WHAP!: Mardi Jo Link’s “Bootstrapper”
I hate beginning any column with a sound effect, but I’m afraid I must. Because, you see, “WHAP” is the sound of a newly released book going flying across the Metro Times editorial office into a wall.
In this case, the offending tome is Mardi Jo Link’s Bootstrapper.
Now, this isn’t some hatchet job. I must say, Mardi Jo Link is a talented writer. She has written several books, including a true crime book that one of my friends recommended I read. I found Bootstrapper to be engaging and well-written, for the most part.
The book is the story of her divorce and her efforts to hold the trappings of her family life together: to keep her house, gain primary custody of her children, and pay for it all. It can be a little weepy at times, but mostly Link wants to get it done without complaining, to “keep her dobbers up.” Except she often feels she can’t.
It’s serious business. One of the main reasons women fall into poverty is a divorce; men tend to be the major income-earners, so for a woman facing divorce with three children, as Link has, it’s do-or-die. (My own mother raised me as a single parent sans court-ordered child support, so I know it isn’t a snap.)
So why does this book go sailing into a wall?
Well, first of all, it’s Link who decided to divorce her husband. For smoking weed. Her marriage “died” when she walked in on her husband smoking weed. She later incinerated his weed pipe in the wood-burning stove. But instead of rushing away and becoming a high earner or dating a flashy young girlfriend, he moves into a rental across the street, to be near his boys. He sounds like a decent guy, actually, although you only hear the story from Link, who derides her ex ironically as “Mr. Wonderful.” (Jeez, can’t a dude smoke a jay every once in a while?)
Second, I think maybe it’s the publishers’ fault for overstating the premise of the book in the subtitle: “From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm.” Now, I know Link is behind on her payments and scrambling to keep everything together, but, bear in mind, she’s living on a six-acre farm in Grand Traverse County three miles from Lake Michigan. That’s money country. Her spread is appraised at $312,000. She could sell the place and move to a more modest home, which she refuses to do. One of the tragedies that befalls her is she suffers recurring nightmares because her horse — her horse — is hit by a car.
Now, I know that poverty is a relative thing, but if I had a $312,000 property where the Chicago money summers, or the ability to keep a horse out in my stable, no matter how far behind I were on my bills, I’m not sure I’d let anybody call me “broke,” let alone a “bootstrapper.” To me, living in Detroit, I think of the people living in dilapidated houses and eking out livings on assistance as “broke.” A person who divorces her husband and wants to keep a pricey property, I’d call “ambitious.”
You read along and see Link refuse to ask her parents for extra monetary assistance. You see her tell the Friend of the Court that her husband shouldn’t pay as much in support. You see her decide she’s going to hold onto the expensive house and not sell it. You see her make all these decisions that are going to make her life tougher, but she’s not going to complain because she’s a tough broad who’s going to make it. Those dobbers are staying way up. No way in hell she’s going to complain.
Except she does! She bemoans her plight, breaks down crying, starts a fire in front of her house while drunk on beer.
You can’t have it both ways, can you? You can’t be this super-responsible person with a Protestant work ethic who’s willing to face tougher odds and beat them, but then demand the reader’s sympathy because it’s so hard. You wanted it, yes? You have a killer work ethic, yes? You’re willing to struggle for it, right? So do it!
It’s enough to give me whiplash. Frankly, the whole thing illustrates why so many black women were disenchanted with the largely white feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. You know the memes: “First World Problems” or “White Girl Blues.” Yes, Link’s life isn’t easy, and is going to involve a lot of struggles she may not be used to, but as somebody who lives and works in one of the poorest large cities in the world, her complaints are enough to send this copy of Bootstrapper airborne for a few seconds. WHAP!