Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm
“. . . sad, funny, and occasionally impressive.”
In her memoir Bootstrapper, Mardi Jo Link recounts her decision to end a 19-year marriage—and the precarious, adventure-filled times she shares with her three sons as a result. She survives many difficult hurdles and with those behind her, she offers a tale of grit and determination.
The story is sad, funny, and occasionally impressive. The tone is light. Each chapter opens with a selected passage from literature or poetry deftly introducing the next issue.
Determined to remain on their six acre farm, Mardi Jo soldiers on, solving the problems she created and those she did not anticipate. In the process of pursuing her dream of raising the kids in a wholesome rural environment, she did not foresee events such as a freezer breaking down and spoiling the winter’s meat. She rises to the occasion by consulting her grandmother’s “meal stretcher” recipes. To her credit, she keeps the kids fed—sometimes creatively.
You can’t help but admire the ingenuity of this four-member team, each stepping up during one crisis or another. The kids raise a prize-winning zucchini, earning a year’s worth of bread from the local baker who sponsors the competition.
Fighting a feeling of failure at not providing an adequate Christmas, Mardi Jo loses it. The kids pool their skills to harvest a Christmas tree from the pasture, anchoring it with a bright purple rope tied to the banister. Christmas dinner may have been hot dogs, but they were enjoyed around a bonfire out in the pasture.
The garden becomes a source of wholesome vegetables and consolation for Mardi Jo as reality crowds in. “The Congregationalists have the bible to refresh their faith; I have seed catalogs.”
The story sometimes leaves this reader with such questions as: “What was she thinking?”or “Wasn’t this her idea in the first place?” Money problems loom large —even though her ex-husband never misses a child support payment and her freelance journalism jobs bring in erratic funds.
One might ask whether she did any financial planning, i.e. any calculation of child support plus freelance income against expenses? At a pre-divorce planning session, she chooses to reduce the amount her ex-husband will have to pay. Yet there is continual reference to him (about whom we know nothing) as “Mr. Wonderful,” which tends to trivialize the difficulties for him and everyone else involved in this maelstrom that is her new life.
The narrator is honest—and lucky. For example, a bout of flu levels her for ten days. The kids have to fend for themselves, assuming a parental role.
She comes close to insolvency: “The four of us are just one swipe away from losing everything: the farm, the myth of divorce being survivable, the idea that I can protect my sons from everything. From anything. Our whole lives feel scored together as temporarily as . . . carnival tickets, just waiting to be torn apart.”
While the decision to divorce is hers, she is honest about her feelings of loneliness and realizes her need for help.
“The divorce is five people’s business. It has stretched beyond what I wanted or expected, out into the world around us. It isn’t happening to me, it is happening to all five of us.”. . . and
“. . . amid the anger, the disappointment, the current events, the squash bombs, the grocery bill, and the grief, we are going to have to find a way to live with it.”
Eventually, the author finds her way to fresh air, growing in the difficult process of facing one problem after another.
This memoir would have benefited from a less wordy and more subtle approach. A slow-moving opening ambles, repetitive at times. Throughout the story, Ms. Link crosses the line between humor and excess, lapsing into clichés and banalities. Approaching the conclusion, she signals a predictable ending.
Yet in reading Bootstrapper other single parents might feel solidarity in the shared experience of struggle—may even derive strength. If so, the memoir does a service for some while largely entertaining others.