"Oh, you've got to read this," said a friend of mine, handing me a book. It was Mrs. Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. "It's a wonderful romance. Uh, not one of the dirty ones. But it's sooo good! You'll love it."
The book has been in print since 1947, due to consistent demand, and a surprising number of my friends have read it. Almost everyone -- including most critics -- say the exact same thing my friend did. Sometimes they add: "The guy in it is a Mounty," or "It's set in Canada," but for the most part everyone just says, "It's sooo good! You'll love it."
I had some hesitations about reading the book, mostly because romance novels irritate me spitless. I read them anyway, but only when I'm in a shoutin' mood. Furthermore, 97% of my knowledge of Canada comes from Dudley Do-Right, South Park and the adventures of the McKenzie brothers in Strange Brew. Most of the remaining three percent comes from my mother-in-law's views on Canadian health care. ("They let you die!") Still, everyone said Mrs. Mike was outstanding so I decided to give it a try.
I was unprepared for what a compelling tale Mrs. Mike presented. There was a lot less beer drinking and urination than Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas have led me to believe. It was, in fact, a great story. I don't think I'd describe it as a romance novel, though. Mrs. Mike was kind of like a Quentin Tarantino remake of Little House on the Prairie, minus the bad language. It had the same sort of historic detail as Little House, the same themes of families and communities pulling together to triumph over the hardships of survival, just with the addition of wave after wave of horrible death.
Authors Benedict and Nancy start you off slow in lower Canada, with the deaths of cows. Not one or two. Hundreds upon hundreds. By page eighteen, there were close to a thousand dead cows, plus mentions of the passing of two dogs, one rancher and a granny. But they were overshadowed by the constant dying of the cows. It's a freeze! "Moo-o-oo... Eeep!" It's a stampede! "Moo-o-oo... Eeep!" It's a flood! "Moo-o-oo... glubglubglub!" It's mad cow disease! "Moo-o-oo... *ship quietly south to the States*..." Every night the ranchers must head back to their little homestead, telling one another, "Yep, looks like it's Hamburger Helper for dinner again tonight."
Once the hero and the heroine fall in love and get married, they head off for the wild territories of the Great White North. (Less cows, more mosquitoes.) Here the pace picks up, and while Mr. and Mrs. Mike share the occasional tender moment, most of the book is occupied with other people dying.
Cold! "Aiee!" Starvation! "Aiee!" Mosquitoes! "Aiee!" (How does someone die from mosquito bites? Being neither a Mounty nor a Canadian, I don't get it either, but a trapper and his wife fall prey to em on page 109. I'm stockin up on DEET!) Wolves! Bears! Whiskey! Forest fires! Knife fights! Bear traps! Traveling nuns! Child birth! Measles! Scarlet fever! Typhoid! Parvo! Athlete's foot! (Okay, no one in the book died of athlete's foot, but I'm thinking if the mosquitoes wrangled a head count of two, there's a whole lot of things that are more dangerous than I thought. I'm stocking up on Lotramin!)
Part of the reason this story reminds me of Tarantino is the way it worked on my emotions. Just as Pulp Fiction got me to laugh out loud at something as horrible as a guy getting his head blown off in the back of a car, Mrs. Mike manages to convey a heart-warming optimism in the face of constant death. The head count rivals Kill Bill (leaves it in the dust if you count the cows), and yet you come away feeling good about the power of love, law, family and community. Faces get burned off, eyes get plucked out, people watch their friends get eaten by bears and get locked in boat cabins with dead bodies for days at a time, but everyone who reads the book still describes it as a romance. An uplifting tale of Man persevering against Nature! Well, Woman persevering against Nature. Well, everyone but the cows persevering against Nature.
Oh, just read the book. It's a really great romance. Not one of the dirty ones, either. You'll love it.
Comments and hamburger recipes to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the March 13, 2005 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.