I read “Mrs. Mike” for the first time when I was in seventh grade, and it ruined me. It “ruined me” in the sense that it transported me so thoroughly to Canada’s Northwest Territories in the early 1900s that I had trouble coming back to my too-real suburban life, which at that point involved pimples, braces, pigtails, and an overwhelming shyness. It also ruined me because for years I expected every guy I dated to live up to the standard set by Sgt. Mike Flannigan of the Canadian Mounties, a strong, smart, reliable, honest, loving, exciting hunk of a guy with “eyes so blue you could swim in them.” Oh, swoon.
The heroine of “Mrs. Mike” shared my name, Kathy, and had the kind of feisty spirit I had in my imagination, but couldn’t quite foster in real life. The novel is based on the true story of Katherine Mary O’Fallon, a 16-year-old redhead from Boston who moves to Canada to live with her uncle so she can recover from pleurisy. Katherine meets and marries Sgt. Mike and he takes her with him to the wilds of northern British Columbia, where she undergoes one adventure and tragedy after another.
Let me tell you, life in suburban Detroit in the 1970s was about as unadventurous as it gets, a continual round of school, football games, dance lessons, and awkward socializing. While I was embroidering flowers on my bell-bottoms, Kathy was learning how to diaper her newborn baby with moss, or standing in a river with elk and deer and wildcats as a forest fire raged around them. She learned to chop wood like a man, gave birth without anesthesia (of course), lost her two children to diphtheria, and watched a friend saw off her own son’s leg to save him from a bear trap. She and Mike had their struggles, but love conquered all.
This is some serious stuff when you’re twelve. It sticks with you. Ever since I read “Mrs. Mike” for the first time, I’ve had a fascination with life lived at the edge of civilization. Six or seven years ago, while visiting the San Juan Islands to report a story for The New York Times, I heard about a remote island where people lived “off the grid” without phones or electricity or paved roads. It took me four years to write A Simple Thing, about a woman who leaves suburbia for an isolated island. It took me all of my life from seventh grade until now to understand “Mrs. Mike” fully, to understand tragedy and loss and a parent’s love for a child and the kind of love that can be forged between two people who truly accept and understand one another. It took me equally as long to be able to write about those things myself.
I can’t think of another book that comes back to me more, or that I return to more. I know I would have been different without the influence of Katherine Mary O’Fallon, who dared to leap into a new life.
We’ve giving away a copy of Kathleen’s latest novel, A Simple Thing, today. Leave a comment on this post and we’ll toss and you’ll be entered to win!
For Susannah Delaney, the answers lie thousands of miles away, off the northwest corner of Washington state. When Susannah discovers her young son is being bullied and her adolescent daughter is spinning out of control, she moves them to remote Sounder Island in the San Juans to live off the grid for a year. Susannah hopes to save her children from the risks they’ve encountered at home, and to come to terms with her own haunted past. But the move threatens her marriage to the man she’s loved since childhood, and her very sense of self.
For Betty Pavalak, who first moved to Sounder to save her own troubled marriage, the island has been a haven for more than fifty years. But Betty also knows the guilt of living with choices she made long ago and actions that cannot be undone.The unlikely friendship between Susannah and Betty ignites a journey of self-discovery for both women that brings them both home to what they love most. A SIMPLE THING moves beyond friendship, children, and marriages to look deeply into what it means to love and forgive—yourself.