Superior Reads


Set in the coastal town of Danvers, Massachusetts, where the accusations began that led to the 1692 Salem witch trials, We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry follows the losing 1989 Danvers High School Women’s Varsity Field Hockey Team on their spectacular rise to the state tournament. With a little help from spiritual forces, the team begins winning their games. So how does a team of losers find themselves scoring their way to the state tournament? They make a pact with the dark side.

“Our secret? Over the course of the week, alone and in pairs, each of us made the grim pilgrimage to Mel’s second floor dorm room and signed our names in her battered notebook . . . And with every new signature, Mel would cut another thin blue strip off one of her old stretched-out athletic socks and tie it around our arm just above the muscle where we could keep it hidden under our shirtsleeves, the sock a secret sign of our allegiance to what Heather Houston simply called an alternative god . . . we didn’t even have to believe.”

What could possibly go wrong?

We Ride Upon Sticks is packed full of 80’s pop culture – from big hair to sugary breakfast cereals to blockbuster movies. The humor, the historical references, the creative plot, the empowerment of teenage girls, the push back against traditional gender roles . . . these things worked for me. Quan Barry is hilarious; her comedic timing is spot on. Her cultural references are the fun ones – the Kool Aid- dyed hair and shellacked bangs that defied gravity. One of the mothers sports shoulder pads “bigger than anything the New England Patriots’ offensive line ever wore.”

What didn’t work for me was that the 80’s weren’t that great if you were adulting. And I was adulting big time. Remember scrunchies and permed hair and shoulder pads and power suits? Remember the rise of the consumer culture? Remember yuppies? Remember Reagonomics and the recession? Remember the New Right and the emergence of trickle down economics? Remember the Iran-Contra affair? Yep. I remember. So I’m sorry that I couldn’t get back into the 80’s.

But, in comparison, it was a simpler time. Barry reminds us in this description as the team arrives at prom: “That night as we the Class of 1990 filed in with our dates, the DJ was playing an assortment of instrumental songs, stuff like “Axel’s Theme” from Beverly Hills Cop 2 and the themes to Chariots of Fire and Miami Vice. At the door . . . there were no pat downs to get in, no metal detectors, no searching people’s bags, no breathalyzers.” Remember the olden days?

Maybe you have fond memories of the 80’s. Maybe you were in high school then and what you remember is watching MTV and wearing Air Jordans and parachute pants. Maybe you remember playing Atari and Rubik’s Cube, or if you were younger, a Teddy Ruxpin or a Cabbage Patch Doll. Then We Ride Upon Sticks may be for you. I’d recommend this book for . . . you.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.


In the opening scene of Jane Harper’s, The Lost Man, two brothers stand at the grave sight of an old stockman where they have found the body of their brother, Cameron. Brothers Nathan, Cameron, and Bub Bright grew up on this remote land in the Australian outback; so flat “it seemed possible to detect the curvature of the earth.” The Bright brothers know that the terrain is rough and the sun unforgiving and that any man who dares to leave his vehicle without food and water might as well dig his own grave. What drove Cameron to leave his car nine kilometers away and walk to the stockman’s grave without the provisions he’d packed into his car that morning?

Harper describes the grave of the stockman, the stone worn so that only a one and eight and a barely legible nine could be read – 1890 something – but three words were still visible: who went stray.

“Months, up to a year, even, could slip away without a single visitor passing by, let alone stopping to read the faded inscription or squint west into the afternoon sun. Even the cattle didn’t linger. The ground was typically sandy and sparse for eleven months of the year and hidden under murky floodwater for the rest.”

Cameron was the golden boy of the Bright family, the middle son who took over the homestead after his father’s death. His mother, Liz lives with Cameron and his wife, Ilse, and their two young daughters. Nathan, the oldest, is the black sheep of the family. The three brothers own land adjacent to each other, Cameron’s being the largest swath.

