Novel Takes Place 'South Of Superior'

Lake Superior is a central character in author Ellen Airgood's debut novel, South of Superior. Guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with Airgood about how a Chicago outsider's entrance into a sleepy town along the lake reveals aspects of an America long past.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Picture Lake Superior - a huge body of water, the greatest of the Great Lakes, sort of shaped like a sailfish arched over the U.S./Canadian border. It's the largest fresh water lake on the planet and it has its own weather. If you like thinking about the winter in July, Lake Superior does quite a spectacular winter.

Ellen Airgood has written a book called "South of Superior," which takes place in a fictional Michigan town called McAllister. Perhaps a little bit like the real town of Grand Marais, where Ellen Airgood works. Ms. Airgood joins us from Marquette, Michigan. Thanks for making the drive to talk to us.

ELLEN AIRGOOD: I'm delighted to have done so.

WERTHEIMER: Congratulations on this book. This is a different kind of summer reading. It takes us to a place which might almost be in another time, but it isn't. Could you explain your view of this little place?

AIRGOOD: Well, I really wanted to write about the mood of the north and I have lived and worked in Grand Marais for about 20 years. And I think it's full of characters that I'm not sure they make people like this anymore - very independent, self-reliant, full of capability. What you said was perfect. You might almost be in another time, only you're not. It's a little bit magical.

WERTHEIMER: Now, into this magical place, this little town on the Great Lake, you drop an alien from Chicago.

AIRGOOD: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: Now, she has some blood ties that she doesn't really understand. But somehow after a short time she feels very strongly attached to this place.

AIRGOOD: I think that really happens to people. It happened to me, certainly. I grew up down state in Michigan and came to Grand Marais on a camping trip and more or less never left. I thought it would be a good way to contrast the outside world with this isolated insular world. It's to bring someone from the outside to be able to see it with new eyes.

WERTHEIMER: The main character in your book, if it's not this alien, Madeline Stone, is a very crusty, cranky old lady whose name is Gladys. It seemed to me that Gladys kind of personified what you're saying about the community or maybe even about the country as it used to be.

AIRGOOD: Yeah. Gladys is a very strong character. She can be cranky, sure. But she's never petty. And she always knows where she stands. Or she tries to know. She's fair. Maybe she's hard sometimes, but she's fair.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things I loved about Gladys is that Gladys knows Madeline's history.

AIRGOOD: Yes, she does.

WERTHEIMER: And doesn't tell her.

AIRGOOD: Well, I think in a small, isolated community there's a lot of history. People are protective of each other. They're not always quickly trusting of people from the outside, although they're willing to be drawn in.

WERTHEIMER: Maybe we could just explain something of the way it's supposed to work if we ask you to read something for us. And what I picked is on page 261. The back story is that Madeline Stone, the alien from Chicago, she has taken in the child, the little boy of a kind of wild bad girl that most people in the town disapprove of, who's been in a very bad accident. And then Madeline discovers that the town has created a little fund for the boy's care and his mom's medical expenses. Could you read from that?

AIRGOOD: Certainly.

(Reading) Despite everything, Gladys had accepted them at some level. That was suddenly clear to Madeline. Personal feelings didn't enter into it, not in a crisis in that, but bipartisan way people turned out to help did amaze Madeline. More accurately, it took a hold of her and rattled something in her. There was something to understand here. McAllister was a kind of tribe. This wasn't cozy or nice. She sensed that it was an equation. That membership would exact a price. The loss of privacy, anonymity, certain freedoms she'd taken for granted in Chicago.

Maybe the loss of the right to selfishness. Everybody in this tribe didn't love each other. They disagreed and gossiped and argued. They laid traps for each other and rejoiced when the trap was sprung. They relished placing blame wherever it would stick and took pleasure in one another's mistakes. But when there was trouble there was help. That was sobering. At a time like this when she needed all the help she could get. It was something to pay attention to.

WERTHEIMER: It seemed to me that the key is that the people in the town don't much like this girl who's in the wrack. But they contributed anyway. I mean, one of your big themes is that everybody gets banged around.

AIRGOOD: Everybody does get banged around. It's not easy up here.

WERTHEIMER: But somehow they just keep going.

AIRGOOD: Yeah. Well, what else is there to do, eh?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Eh?

AIRGOOD: I've been here 20 years.

WERTHEIMER: You're entitled to your ehs.

AIRGOOD: I am. I think. I hope. And I don't know that it's that the people in the town don't like Randy. They might not approve of her, but actually, they understand her and they're willing to wait out her childishness. And maybe it will last her whole life. But they're still waiting, waiting it out.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you do give Lake Superior a big role in this piece as if maybe this huge lake with its immense indifference to human activity teaches those kinds of life lessons to the people that are around it.

AIRGOOD: To me the lake is a character. It shapes the community. It shapes the people. It shapes the personalities, the attitude towards life. And I wanted to get that across. And so if it's come across, I couldn't be happier.

WERTHEIMER: You write over and over again about how big it is.

AIRGOOD: It's big. It's impossible to imagine how big, even when you've lived on it for 20 years, it's as big as the state of South Carolina, I think I wrote early in the book.

WERTHEIMER: You talk about Madeline having a view from the attic where she lives in the latter part of the book. A big window and she looks at the lake and she's thinking that her view is 200 miles to Canada. It's just amazing, a 200-mile lake.

AIRGOOD: Yeah. I think it's one of those things like looking at the stars can be for people. It kind of can give you a very reassuring sense of how small people can be in the greater scheme of things. Some of our problems might not be as thorny as we think or as everlasting.

WERTHEIMER: I should say that there are also lots of romantic elements in this book. There are several love stories. Madeline buys and reopens an old hotel in this little town. Now, I read in your biography that you and your husband are in the business of running a diner.

AIRGOOD: Yes. We are.

WERTHEIMER: So some of this sounds kind of faintly autobiographical.

AIRGOOD: Well, I think coming to town you have to make a job for yourself. So it is autobiographical in terms that anyone of working age who wants to live there is going to have to be pretty resourceful. There is an old hotel in Grand Marais that is just absolutely so romantic you can't stand it. So having Madeline get involved in this was a little bit of a way of me satisfying to open that place and the owner very kindly gave me a tour, which was great. It looks like the day the stopped serving customers in 1940-something, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: So in your diner do you serve Finn buns?

AIRGOOD: We don't, actually. We don't. I'm the baker and I make the pizzas and the muffins and the cookies and the pies. And I make a mean pie, I got to tell you. But no Finn buns.

WERTHEIMER: Which are what? They're like hot rolls with cardamom in them.

AIRGOOD: Exactly. Sometimes I add cardamom to the cinnamon rolls.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Ellen Airgood's novel is called "South of Superior." She joined us from member station WNMU in Marquette, Michigan. Ellen Airgood, thank you very much.

AIRGOOD: Thank you so much for having me.

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