NONFICTION: Debut author June Melby reminisces about spending summers working at her parents’ miniature golf course in Wisconsin.
It’s hard to find a memoir these days that has been written by someone who has had a happy childhood. Most memoirs tend to focus on the “d”s in one’s life — death, divorce, disease, disaster — which often makes for a compelling, yet also “d”epressing, read.
“My Family and Other Hazards,” June Melby’s memoir of growing up working at her parents’ miniature golf course in Waupaca, Wis., bucks the trend. “It is modern and trendy not to pine for the past,” Melby writes, but my guess is that many Midwestern readers, young and old, who remember lazy summer vacations among the lakes may disagree: Nostalgia never goes out of style.
Melby was 10 when her parents bought the Tom Thumb miniature golf course, which they saw as a way to spend summers away from their home state of Iowa and make some extra money to supplement their schoolteacher incomes. Melby and her family would leave for Wisconsin the day after school ended, work all summer long and return to Iowa the night before school started in the fall.
As a young adult, Melby didn’t see the point in spending her summers repairing golf carpets, raking leaves and serving snacks to tourists. But 30 years later, as her parents prepared to retire and sell the course, Melby was forced to acknowledge just how much that time meant to her as she faced her own difficult failure as an aspiring stand-up comedian in Los Angeles.
The memoir has 18 chapters (get it?), each named after a hazard on the course, such as “The Weird Blue Pipe Thing” or “The Wishing Well.” At times, the transition between her personal storytelling and the history of summer vacations or the advent of miniature golf feels choppy. However, when Melby recounts a memory of her father caught in a summer rainstorm, or recalls a vision of her mother working tirelessly to maintain the course (an ability that the author attributes to their Viking ancestry), these narrative hiccups are easily forgiven.
Melby’s ode to Wisconsin is rich with detail: There are the Chris-Crafts on the lake, WROE on the radio and a six-pack of Old Milwaukee dangling from a customer’s hand — despite the “no beer” rule on the course.
For readers who long for the good old days, “My Family and Other Hazards” is a summer delight.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.