This Gouda novel rides the wheel of American cheese

An unpasteurized satire of politics that slices off the mold of media hype and gets to the core values of patriotism and family

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The Founding Fathers didn't need Freud to grasp the psychodynamics of their conflict with the British Empire. Around 1765, Benjamin Franklin wrote a little ditty called: "The Mother Country":

We have an old mother that peevish is grown,

She snubs us like children that scarce walk alone;

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She forgets we're grown-up and have sense of our own.

Speaking in the House of Lords five years later, William Pitt picked up the same metaphor but, alas, not the implications (or the humor): "This is the mother country, they are the children. They must obey."

Then, as now, across the Atlantic Ocean or the kitchen table, it's the same battle - enough to ruin an inflexible parent's tea.

Sheri Holman has written a robust, witty novel that captures the comedy and tragedy of the struggle for independence that inevitably separates colonies and children from their parents. It's called "The Mammoth Cheese," and it's a giant wedge of Americana.

The story takes place in Three Chimneys, Va., a small town clinging to tattered remnants of its august heritage. Pastor Vaughn hopes a recent miracle will restore his community's dissipated glory: With the help of the latest fertility drugs and the minister's encouragement, Manda Frank has just given birth to 11 children.

A mountain of gifts roll in. A dealer gives them a new van. A builder gives them a new house. "If she'd spaced her children out and had 11 babies in 11 years," Manda thinks wryly, "she would have been no better than her own mother and sisters: irresponsible, a welfare cheat, another bit of Sawdust Lane white trash. But as luck would have it, she'd had them all at once and now she was, overnight, middle-class. And respectable."

The media frenzy reaches a pitch when presidential candidate Adams Brooke swoops into the hospital to extract whatever publicity he can from this questionable medical triumph. "It's an American's God-given right to have as many children as she likes," he proclaims.

Manda, battered into this fame by her husband and her pastor and her doctors and her own passivity, stares in terror at her sickly litter and the exhausting future ahead of her.

Of course, she has no interest in the presidential campaign, but for her neighbor Margaret Prickett, Brooke's success is everything. Margaret is a single mother whose ancient cheese-making farm has so far avoided foreclosure only because she's stopped opening her mail. Adams Brooke with his promise to pass a debt amnesty bill for small farmers is now her only hope, and she focuses on his election with a fervency that blinds her to all else.

For instance, she doesn't see that her middle-school daughter feels abandoned by her - and is falling under the spell of a seductive history teacher who encourages students to rebel against adults' tyranny. And she doesn't see that her hired hand, the pastor's son, August Vaughn, who dresses up as Thomas Jefferson in his spare time, is hopelessly in love with her. And she doesn't see that her efforts to avoid all the trappings of modern farming and technology are turning her into a Luddite freak.

Meanwhile, as Manda's modern miracles begin to die from complications of low birth weight, the media attention quickly turns dark. The celebration that Pastor Vaughn hoped would invigorate his community gives way to memorial services and accusations of medical and pastoral malpractice.

Driven by doubts about his real motive for encouraging Manda to complete her high-risk pregnancy, he devises another oversized plan to cleanse the community's dark reputation, save Margaret's farm, and redeem himself: a mammoth cheese.

This isn't as silly as it sounds. Well, actually, it's just as silly as it sounds, but it has historical precedent. During Jefferson's first term, a group of Baptists in Massachusetts were so grateful for the new president's promise of religious freedom that they made him a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese and delivered it to Washington.

August knows that the first mammoth cheese was something of a national joke, but he can't bear to disappoint his father or pass by a chance to help Margaret save her farm (even though he notes "she was positively Federalist in her world view"). So he agrees to give Mr. Jefferson's blessing to this gigantic cheesy gift for the new president.

"It's important to me," Margaret says, "that this cheese not be misconstrued." But we know there are no simple cheeses.

While all these romantic and filial ingredients ripen, the novel also somehow blends a clever satire of American politics with a sweet appreciation for true patriotism. And Holman grasps the mechanics of farming as confidently as she handles the mechanics of political theory; she understands the movements of 18th-century history as well as the movements of a modern teenager's heart.

Her depiction of postpartum depression and the Faustian complexities of fertility medicine gives the story a sharp taste, but the richer flavor comes from Holman's sympathy for the muted courtship between Margaret and her reticent Jefferson impersonator. It's charming to see him turn to his patron saint for romantic advice as much as for political wisdom. (His only other relationship had been with an Emily Dickinson impersonator years before.)

"The Mammoth Cheese" teeters on the edge of parody from time to time, but Holman keeps all these wonderful characters - including the cows - grounded in her deeper themes about the debt one generation owes another and the lust for independence. Yes, colonies rebel and the ones we want most to protect reject our care as tyranny, but Holman knows that good parents can love their children and still let them have their whey.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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