Like every good waitress, Ellen Airgood can recite the
daily specials at the West Bay Diner in Grand Marais with no
hesitation. On the day I talked with her they were a cheese and veggie
omelet, and fresh whitefish sandwich with an ear of corn.
Airgood, who has been working at this quintessential
diner in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for more than 20 years, is also an
accomplished writer who published her first novel this year. “South of
Superior” is about a big-city girl who leaves it all behind to move to
what the publicity hounds at her publisher call “a remote coastal
village in Michigan’s isolated U.P.” (Yoopers would find that
description a real knee-slapper.)
The novel is filled with love, cold shoulders, the
clumsiness of fitting in, fierce independent characters, an unusual
mystery, a town that helps its own and, of course, a love story —
several of them, in fact. In addition to the protagonist Madeline,
there’s a grumpy but fair old lady who is sometimes as cold as Lake
Superior itself: often unforgiving, but always mysterious. In fact, the
big lake is a major character in this novel.
In some ways “South of Superior” is not unlike Airgood’s
own story. Some 20 years ago she moved from Chicago, where she was
working for an environmental agency, to Grand Marais, where within six
months she married the local diner owner and became full-time baker and
waitress, often working 80-hour weeks, but all the time listening and
As we talked, Airgood was just coming off her shift at
the West Bay Diner and wanted to make sure that I knew this was not her
“I have been writing seriously for a good 18 years,” she said. “This is the first book I published — not wrote.”
The novelist said she had completed several manuscripts for young adult novels before “South of Superior” was published.
Now with the success of “Superior,” she has a young adult
novel due out next summer. The setting: New York City, but once again
it features a protagonist who is way out of her comfort zone. This time
it’s a small-town girl who moves to the big city.
“People have been asking me about where’s the sequel to ‘Superior,’” she said. “I tell them it’s not pressing.”
A lot of readers might find Airgood’s characters in
“Superior” quirky, but she’s quick to point out that to her everybody’s
quirky. And she’s not just referring to those she knows in the U.P. “We
are all crazy.”
She said that the residents of both Grand Marais and its
fictional counterpart are not always warm and fuzzy. In fact, they
might not like you at all, but they will help you.
Airgood makes that case in the book when the fictional
community of McAllister rallies behind a young mother and daughter who
they could otherwise care less about after the mother is seriously
injured in an automobile accident.
Airgood said when she set out to write “Superior” that she “wanted something my own community would enjoy.”
The Grand Marais community has responded, often
discussing the book as they drop into the diner, where the book is sold
alongside homemade pie.
“They have embraced my book,” Airgood said.
She says she was relatively untaught when it came to
writing, having gotten her degree in science at the University of
Michigan. “My tool kit was pretty sparse, and I didn’t have the
She said it was probably most comfortable for her to write what only can be called lush descriptive scenes of the area.
“It was easiest and the most fun. I always loved to be outdoors and the sense of place is very important to me.”
She said she has been surprised by the positive reaction to the book: “Frankly, a lot doesn’t happen. It’s deceptively simple.”
She gets asked all the time if the characters in the book are modeled after anyone.
“The characters to me are themselves,” she said. “They aren’t components, they are just themselves.”
She said out-of-town visitors to the diner want to know
where some of the scenes in the book are set and want to visit the old
hotel, a major feature in the book. They’re out of luck.
“I have to tell them it’s fictional. I just wanted something for Madeline to do.”
As a first-time published author, she said she was most
shocked about how an author is packaged for sale, a process she called
“a strange feeling. The author photo — I never wear makeup.”
Pre-publicity has compared Airgood’s “Superior” setting
to the quirky 1990s TV show “Northern Exposure.” Sort of, but the
author might just be on the cusp of becoming the Fannie Flagg of the
Fudgies (and yes, you can you buy fudge in Grand Marais)
better get their Stormy Kromers on when they visit what one of my
lifelong Yooper friends calls “The Upper Peculiar.”
Author of "South of Superior"
3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22
Schuler Books & Music
1982 Grand River Ave.,