When I think of Michigan fiction writers, Jim Harrison is the first one to come to mind. Now I've got two more talented writers from the Wolverine State to keep up with: Ellen Airgood and Bonnie Jo Campbell. They are both Michigan residents who have written fine novels about gutsy young women.
South of Superior (Riverhead, 2011) by Ellen Airgood stole my heart. Although her mother's family was rooted in McAllestar, a small town in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.), Madeline Stone was raised in Chicago. When she was very young, Madeline's mother abandoned her and she was adopted by a kind-hearted woman who recently died of cancer. Soon Madeline packs up her life in Chicago and moves north to the U.P. She stays with two sisters (one sweet and one rather sour) well into their senior years, one of whom (the sour one, Gladys) used to live with her grandfather. She begins to meet many colorful, cantankerous, but good and generous townspeople, folks who have survived many hard times and long winters. Madeline loses her heart to a young boy whose mother is incarcerated. She works for, but then loses the trust of a man who seemingly works 24/7 trying to make a living as as a prison guard and pizza maker. Before too long, Madeline harbors dreams of renovating the rundown and quaint hotel owned by Gladys' family. She begins to paint pictures of Lake Superior as seen from the attic window of the hotel. Will Madeline make peace with the tangled bits of family history she uncovers? Will she and the town take to each other? McAllestar in winter is not for sissies. Will she make it there, and will her dreams flourish? Read it and see! I promise you it is worth it. Ellen Airgood knows the U.P. well, and it shows. She and her husband run a diner in the Lake Superior town of Grand Marias, Michigan, perfect credentials for writing this cozy yet unsentimental, homespun type of fiction.
Once Upon a River (Norton, 2011) by Bonnie Jo Campbell is not for the faint of heart, as the novel involves plenty of guns, guts and blood spill. Sixteen year-old Margo Crane emulates Annie Oakley, and becomes quite the sharpshooter herself. Usually she hunts deer and other four-legged protein sources. But if the people she loves are in danger, Margo is quick to draw a weapon. When her father dies following a real mixed-up, messed-up family feud, Margo quits school and starts living by her wits alongside the Stark River in rural Michigan. Sometimes she lives in boats, at other times she takes shelter with men of all ages. She becomes a skilled manipulator of men, not that she's always wise in the men she chooses. Readers quickly learn that Margo is bound for trouble at every turn. What kept me from finding Margo's sometimes violent odyssey unbearable was her deep connection with nature. Margo loves the silence of the woods, the rise of the river, birds in flight. Attuned to the wilderness, she manages to evolve and survive. Once Upon A River is a novel of endurance I won't easily forget.