Like a pack of dingoes, secrets circle Cameron’s death – an abusive childhood, a long-ago tryst that may or may not have been consensual, and Cameron’s own strange behavior in the weeks leading up to his death. The police think Cameron took his own life and find no justification for further investigation. His mother Liz is devastated. His wife Ilse is overwhelmed. Even Cameron’s daughters, Sophie and Lo seem to be hiding something. Fingers point in all directions. Nathan has his own troubles. After an ugly divorce, the town has turned against him, and he’s struggling to stay connected to his son, Xander.

Jane Harper’s secret power is character development – Nathan, Cameron, Bub, Liz and Ilse are complicated people with enigmatic pasts. The Australian outback, in all its harsh beauty, is the perfect backdrop for this family drama; I was transported there, both physically and emotionally, bereft and desolate and nearly uninhabitable. Though it’s slow to unfold, the novel comes to a surprising yet satisfying conclusion.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on the fourth Thursday of each month at 7:00 pm on WTIP, Superior Reads, 90.7 Grand Marais or on the web at

Alice Paul reshaped the suffrage landscape, changing the course of the American suffrage campaign and subsequent efforts to secure women’s rights. She was the soul and guiding spirit of the final years of the American suffrage movement. Alice Paul, Claiming Power, by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia Fry documents Alice Paul’s legacy as the President of the National Woman’s Party.

Not content to sit idly by and wait for a state-by-state ratification, Alice Paul believed that by holding Woodrow Wilson and his Democratic Party – the party in power – accountable, a constitutional amendment was attainable. Using the tactics of civil disobedience she learned from the controversial and radical Pankhurst sisters, with whom she’d spent time in England, Alice returned to the United States and initially worked with Carrie Chapman Catt under the auspices of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, but frustrated by the organizations demure and polite approach, she formed the National Woman’s Party with Lucy Burns, a colleague who had also experienced the militant defiance of the Pankhursts in their fight to win the vote for women in England.

In March of 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns staged a parade of over 5000 women who marched in a parade preceding the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, sending a clear message to Wilson throughout his presidency, that the NWP would hold the party in power accountable for denying women the right to vote. In 1918, after a remarkable campaign to boycott the Democratic party, the Republican party won control of the house.

Ultimately, under Alice Paul’s direction, the National Woman’s Party used protests and hunger strikes to sway public opinion. They ratcheted up the pressure as the United States entered World War I, arguing that it was hypocritical to defend equal rights abroad when women, who comprised half of the population of the United States, were denied equal rights. They staged daily protests outside of the White House with their self-proclaimed Silent Sentinels carrying banners that read, “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty” and “Mr. President, You say Liberty is the Fundamental Demand of the Human Spirit,” oftentimes being attacked by men who stormed their picket lines, tearing their banners from their hands and ripping them to shreds.

On Bastille Day in 1917, police arrested sixteen sentinels, including six executive committee members of the National Woman’s Party. As the protests continued, more suffragists were arrested and jailed; by September, 23 suffragists were imprisoned. The imprisonment of Alice Paul in late 1917 increased pressure on Wilson exponentially. Following repeated protests, Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months in jail. I am being imprisoned, she told the press, because I pointed out to President Wilson the fact that he is obstructing the progress of democracy and justice at home, while Americans fight for it abroad. The imprisoned suffragists staged hunger strikes and were force fed, and ultimately Alice Paul was subjected to an evaluation of her sanity and isolated in the psychiatric ward – completely unwarranted but to force her to give up her fight. Public opinion began to sway. Woodrow Wilson felt the pressure to recommend a constitutional amendment. Finally, on January 9, 1918, Wilson told visiting Democratic congressmen that the Anthony amendment was “an act of right and justice.” The suffrage amendment passed the House with exactly the two-thirds majority required.

I highly recommend Alice Paul, Claiming Power. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of woman’s suffrage and what better way to celebrate than to learn about the woman who committed her life to the cause. Alice Paul, Claiming Power is a riveting account of Alice Paul’s life and the National Woman’s Party fight to secure the vote for women.

