Mardi Jo Link’s fierce love for her three sons oozes from every page of this ode to tenacity, honesty, authenticity, and creative survival skills. Bootstrapper: from Broke to Bad Ass on a Northern Michigan Farm begins in June, 2005, when Link’s boys were aged fifteen, eleven and eight and she divorces their father because “he sleeps and smokes his way through life. Because he refuses to take any real action against his longtime perpetual melancholy.” Her husband didn’t understand her either – “Do you think it’s been easy for me” he’d shouted . . . “Waking up every goddamn morning next to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?” Yes, this “Rebecca” is inherently optimistic even when the odds are piled haphazardly like a drunken Jenga tower ready to tumble down upon her and the small farm where she and her boys live. Despite the improbability of their being able to keep it all together, Link grabs a firm hold on her new life: “I’m claiming my sons, the farm, the debt, the other debts, the horses, the dogs, and the land. I’m claiming our century-old farmhouse, the garden, the woods, the pasture, the barn, and the Quonset-hut garage. They’re all mine now, and this is how I will raise my boys: on cheerful summer days and well water and BB guns and horseback riding and dirt. Because I’m claiming our whole country life, the one I’ve been dreaming of and planning out and working for since I was a little girl.
Last night the full moon hung low and close, like a glistening teardrop on the earth’s dark eye, threatening to spill. It didn’t, though, and neither did I. A month is a bill cycle, a mortgage cycle, and may become a child-support cycle, but a month is also a moon phase and a growing phase. Our financial lives, our emotional lives, and our cosmic lives are irrevocably intertwined.
If I can follow the moon, if I can remember that both waxing and waning are only temporary, a natural cycle continually renewed and nothing to get too attached to, we’ll make it. I just have to stay solvent for thirty days at a time. And then another thirty. And another.”
Link’s financial planning won’t ever be featured on Forbes or Bloomberg and it’s soon evident that in claiming her boys, her farm and her debts that she and her boys must find creative ways to eat that don’t involve any layout of cash. They tend their vegetable garden, can and freeze food for the winter, raise a pig and several chickens, and win a year’s supply of bread by growing prize-worthy giant zucchini. Christmas day finds the four building a bonfire for an outdoor Christmas dinner of hot dogs and S’mores with a round of “Silent Night” sung on their very own land. Adversity strikes when their freezer dies as Link is in bed with the flu and they lose the rest of the winter’s food. The heating bills are so high she and the boys forage for wood and stoke their old fireplace to keep warm. Link makes some imprudent decisions and there are times when she isn’t very likable but she’s always doggedly determined and funny –yes, unceasingly funny. Life on the edge is just that, one step from disaster but Link will not let them give up.
In one of my favorite scenes, they awake to a February snow so deep it takes the four of them over five hours shoveling a scoop at a time to clear their driveway. “And for the first time in a long time, I’m proud of us. Proud enough even to balance my camera on the flat hood of the farm truck, set the automatic timer, and take a picture. Looking at the image, at my sons’ faces, I’m pretty sure that they’re proud of themselves, too. My memory of this day is dominated by smiles. . . Then Link recalls a platitude in her divorce manual: “Parents are role models for their children and need to set a good example for them. Children imitate the behaviors and attitudes of their parents.” She says to herself: If I can model hard work, that will at least be something.”
Link uses the moon’s cycles to begin each chapter of her memoir with the next phase of the moon and an epigraph to signal the arc of their lives. She takes the reader down the rabbit hole that is her tenuous hold on her land, her family, and her dreams. Her story builds as she goes from bitterness and disappointment to faith that her prayers will be answered. As the devil’s moon rises in June, 2006, Link realizes that she’s spent a year asking for things – “Please help me survive this flu. Please let us keep the Big Valley. Please.” All her prayers are answered although not all with the answers she sought and she begins ruminating on faith:
“Faith, whether it’s in Jesus, or a church, or the power of the human mind to connect, isn’t ever going to be a meaningful force in my life if it’s always one-sided. Faith, connection, spirituality – none of it means very much if it’s always with the please, please, please, but never a single thank-you.
Readers, if you take one thing from this book, it will be Link’s fierce work ethic, her absolute resolve that if she just works hard and teaches her sons to work hard, that they will succeed and they will succeed with gratitude in their hearts. How could anyone not love a mother who models that kind of intense resolve.
Summing it Up: Mardi Jo Link begins her book as a funny, somewhat bitter, acerbic woman hell-bent on keeping her boys and their rural life style. Read the book to see how her humor and unyielding grit help her find love and hope on a northern Michigan farm. Shed a tear or two and laugh out loud as you share the ride that is motherhood with this authentic woman who uses much more than just her boots to pull herself out of misery and insolvency into a life well lived.
Caveat: I consider Mardi Link a friend; we met several years ago at a writing workshop and I was immediately impressed by her honesty, her talent, her kindness, and her humor. For me, it’s pure joy to see all those qualities soar in this memoir. I have tried to be objective in my assessment of her writing as I see all the qualities I first observed in Mardi Jo Link the person revealed on every page of this stunner.
Rating: 5 stars
Category: Non fiction, Dessert, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: June 11, 2013
Author’s Website: http://mardijolink.com/
Publisher’s Website and Excerpt:
Reading Group Guide: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/210042/bootstrapper-by-mardi-jo-link#discussionquestions
Book Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpH_z5YGIKA
What Others are Saying:
“A heroic-comic saga of single motherhood, pure stubbornness, and the loyalty of three young sons. And more than that, an honest account of the working poor, the people who buy day-old bread, patronize libraries, rarely go to movies, and don't need your sympathy. Just a break now and then.”
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/books/review/homeward-bound-and-bootstrapper.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
Portable TV: http://portable.tv/culture/post/coming-back-to-the-dream-mardi-jo-links-bootstrapper/#1