Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm, Mardi Jo Link’s new memoir, begins with a beer-soaked bang: in this case, the bang of a wedding album landing on top of a bonfire. (It should be noted that when a woman gets drunk at 10 in the morning, builds an impromptu bonfire in her front yard and starts chucking the flotsam and jetsam of her near 20-year marriage into the blaze, she should never underestimate the satisfying hiss of burning wedding photos.) Between pitches into the fire and pulls of Miller High Life, Link gazes with binoculars across the road to the house where her ex-husband, the father of her three sons, has recently moved. Apparently in rural Michigan, housing options are limited.
Perhaps Link’s rage is so combustible because her former life was so blissful. Before her separation, Link lived with her husband and three young boys on a farm called the Big Valley, a bucolic six-acre spread in Northern Michigan complete with dogs, a garden full of vegetables, a barn full of horses and plenty of room to roam. But once her husband moves out, financial woes move in. With four mouths to feed, six acres to tend and an income from freelance writing that’s dried to a trickle, most women would opt to sell the farm, pack up the kids and trade greener pastures for a split-level ranch in suburbia and solid financial footing.
Not Mardi Jo Link. Like Scarlett O’Hara grasping that grubby carrot on the hillside of Tara, Link vows to never let her family go hungry again and claims the Big Valley as her own. “Selling Big Valley wasn’t an option for me,” Link says. “I felt like the end of the marriage was my failure. And I couldn’t face a second failure of that magnitude—the prospect of packing up our things.”
“Keep your dobbers up!” encourages Link’s father on a Christmas visit. And, aside from the raging bonfire scene on page one, Mardi Jo Link does just that—with a little help from one Zen divorce book, the love (and strong backs) of three devoted sons and a potent cocktail of ingenuity and humor.
So what do you do when you’ve got a big farm and almost no money? For starters, Link enters two of her enormous mutant zucchinis in a local baker’s contest and wins free bread for a year. When her freezer goes out and all the meat spoils, she turns to the “meat stretcher” section of her Granny’s cookbook and considers the benefits of “Emergency Steak,” a batter of meat, egg and breadcrumbs molded in the shape of a T-bone. For Christmas dinner, she and her boys build a fire in the woods, roast hotdogs, eat s’mores and help Link’s youngest, eight year-old Will, watch the sky for Santa Claus.
Most importantly, when the chores pile up and the money winds down, Link and her boys work—and they work hard. When the heat runs out, the family piles in the minivan and goes “Watching for Wood,” competing to find and retrieve stray firewood. When a winter storm unloads 3,000 cubic feet of snow on their driveway, Link and her boys suit up and grab their shovels. (“Don’t try to shovel it all at once. Take it in small scoops,” Link tells her sons. Later she writes, “That is the way we accomplish everything: in small scoops.”)
This is a book about a mother’s fierce love and the sustaining fabric of family; yet, just beneath is a powerful subtext about the value of work. Indeed, for Link, the two are inextricably connected. “This is my advice to parents: Make your kids work,” Link says. “Make them participate. Make them contribute. Not for money, but for a sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride.”
Despite Link’s personal upheaval, she is a refreshingly grounded individual, a trait she attributes to her Midwestern roots. “Michigan is very much part of who I am,” she says. “There’s a solidness in the Midwest that I don’t find in so much of the other country. There’s a plainness—or it may look plain to other people—but to me it feels solid.”
Link’s style of writing echoes her style of living—direct, funny, void of self-pity and exceedingly humane. The book’s most entertaining moments may be when Link and sons are able to turn their proverbial lemons into lemonade, but the most moving moments are the quiet, solitary ones—of Link stroking the mane of her dying horse, of the boys trudging through snow to visit their dad in his new house, of the mother’s gritted teeth when she asks the school secretary for the Free Lunch Application.
Now, eight years later, Link still lives in the Big Valley, though her life is drastically different from the year when she thought she might lose everything. “During that whole year, I had this sense of ‘If only,’” she recalls. “If only I could pay my bills on time. If only we had food in the fridge. Now I have all of those ‘If only’s.’
“Every piece of every bit of every corner of that house, we earned,” she says. “And that feels good.” It might be reason enough to build a bonfire, crack open a Miller High Life and celebrate.
Kirk Reed Forrester is a freelance writer based in Houston. Unlike Mardi Jo Link, she has only a tiny patch of yard, which she is now affectionately calling ‘the Small Valley.'