Join Joan Drury in a book discussion at Grand Marais Public Library soon (watch for notices for the event which has been rescheduled considering the current crisis) and listen to my interview with author J.D. Zahniser on May 28 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais and at

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.




In Walking the Old Road, A People’s History of Chippewa City and the Grand Marais Anishinaabe, author Staci Lola Drouillard tells the stories of a community of 200 Anishinaabe families at the turn of the century. Beginning in 1987, Drouillard had the prescience to begin interviewing Chippewa City elders preserving for future generations what would have certainly been a lost history. Through these first-person accounts, Drouillard evokes the place, the people, and the way of life that formed the spirit of our community.

The importance of first-person narratives, is beautifully articulated early in the book:

“Words are the bones of our stories, and they are alive and carry weight. That is why the historical works of William Warren, Anton Treuer, and other Ojibwe historians are so important . . . Without their story, the historical record is crushed under the weight of one man’s voice, and history becomes tilted and out of balance, like a canoe with all the packs loaded to one side.”

The Anishinaabe traditions of hunting, fishing, and trapping, of a life governed by the seasons, became increasingly threatened by European settlers, government land allotment, and family relocation. Everything the Ojibwe needed for survival had been provided for by the land and water, until they were cut off from it.

“The final loss of land at Chippewa City happened in various ways.” She writes, “In some cases the State took the land through eminent domain to build a highway. In other cases, the county asked citizens to pay property taxes they could not pay.”

Some moved to Grand Portage, others left to serve in World War 1, and some relocated to other communities. “Early on, dividing the people in order to gain control of land and resources was used as a tool to conquer not only the land, but also the spirit of the people living on the land.”

One of my favorite passages in Walking the Old Road concerns Drouillard’s great-great grandmother Elizabeth’s lilac bush, which bloomed generation after generation near the credit union in town:

“ . . . we, just like the lilacs, draw strength from the earth beneath us. Stored in our roots, we are nourished by the memory of the people who came before us. Who, like the hearty perennials of early summer, are not afraid to show the world who we are. And most importantly, that we are still here.”

What a gift Staci Douillard has given our community. I recommend Walking the Old Road for anyone who loves, lives, or visits the North Shore of Lake Superior, as well as those interested in Native American history.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.




Until she was seventeen years old, Hyeonseo Lee believed that North Korea was the greatest country in the world, but during the famine of 1997 her eyes were opened wide. The Girl with Seven Names recounts her escape. Growing up in a privileged family insulated Hyeonseo from the inhumane treatment that many North Korean’s endured. In comparison, Hyeonseo and her family had nice clothing, a home near the Chinese border, and plenty of food to eat due in part to her father’s military career and also to her mother’s savvy in the black market. Still, she lived in North Korea, where she witnessed her first public execution at the age of seven and where every Friday the children were made to report on their own or a classmate’s indiscretion – a game of tattletale with dire consequences.

When her father left the military to work for a trading company, the family’s fortune began to change. Hyenseo’s family moved to a home across the Yalu River from China, a move conducive to her father’s new career since he must cross over into China for business, and also for her mother who continues her black market trading. One day, her father did not return from work. Three days later they learned that he had been arrested by the secret police. Investigations were made into his business conduct. He was accused of bribery. Two weeks later, the family was informed that he was in the hospital. He’d been interrogated repeatedly, sleep deprived, and beaten. He was in the hospital six weeks when he committed suicide, a taboo so grave in North Korea, that the children would be reclassified as hostile in the songbun (caste) system and denied university entrance and the opportunity for a good job. Hyeonseo mother was jolted out of her grief and rushed to the hospital where she bribed hospital authorities into agreeing to change the cause of death to heart attack. For a time, it would seem that Hyeonseo and her brother’s futures were secure.

