Just hours after finishing "Sheepish," I went online and bought one pair of wool underpants for $32, plus tax and shipping.
Crazy. No other book in my life has led to such a rash purchase. But this memoir, by a feisty sheep farmer, made me reconsider wool. Unlike cotton (which was picked by slaves, for God's sake, and is now picked by smelly machines), wool has for millenniums resulted from the devoted care of human shepherds and shearers -- who only occasionally feel like slaves to their animals.
Plus I wanted in some small way to contribute to the future of this author and to Melissa, her partner of 27 years. They call themselves Muffin and Mrs. Muffin, as in two tough muffins.
Don't misunderstand. The Muffins do not themselves produce wool underwear. In fact, Mrs. Muffin (the author, Catherine Friend) derided knitters as "fleece freaks" for years until, well, she falls into a fearful menopause, somebody compliments her sheeps' fleece (previously sold for carpeting), she sends some away to be dyed, it comes back in glorious colors and she thinks, as any tough muffin would, "I should make something of this!"
So she does. Wrist warmers. A scarf. And even a sock. Brazenly, her sweetie asks for a second sock.
This is actually a sequel to Friend's "Hit by a Farm," which described her reluctant return to the land with her lover, some 16 years ago now. She and Melissa have about 50 acres near Zumbrota, Minn., north of Rochester.
Friend writes with honesty as biting as a cold apple, and a sweet self-deprecating good humor. I wish I could have coffee with her now and again, just for a lift. "People consider sheep and wool boring," she writes, and suggests wool is an endangered fiber, especially in the United States. And yet, her 256 pages focus relentlessly and lovingly on nothing more nor less than sheep and their fleece.
She's a city girl at heart, who recoils at some of the routine indignities of shepherding (such as collecting placentas from the pasture, or plucking other birthing byproducts out of the laundry). So when Melissa is laid up ... and when lambing season suddenly strikes months early ... and when everything starts to unravel ...
This memoir is special because it isn't about the bright beginning of something but about the middle. The muddling middle. "I feel," Friend writes at one point, "like the kid at the piñata party who's been blindfolded, then spun around and around until he's too dizzy to confidently take a step forward."
I did not want to count sheep as I read this book because I did not want to sleep. It is a humble page-turner. I stayed up late into the night, and so might you, rooting for this couple and their enterprise and, by morning, you, too, might be ready for wool underpants.
- Susan Ager is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.