TRAVERSE CITY — Mardi Jo Link lost her marriage, her horse, half her income and a season’s supply of food — all in one year.
And that’s just for starters.
Link, author of two true crime books based in northern Michigan, turned to her own life for her latest book, “Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm” (Alfred A. Knopf). The irreverent yet poignant memoir about her struggle to save her farm and her family following a 2005 divorce is set for release June 11.
“I think when I got divorced, that was already enough of an interruption in my sons’ lives that I didn’t want to add moving to that,” said Link, 51, who was determined to hold on to the farm despite emotional, physical and financial hardships. “And also having that little mini-farm was my dream and I didn’t want to give it up. I was a little naive in what it would take to keep it up.”
The six-acre farm in East Bay Township is called “The Big Valley,” after the 1960s TV western that inspired it. It boasts a century-old farmhouse, a barn and chicken coops, and a large vegetable garden with everything from asparagus to tomatoes.
At the time, farm animals included 25 chickens and two each of horses, dogs, cats and pigs.
Maintaining it all as a single woman took grit, hard work and ingenuity, said Link, who enlisted the help of sons Owen, Luke and Will and channeled Barbara Stanwyk’s “The Big Valley” character, a strong family matriarch. Setbacks included an unusually hard winter, the death of one of the horses after being struck by a car, and the loss of the family’s freezer and its contents.
“That was a particularly snowy winter and we couldn’t afford to have the driveway plowed,” recalled the author, who supported herself by editing a local children’s book and writing freelance articles. “It’s a really long driveway, about 100 yards, and the boys and I just shoveled it. I remember on snow days they wanted to sit inside and watch cartoons and I’m sending them out with shovels.
“We also grew and raised a lot of our own food and we burned a lot of wood in the fireplace. And it was not pretty wood, I might add. It was deadfall on the property.”
Still, there was as much triumph as tragedy, making for a story that is both humorous and heartwarming.
“There were some amazingly funny and wonderful moments, too,” she said, referring to the time she won a year’s supply of bread and another time when she dominated a zucchini-growing contest. “And toward the end of the year, it made me understand what I was trying to hang on to. I don’t think I understood what I was hanging on to until then. I wanted to preserve the way of life I always envisioned for my sons and myself. I wasn’t willing to let that go without a fight.”
Fellow author Garrison Keillor calls the book “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 and don’t need your sympathy. Just a break now and then.”
The memoir is a departure for Link, best known locally for her Record-Eagle column, her essays in Traverse Magazine, and for her non-fiction books about infamous Michigan murders. “Isadore’s Secret” (2009) was a Michigan Notable Book and both it and “When Evil Came to Good Hart” (2008) spent several weeks on the Heartland Bestseller List.
Horizon Books Sales Manager Amy Reynolds predicts more of the same for “Bootstrappers.” Already the book is on the Indie Next List for June.
“It’s thoroughly enjoyable, it’s a nice quick read, and she’s got a great sense of humor,” said Reynolds, who plans to feature the book at cash registers and with Michigan titles front and center of the store. “It’s going to be a big book. It’s a major publisher behind it and doing the promotion. And it’s well written. Our goal is to help her get it to the New York Times Best Sellers list.”
Link, who has since remarried, said her family’s make-or-break year helped bring them closer together.
“I gave my sons copies of the book to read. They said, ‘We remember all this happening, Mom, but to us this was all fun. We didn’t realize how dire our situation was.’ That means a lot to me because it means I did my job.
“It’s certainly a story of survival, but it’s also a story about how the bonds of love tend to usurp just about anything,” she said. “I think anyone who’s a parent can relate to that.”
Link will sign copies of the book at a Brilliant Books launch party beginning at 7 p.m. June 15 and at Horizon Books July 20. Both stores are on Front Street in downtown Traverse City.