By age seventeen, Hyeonseo began to question the indoctrination she’d grown up with — if North Korea was superior to all other nations, why was it that the Chinese across the river had lights and the children and mothers she saw playing on the shore of the river moved about with relative freedom? Out of curiosity, she decided to cross the border one night, planning to return by morning. It would be twelve years before she would see her mother or brother again.

Hyeonseo moved from China to South Korea, and eventually to America, changing her name each time she assumed a new identity. She was arrested, kidnapped, attacked, and conned, but somehow she survived to bring her mother and brother out of North Korea. There were barriers to overcome everywhere – Hyenseo’s mother and brother were detained in Laos for illegal entry on their way to South Korea and held in jail. She was told that it would take five to six months to clear her family through the South Korean embassy. The Superintendent of the prison told her that she must pay a $5000 fine, but eventually she worked him down to $1400. Still, she was out of money. Miraculously, she met a benevolent Australian, Dick Stolp, who offered to help.

“Why are you helping me?” Hyeonseo asks. “I’m not helping you . . . I’m helping the North Korean people.” He had been moved by the stories of other North Koreans.

“What Dick had done changed my life. He showed me that there was another world where strangers helped strangers for no other reason than that it is good to do so, and where callousness was unusual, not he norm . . . from the day I met him the world was a less cynical place. I started feeling warmth for other people.”

Hyeonseo Lee’s escape from North Korea was harrowing, but with great courage and ingenuity, she was able to assist her family’s escape as well. The best memoirs shine a light on a life that becomes a beacon for others. Hyeonseo’s determination in the face of great adversity is both heartbreaking and inspiring and it made me appreciative of the freedom that I enjoy.

I recommend The Girl with Seven Names for fans of Pachinko and Nothing to Envy. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Listen to my author interviews and read all of my reviews at and on Superior Reads on and 90.7 Grand Marais.

In 2015, Sarah Stonich published Fishing with RayAnne under the pseudonym Ava Finch. Lucky for us it’s being made into a trilogy with the first installment being reissued this month by University of Minnesota Press as Fishing! by Sarah Stonich.

Hot off the pro-fishing circuit, thirty-something RayAnne is serving as a consultant for the first all-women talk show about fishing on public television, hailed as Oprah in a boat. When the series needs a new host, RayAnne is hired on a temporary basis. RayAnne and her colorful production assistant, Cassi, prefer to schedule real women with inspiring stories on the show, while the sponsors prefer celebrity guests. They’ve hosted conjoined twins, the owner of a custom bra shop called Valkyries, and a former marine mammal trainer putting her skills to work as a relationship coach. “Which is easier to train, a difficult partner, or a dolphin?” RayAnne asks. “A dolphin, of course.”

RayAnne’s new job is a source of anxiety – will they find a permanent host? – but the sudden appearance of her father Big Rick, the fallen star of the one-season Big Rick’s Bass Bonanza, currently on hiatus from his sixth marriage and on a bender, is a greater source of angst. RayAnne’s coping strategies have been well-tested, after her parent’s divorce, she and her brother Ky were largely raised by their wise and big-hearted Gran, Dot, while her mother reeled off-camera and began a career as a new-age coach for menopausal women.

Sarah Stonich is at the height of her powers, having fine-tuned her comedic voice with Vacationland and Laurentian Divide. Fishing! is laugh-out-loud funny, but don’t be mistaken – Stonich will take you into the deep. Her understanding of the complexity of family, dysfunctional relationships, and difficult people make Fishing! more than a feel-good read. The best part – we can expect book #2 in the series in the near future.

I recommend Fishing! for fans of Lorna Landvik, Fannie Flagg, and Ann Tyler. Listen to my interview with Sarah on Superior Reads on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais on March 26 at 7:00 pm and on the web at and


Reading Progress

Ann Patchett’s eighth novel, The Dutch House, is the story of brother and sister Danny and Maeve Conroy who are disinherited after their father’s untimely death. Like many of Patchett’s novels, The Dutch House explores family – not of the nuclear sort, but the family we create when things go awry.

