Synopses & Reviews
Poignant, irreverent, and hilarious: a memoir about survival and self-discovery, by an indomitable woman who never loses sight of what matters most.
It’s the summer of 2005, and Mardi Jo Link’s dream of living the simple life has unraveled into debt, heartbreak, and perpetually ragged cuticles. She and her husband of nineteen years have just called it quits, leaving her with serious cash-flow problems and a looming divorce. More broke than ever, Link makes a seemingly impossible resolution: to hang on to her century-old farmhouse in northern Michigan and continue to raise her three boys on well water and wood chopping and dirt. Armed with an unfailing sense of humor and three resolute accomplices, Link confronts blizzards and foxes, learns about Zen divorce and the best way to butcher a hog, dominates a zucchini-growing contest and wins a year’s supply of local bread, masters the art of bargain cooking, wrangles rampaging poultry, and withstands any blow to her pride in order to preserve the life she wants.
With an infectious optimism that would put Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to shame and a deep appreciation of the natural world, Link tells the story of how, over the course of one long year, she holds on to her sons, saves the farm from foreclosure, and finds her way back to a life of richness and meaning on the land she loves.
“Hilarious, wrenching and heartwarming, Link’s poignant memoir chronicles one woman’s determination to discover meaning and wholeness in the midst of brokenness. It’s almost as if Cheryl Strayed had stayed down on the farm instead of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.” BookPage
“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.” Garrison Keillor
“As a writer and mother, Mardi Jo Link is a true force of nature. This lovely, lyrical memoir of family, farm and faith is as stunningly unforgettable as a Lake Michigan sunset.” Wade Rouse, author of At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream
“In Bootstrapper, memoirist Mardi Jo Link harvests the fruitful moments from her hardscrabble experiences as a single mother and offers up a near endless bounty of vital humor and vivacious humanity. Just you wait, Dear Reader. This book will make a home inside your heart.” Jon Pineda, author of Sleep in Me
About the Author
Mardi Jo Link
is the author of When Evil Came to Good Hart
(2008) and Isadore’s Secret
(2009), winner of the Michigan Notable Book Award. She lives with her family on a small farm in northern Michigan.
Reading Group Guide
1. Evaluate the epigraphs at the start of each chapter. What relationship do they have to the major themes of the book? What do they also reveal about Link’s personality, character, education, and interests?
2. In the first chapter, Link takes her children to the Cherry Festival. She lets her son try his hand at a shooting game even though she realizes it is fixed. Why is it important that she let him do this anyway, knowing he will probably fail, and why is it a significant detail that he ends up winning? Shortly afterward, a thief snatches tickets out of her son’s hand. What realization does Link come to at the conclusion of this event and their time at the Cherry Festival? How does Link develop this idea as a motif throughout the book? Where does this concept reappear within her story?
3. Why is Link so affected by the death of her horse Major? What does his death represent for her? Does her stance on this or her interpretation of this event seem to change or evolve at all by the end of the book?
4. At the time of Major’s death, Link recalls a single line of poetry, which, she says “saves me, just, from that death blow” (40). In addition to this example and the epigraphs at the start of each chapter, literature and poetry is reference in many other places in the story. She recalls the poetry of Emily Dickinson, for example, at the time of her divorce hearing in chapter 9. With this in mind, what roles do literature and education play overall in the personal journeys and growth of Link and her sons?
5. After the death of Major, Link must sell her horse Pepper. The horse ultimately escapes from her owners and is found trapped in mud up to its chest. What meaning or symbolism does Link find in this event? What does it reveal about her own feelings and situation?
6. Evaluate the structure of the book and consider the chapter titles Link has chosen. What period of time is represented in each chapter and in the book as a whole? Why is it significant that the chapters and their titles reference the cycles of the moon, the passage of time, and the changing of the seasons? What do these items say about change as an inherent part of our human experience? What can we draw from her son’s observation in chapter 4 that Einstein believes the concept of time to be a fiction?
7. Evaluate the genre of the book and its tone. How does the tone of the book influence our reaction as readers? Is the book honest? Convincing? Exaggerated or embellished? Consider the voice of the book—is it sentimental, humorous, serious, or meditative? How does Link employ humor as a literary device? How is her memoir like or unlike other memoirs you have read?
8. Link often relates her story to a greater history. In the first chapter she compares the plight of her family to those who endured the American frontier, “even the Dust Bowl” (24). She creates a sense of multiple generations not only with her own family through her children and her parents but through the sense of history via the long ownership of the farm and history of the land over so many years. What are some of the common struggles featured in Link’s memoir? Why do you believe the documentation of these kinds of experiences in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry is important?
9. How do faith and spirituality surface as key aspects of the book? Link seems to be on a journey to discover her faith and come to an understanding of what she does and does not believe. Raised as a Lutheran, she brings her sons from church to church. She prays, consults the Book of Job, and employs Buddhist practices, mantras, and meditation. Where does she end up in this spiritual journey by the book’s end? In what does she ultimately find faith, a sense of spirituality, and consolation?
10. Is there a traditional villain (or villains) in this book? If so, who are they? What characteristics do they share? Why, for instance, is Link so unfriendly to the potential buyer in chapter 12? Besides people, what other items or concepts represented in the book become symbols of villainy?
11. Evaluate point of view in the book. Though the story is told by Link, how do her sons and other characters provide some variety in point of view? What is the effect of this? Why is it important that Link’s voice does not overrun the book? In chapter 5, for example, as she and her sons gather firewood on the side of the road, she imagines the scene as a bystander would witness it. Why is it important or relevant that she possesses this ability to see things from another perspective?
12. Link says that if there was a single mantra in her childhood, it was “accountability.” What does she mean by this? Does Link ever ask for help or assistance? Why or why not?
13. What dialogue does the book offer about common experience? Does Link, for instance, compare her plight to others, or does she believe it to be her own personal tragedy? How does she link to the thoughts and experiences of others over time throughout the book? Even to the animals found in nature? How would her experiences perhaps have been different if she were facing her problems alone and not living in a pack, as she might call it, with three sons? Alternatively, what is her reaction to her realization of the distinction between her life and that of her parents?
14. There are many symbols throughout the book, but does Link find or create meaning in what she sees around her? What does she mean in chapter 9 when she says that “you’d better just go on and grab some meaning wherever you can find it” (161)? What examples of irony are present in the book? Do these examples comment on fate or coincidence?
15. How does Link change from the start of the story to its conclusion? How do we find her in the first chapter? Why doesn’t she choose to present herself—especially at the start as readers as just meeting her—in a better light? Was this presentation of herself a good or faulty tactic? Explain.
16. Though Link’s book is a work of nonfiction, she is not unlike many characters in world literature. How does Link’s character compare to other protagonists or heroines in literature? What do they share in common? What sets her apart? Consider her role as wife, mother, farmer, woman, head of household, etc.
17. At the conclusion of the book, what is it that Link sees as her greatest victory? Do you agree?
The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Bootstrapper, a memoir by Mardi Jo Link.