop that low. I am a stooper.” The situation is desperate, certainly, and it is easy to see the sadness in it. Yet Link’s tone is plucky, outrageous, and, most importantly, funny!
The little gems of understanding always seem to come with that smile. As the grocery budget begins to run out long before it should, Link and her sons start to think of new ways of eating. Roadkill, for instance, seems a distinct possibility. When they hit a wild turkey, they look for the carcass. They can win the prize of a year’s supply of bread with the giant zucchini that grows almost unbidden from old horse manure. Link says she was “the tree-hugging, agnostic nature lover” but has been transformed: “Now I look at nature in a brand-new way–as something to eat.” It’s the smile behind those grains of understanding that keeps Bootstrapper grounded in a space safe from the dullness of platitude. And that sense of humor makes it so much easier to celebrate her success.
Link reads at Nicola’s Books on June 17.