The story is told from the point of view of Danny, eight years younger than his sister Maeve and traverses their early childhood up through middle age. Their father, Cyril, a real estate investor, purchases The Dutch House completely furnished by the previous owners as a gift for their mother. Overwhelmed by the mansion, which was owned by a Dutch couple who made their fortune in cigarettes, their mother abandons the family to serve the poor in India. The house is as much a character in the novel as Danny and Maeve. There is a ballroom on the top floor, entire walls of glass, ornate ceilings, six bedrooms, a swimming pool, and portraits of the original owners in gilded frames. Cyril hires two sisters, Sandy and Jocelyn, to cook and clean and assist with childcare. A few years after their mother’s abandonment, Cyril remarries Andrea, a much younger woman who moves in with her two young daughters, Norma and Bright. Andrea adores the house; she cares much less for Danny and Maeve whom she kicks out as soon as Cyril’s body is laid in his grave.

The siblings form a unique bond; Maeve filling the role of mother to her younger brother Danny. When they are evicted, Maeve is in college and working as a bookkeeper for a frozen vegetable company. Cyril assumed that his new wife would treat his children fairly, and has no will, but before his death he established a trust for the future education of Danny and Andrea’s two girls. Maeve is determined to oversee Danny’s education and encourages him to completely drain the trust so that there will be nothing left for Norma and Bright. Danny goes to boarding school at Choate and eventually on to medical school – though he has no intention of practicing medicine; his hearts desire is to become a real estate mogul like his father.

When Danny comes home on school breaks, the siblings establish a ritual of sitting in front of The Dutch House in Maeve’s car. Danny doesn’t understand why Maeve is so bound to the house, but he indulges her. “The house was the hero of every story,” Danny writes. For Maeve, The Dutch House is the embodiment of all her memories of her mother. Danny will do anything for Maeve; their relationship to each other is primary – no friends or lovers can supersede it. Patchett tends these relationships with a deft hand, never falling into treacle, but endearing the siblings to each other and to her readers.

The Dutch House is a glorious read, as grand as its namesake and as luminous as the rest of Patchett’s oeuvre. I recommend The Dutch House for fans of The Big House by George Howe Colt, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and Patchett’s own Commonwealth.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my reviews and author interviews on

Peter Geye is back with the third installment of the Eide family story, Northernmost. Like the first in the series, Lighthouse Road, Northernmost alternates between two generations. In 1897, Odd Einar Eide returns home from a harrowing near-death seal hunting expedition in the Arctic to his own funeral. He’s been missing and presumed dead. His wife, Inger, has gone to work in the home of a wealthy benefactor in order to survive. Their precarious financial situation has become nearly untenable in his absence and it will take time to rebuild his fishing business and his relationship with his wife which has become strained since their only daughter, Thea, sailed to America two years prior. Odd and Inger have heard nothing from Thea and are uncertain about her fate.

In alternating chapters, Geye tells the 2017 story of Greta Nansen, who has finally given up on her marriage. She leaves her two children with her father to travel to Oslo where her husband is working to end the marriage, but on an impulse travels to Hammerfest instead, the town of her ancestors. Once there, she meets and falls in love with Stig Hjalmarson, a musician, who introduces her to an old text, the story of Odd Einar and his Arctic expedition.

Northernmost is an expedition of heart and soul across continents and generations. With crystalline prose, Peter Geye chronicles Odd Einar’s gnawing hunger and piercing numbness as he traverses the Arctic alone while being stalked by an injured ice bear. Meanwhile, over a century later, Odd’s descendent Greta is navigating a lonely and icy existence in a loveless marriage until she discovers inspiration and courage from Odd’s story and takes a second chance at love.

