Who among us hasn’t fantasized about leaving city life behind and starting fresh in a cabin by a North Woods lake?
Mary McNear’s charmingly light “Up at Butternut Lake” gives voice to this enduring Midwestern fantasy in easy-to-swallow prose.
McNear’s likable heroine, Allie, has decamped to the rustic fishing cabin that’s been in her family for generations. She sells her home in Eden Prairie, packs up her 5-year-old son, Wyatt, and sets off to points north, haunted by the memory of her beloved Gregg, the Minnesota National Guardsman who never returned from his mission in Afghanistan.
At Pearl’s, the local cafe, Allie befriends Caroline, the cafe’s amiable owner, who has her own hidden sorrows. Allie’s childhood friend Jax has thrown off her difficult background to raise a happy family — or so it seems, at first. Frankie, the short-order cook at Pearl’s, is a towering ex-con with his own dreams of a fresh start.
McNear is wise not to rush things — there is talk of a series of “Up North” books — and Allie struggles to find her footing among her new neighbors. “Up at Butternut Lake” would hardly qualify as true escapism without the promise of a love interest, and sure enough, McNair has crafted an attractive hero. Still, Allie isn’t quite ready to put the past behind her.
It would have been simple for McNear to tie up every plot line with a neat bow, but her writing proves more complex than mere vacation fluff. Still, if you’re packing your lakeside tote and hefting the canoe to the top of your vehicle, you might want to take along “Up at Butternut Lake.” The North Woods won’t be the same without some heartfelt reading to go along with the smell of a campfire and toasting marshmallows.
Andrea Hoag is a Lawrence, Kan., book critic who spends summers in northern Minnesota.