"I haven't a choice. I've been nickel-and-diming my way along for months now, and it isn't working. The summer taxes will be due in September. More money I haven't got. I only just got the winter taxes paid, and then they were late. And history?" She swept a pile of paper scraps into the garbage can that sat at her feet. "History doesn't pay the bills. History won't feed us or keep us warm. It's just something that's over and done with."
When Madeline Stone is requested by her late grandfather's girlfriend, Gladys, to move in with them to look after Gladys' sister, Arbutus, she decides to take up the offer. Feeling disillusioned with her current life in Chicago and no longer feeling any love for her fiance, she welcomes the change brought on by moving to a town near the coast of Lake Superior in Michigan, even though her grandfather had abandoned her as a child. In her new life, she relishes looking after Arbutus but strangely Gladys is occasionally very hostile with her. She yearns to learn more about her family, which has its origins in that town, but Gladys isn't yet ready to get intimate with Madeline. Over time, she begins to connect with other residents and begins to transform from being a big city girl to a small town one.
South of Superior was a delightful summery read about people and their relationships in a small town that was as much a primary character of this book as the people were. There is a whole potpourri of characters that lend plenty of vibrancy to this novel as Madeline tries to connect with the town at a deeper level. The two sisters - Gladys and Arbutus - are octogenarians, who find that in spite of their old age, bureaucracy can be very rude - declining their loan applications or demanding on-time payments on all bills. Another principal character, limping Paul Garceau, keeps two jobs so that he can pay the tons of bills that he gets every day. His handicap is a matter of unresolved internal crisis that still plagues him many years later. In addition, there are several minor characters who know each other very well in this small town. Most of the story is told from Madeline's perspective; occasionally Gladys, Paul, and a few minor characters weave in their narrations as well. While I found this gave a holistic view of the characters, their feelings and murky situations, I found it jarring occasionally, since there didn't appear to be much of a system in the narration shift.
I found Madeline Stone much of a mystery initially. She appeared to me to be a character who was being fleshed out as I turned page after page, rather than having a strong persona from the very start. Not that it's a bad thing, since it made me curious to know whether she'll turn out to be likable. But that just made me take a long time to appreciate her either way. Eventually, I began to identify with her completely. Her desire to help the sisters and her indignation on behalf of those having troubles was so easy to relate to. Gladys, on the other hand, sounded wonderful on page one when she asks for Madeline's help, and after that, it was as if a different person took up residence in her body. I found her very unreasonable, as she appeared very disapproving of Madeline most of the time. Even in spite of her old age and set mannerisms, she didn't have much consideration for Madeline and her willingness to work hard.
South of Superior is a breezy fast read. I was occasionally surprised to see that I had read quite a lot in a short while. For a 350+ page book, that's always a plus. I did have some trouble getting into this book initially. The writing wasn't magical and that was what mostly turned me off. There were quite a few repetitions and sometimes too many phrases stitched together into a sentence. It took me about a 100 pages to actually want to read more of it.
While the book is primarily about relationships, it is also about the many problems the residents of a small rustic town face, in light of zoning and urbanization plans. Several things happen that disrupt their lives - the new owners of a grocery store cut their regular customers off their credit because of outstanding bills, the council's plans to modernize the town mean having to relocate some of those who have been living on their own properties for decades. It also shows how money, or the lack of it, is usually at the crux of many problems, contrary to what the optimists' say that "money isn't everything". Coincidentally, many of the characters run into monetary troubles quite so suddenly. There is every hint that the problems have been around for a while and they just accelerated due to certain circumstances, but I did found it very shaky. Still, I liked how the author covered this aspect.
Overall, this was a quick delightful read about life in a small town. It is also about finding and accepting your roots - however embarrassed or disappointed you are of it. This element was touched many times through several characters - how you should not be held ransom to your past. It is also about not clinging to the past just because it happened. Someday you wake up in a situation that demands a different action. I found this a very interesting thought because I, like many others, tend to be very sentimental about the past and sometimes hesitate to "move on". Even though this book didn't quite impress me much, I loved the topics that were explored in it and am glad that I didn't give up on it.