Geye is a master storyteller who weaves together the threads of multiple generations into whole cloth. Northernmost is his best yet and will be available April 14, but you can pre-order it now from your favorite bookseller. Listen to my interview with Peter on Superior Reads on April 23 at 7:00 pm on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais or on the web at

When Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth found themselves homeless after a bad investment, they took the road less traveled – they set off on a 630-mile hike along the South West Coast Path. It may sound like a romantic notion, but without the benefit of a steady source of income and armed with inadequate equipment, it was an excursion that tested not only their physical endurance, but their psychological endurance as well. The Salt Path is Raynor Winn’s memoir chronicling their journey.

Raynor and Moth had been married thirty-two years, raised two children (now in college), rebuilt their farm and home and run a business out of it, when they were asked by one of Moth’s lifelong friends to invest in one of his companies. They put in a substantial sum and when the company failed, they lost their home and their livelihood. They stalled for three years until finally, the bailiffs were at their door, banging on the windows, trying all the latches for a way in. Hiding in the basement, Raynor spotted a book that she’d read in her twenties, Five Hundred Mile Walkies about a man and his dog who walked the South West Coast Path.

“We could just walk.”

It sounded easy enough, like an escape, an adventure walking the whole coastline from Minehead in Somerset through north Devon, Cornwall and south Devon to Poole in Dorset. It seemed an idyllic prospect – not realizing then that the South West Coast Path was relentless, that it would mean climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest four times on a path often no wider than a foot, sleeping in a tent, living off of rice and noodles and the occasional pasty or more often mixing seaweed and limpets into their meager rations to make the forty eight pounds per week of government assistance last until the next. And then there was Moth’s illness – a chronically sore shoulder, a slight hand tremor, and numbness in his face that was finally diagnosed as CBD, corticobasal degeneration, a rare progressive neurological disorder that typically leads to death within seven years of diagnosis.

The Coast Path was established by the coast guard who needed a view into each and every cove as they patrolled for smugglers – primarily funded by England. Now, it is a popular walking trail for locals and visitors. Ray and Moth encountered many of these recreational hikers along the way – initially these fellow hikers were convivial, happy to share stories of the trail and their timelines – until they found out Moth and Ray were homeless and hiking and living out of their tent not by choice, but by necessity. They were often hungry, sore, and dirty. The weather could be fierce – driving rain and wind that threatened to blow them off the steep cliffs one day and scorchingly hot the next.

Something unexpected happens . . . something good. Moth stops taking his medication because it makes him feel foggy headed. His aches lesson as he walks. As they traverse up the steep inclines, their muscles become more defined, and Moth feels stronger, clearer . . . his symptoms seem to subside. Whether it was the intense physical exercise or the increased oxygen intake from the daily aerobic activity, Moth felt better.

In the fall, a friend offered them shelter – a shed on her farm. In exchange for staying there, Moth was asked to renovate it, and he set to work plastering the walls. Ray got a job on a shearing team – wrapping for a team of three competition-standard shearers who could each shear an ewe in under four minutes. It was physically demanding work, a different physicality than the walking had been, but worse than that was watching Moth starting a steady decline. Without walking, his stiffness and neurological pain returned.

“Sometimes,” Moth told Ray, “I wake up and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do. It’s as if my body’s forgetting how to function. I have to tell myself I should eat or drink or go to the bathroom, because I should, not because I want to. Is this it, am I dying now?”

Moth and Ray had been together since they were eighteen and neither of them could imagine a life without the other. When things seemed the most dire, Moth told Ray, “When it does come, the end, I want you to have me cremated . . . Because I want you to keep me in a box somewhere, then when you die the kids can put you in, give us a shake and send us on our way. Together. It’s bothered me more than anything else, the thought of us being apart. They can let us go on the coast, in the wind, and we’ll find the horizon together.”

When the shed’s renovation was complete in the Spring, their friend informed them that she had found a renter and they would have to move on. Rather than feeling bitter, Moth and Ray were relieved. They would finish their walk on the coastal path, taking up where they’d left off in the fall. As they began walking, Moth’s health improved, his head cleared, and he felt the strength return to his limbs.

