NONFICTION: Mardi Jo Link cobbles together a new life in this debut memoir set in northern Michigan.
Many memoirs about the trauma of divorce are available today, but none of them is as dynamic as Mardi Jo Link’s fittingly titled “Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm.” Link’s own account throws a wrench, or in this case a pitchfork, into the saga of the newly single mother.
In the first pages of “Bootstrapper,” Link describes herself in her recently separated state as a “drunk, soon-to-be-divorced, in-debt, swollen-eyed, single-mother farmeress” who is paralyzed by her own state of disrepair. Her future ex-husband, “Mr. Wonderful,” has moved across the street and she is left with her half-finished dream farm, three young sons and a weedy vegetable patch. After spending a sufficient mourning period in a pit of despair, she claws her way out and gets to work.
With a regular editing job, intermittent freelancing assignments and child support payments, Link barely cobbles enough together to pay the bills within 60 days. When she begins her journey, it is June, and as she looks around with a careful eye, “keeping her dobber up,” as her father has always told her, she sees the farm’s bounty in front of her and starts sowing, harvesting, canning, pickling and preserving with an eye ahead to the colder, leaner months.
Unfortunately, even her cheery “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” attitude can’t keep Link from taking two steps forward and one step back, for just as soon as she solves one insurmountable problem another arises in its place. It is her determination to claim what’s hers — “my sons, the farm, the debt, the other debt, the horses, the dog and the land” — that gets her up at 5 in the morning, that makes her consider roadkill as a possible meal, that helps her crawl out of a swine-flu-induced haze to drive her sons to the grocery store when they run out of food, sending them in with her last $65.
While “Mr. Wonderful” does have a role in her memoir, Link’s focus is mostly on her struggle to provide not only material necessities for her sons, but emotional and spiritual guidance, as well. Link’s snappy writing turns this potentially familiar story into a new kind of survivalist country song — one in which the woman quotes Emily Dickinson to herself at her divorce hearing, turns mammoth-sized zucchini into a year’s worth of bread and finds newfound love plowing her driveway on a starry winter’s night.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.