With close to 9 million acres of forest framed by 1,700 miles of shoreline, it's hard to beat the vast, pristine beauty of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. For Laurel Hill and her daughter, Skye, there is nowhere they'd rather be. This mother-daughter duo are the heart of Ellen Airgood's new novel "Tin Camp Road," but the U.P. — from the glittering waters of Lake Superior to snow-covered two-tracks, unspoiled starry skies and sled-dog races — is the novel's soul.
It's a familiar story, hardworking single mom strives to do good by her child, but the unique environment, which Airgood fleshes out with convincing local characters and nods to area history, makes for a satisfying and enjoyable read. The many nods to nature would not be nearly as satisfying, however, without them being seen through the 10-year-old eyes of the precocious, curious and earnest Skye. She is a joy, and more mature than her age would imply, making risotto for dinner and pointing out flaws in her mom's idealism.
She is also extremely talented, artistically and academically. Skye's mom, Laurel, who never finished college, cleans hotel rooms, working too long to try and make ends meet, even grudgingly staying late on Skye's birthday.
Laurel and Skye live in the tiny town of Gallion, on the shore of Lake Superior, where the Hills have lived since Laurel's great-great-grandparents arrived from Finland. But like so many once-quaint towns, Gallion is changing, with more tourists and more money coming in, resulting in more locals being forced out or choosing to leave. When Laurel's landlord decides he can make more money by renting to tourists, she has to make tough choices. She ends up bouncing between jobs and dragging Skye between homes, trying to find something that will stick.
Laurel's decisions feel genuine, but she can be frustrating. She constantly questions her ability to give Skye everything she needs to fully reach her potential, but her pride prevents her from asking for or accepting all the help they so clearly need. She is well intentioned, wrestling with decisions that could benefit Skye, but incapable of focusing outside herself for more than a few pages, even turning a parent-teacher conference discussing Skye's academic gifts into an internal battle with her own insecurities.
A strong supporting cast enriches Gallion and nearby Waiska, especially Mary Lynn, the owner of the Hills' ancestral home, who tries to take Skye under her wing, and Naomi, an Ojibwe shop owner who tries to do the same for Laurel. Laurel's old friend Jenny is a bit more of a type, letting her relationship problems spill into her friendship, though she also is willing to call Laurel out.
Airgood is an ideal guide to these fictionalized U.P. towns, having lived and worked in Grand Marais (Michigan's version, not Minnesota's) for 30 years, running a local restaurant in addition to writing. If you've been to the U.P., you will recognize it in this loving portrayal; if you haven't, you will immediately want to visit.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor in Michigan.
Tin Camp Road
By: Ellen Airgood.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $27.