Raynor Winn’s memoir is both heart wrenching and inspiring. In their fifties, having lost everything, they began walking the path out of necessity, but found strength and courage and renewed health along the way.

I recommend The Salt Path for fans of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to all my reviews and author interviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota




Olive Kitteridge is back in Elizabeth Strout’s sequel, Olive, Again. It’s been over ten years since we last heard from Olive, and she is still the acerbic, cantankerous, highly opinionated, yet reservedly empathetic Olive that we’ve come to know and love. Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for Olive Kitteridge, a novel in short stories all interconnected by the title character; HBO produced a mini-series starring Francis McDormand as Olive, as well. The book opens in Olive’s coastal community of Crosby, Maine. Through thirteen interconnected stories, Strout examines the vagaries of family relationships, grief, estrangement, loneliness, and regret. You needn’t read Olive Kitteridge to enjoy the sequel, but you’ll want to.

Olive’s husband, Henry has been dead for two years and Olive is in her seventies as the book opens. After some reticence, Olive and Jack Kennison, a retired Harvard professor who has also recently been widowed and is estranged from his gay daughter, reconnect.

Olive invites her son Christopher and his family for a visit. She hasn’t seen him for three years and he and his wife have recently had a new baby. Olive is clearly partial to her husband’s namesake, Henry, and has knitted him a red scarf, while neglecting to gift any of the other children. The children are wary of Olive’s outspoken and harsh nature. As Christopher and his family prepare to leave, she announces that she is getting remarried to Jack and the tenuous bond she has attempted to mend during their visit, ruptures. After they leave, Olive finds that Henry has left behind his red scarf.

In another story, Olive attends a baby shower for a local woman and is peeved by the tiresome process of unwrapping gifts and sending them around the room for everyone to admire. When another guest at the party goes into labor, Olive sensing an opportunity to escape, offers to drive her to the hospital but ends up delivering the baby in the back seat of her car.

Strout, almost reluctantly reveals to us the empathetic vein at Olive’s center. When Olive runs into a former student, Cindy Coombs at the grocery store and learns that she has cancer, Olive visits her unannounced one day. At first Cindy is hesitant to receive her, but over a series of visits Cindy and Olive discuss mortality and their relationships with their husbands. Olive shares with Cindy her regrets over how she had treated her first husband, Henry and confesses that she has become a “tiny – tiny – bit better as a person” but regrets that Henry is not there to receive the benefit of it. Cindy acknowledges that Olive has become a friend of sorts, visiting her regularly when her former friends do not.

Olive reserves her empathy and friendship for those who need it the most. She is not drawn to the popular residents at the Senior Citizens complex where she moves after suffering a heart attack and the death of her second husband, Jack. She prefers to connect with Isabelle, who shares similar heartaches and secrets and – who also wears the adult diapers that Olive disdains but has become dependent upon.

Throughout the stories in Olive, Again, we see the old Olive – the one quick to judge, the one that pushes people away, the one that can be unbearably brash – but we see an aging Olive as well – one who is reflective, writing out her memories on a typewriter that Christopher, reconciled after Olive’s heart attack, provides for her.

Elizabeth Strout is one of the greatest fiction writers of her generation. Her prose is spare, her revelations are nuanced, and her characters are complex, revealing the truth of all that it means to be human. What a thing, as Olive would say.

At the end of the novel, Olive runs into a former student, Andrea, who became the United States Poet Laureate. The following spring, someone anonymously sends Olive a poem written by Andrea, based upon their conversation. Olive is offended by Andrea’s characterization of her, but then realizes that “Andrea had gotten it better than she had, the experience of being another.” Perhaps that is the greatest gift of Strout’s Olive, Again.

I recommend Olive, Again for fans of character-driven fiction, for fans of Olive Kitteridge and A Man Called Ove.

You can listen to all my reviews and author interviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota and on the web at