My family has vacationed in Grand Marais in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for over forty years–since before I was born. Its streets, shops, and shoreline are warm and familiar sights associated with days on the beach with my cousins and afternoons and evenings around the fire with my aunts and uncles. All of this made reading South of Superior like a trip back to Grand Marais without the hours and hours in the car. Airgood’s description of her protagonist, Madeline, coming into McAllaster, reaching the crest of the hill and looking out onto Lake Superior, was something I could already see in my mind’s eye. What the novel offered, in addition to a “green” trip back to the Upper Peninsula, was a look into the doors and hearts of the natives. Madeline was born in McAllaster, but raised in Chicago by the woman who found her abandoned by her too-young mother in a soup kitchen. She returns to McAllaster after her adoptive mother’s death to help care for the sister, Arbutus, of her grandfather’s friend and lover, Gladys. The sisters are full of the spirit of the north, having hailed from a Finnish-American family and spent all of their lives braving the harsh winters and deprivation of life in that country. Madeline comes to McAllaster with a chip on her shoulder as she struggles to understand why her grandfather did not take her in, at a mere three years old, when her mother abandoned her. Bit by bit Airgood reveals the story of Madelaine’s family, the Stones, and pulls her into the family of Gladys and Arbutus and the larger family that makes up McAllaster.
Airgood’s characters are well-developed, beautifully flawed, and loveable. I kept wondering if I would have enjoyed the book as much if it weren’t set in a town that is like Grand Marais in so many ways, and I can say I would have. My experience of the story would have been different, but once Airgood hooks you with her characters, the actual setting is almost irrelevant. These same characters could have been in northern Minnesota and I’d have loved them the same.
That being said, I’m thankful that Airgood set this story in “McAllaster.” The Upper Peninsula is full of stories begging to be told. I look forward to her telling some more.