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South of Superior Reader’s Guide

By Ellen Airgood

South of Superior by Ellen Airgood


Questions and Topics for Discussion

When Madeline Stone walks away from her Chicago life and moves five hundred miles north to the coast of Lake Superior, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she isn’t prepared for how much her life will change. Charged with caring for an aging family friend,

Madeline finds herself in the middle of beautiful nowhere with Gladys and Artubus, two octogenarian sisters—one sharp and stubborn, the other sweeter than sunshine. As she is drawn into the dramas of the small, tight-knit town, Madeline learns that it’s a place where times are tough and debts run deep, but where friendship, community, and compassion run deeper.

A debut novel full of heart, South of Superior shows that there is a deep reward in caring for others, that one who is poor in pocket can be rich in so many other ways, and that happiness often comes from the smallest gestures.


Ellen Airgood runs a diner in Grand Marais, Michigan. This is her first novel.

From Waitress To Writer

I grew up on a small farm, the youngest of four children. My father was a blacksmith and a schoolteacher. For the last nineteen years I’ve been a waitress in Grand Marais, Michigan. I was twenty-five when I came to this tiny, Lake Superior town, on a camping trip with my sister, and fell in love with the man who made my cheese sandwich and chocolate malt at the local diner. We met, exchanged assessing, almost challenging gazes, and six months later we got married. I told my sister we would, on the way back to our campsite that first day. “You’re crazy,” she said worriedly. But pretty soon she grinned, shook her head, started getting into the spirit of it. “Well,” she said. “This is going to be interesting.” And it has been.

I’ve never been sorry. My husband Rick and I run a diner together, a job which is always consuming, often punishing, and hugely fulfilling. Most of what I know about maturity and compassion, not to mention story, I’ve learned from waiting tables. We work eighty to a hundred hours a week together almost year around, and one way or another we’ve faced the constant barrage of setbacks and frustrations and equipment failures that restaurant work is, the high stress and long hours. There is so much satisfaction in it, though: the goodness of hard work, the joy of feeding people a meal they love, the delight of long friendships, the pride in a job well done. All kinds of people come here from all kinds of places, and we get to meet them, to hear their stories, and pretty often we get to make them happy for the time that they are here.

This is the route I took to becoming a writer. I didn’t get an MFA or study writing in school. I could have learned about life anywhere, but fate brought me here, to the end of the earth and a tiny town that time forgot. My customers have given me good practice as a storyteller, too. It’s a matter of survival. If I can entertain people, draw them over to my side, they won’t murder me when I’m the only waitress of the floor and the cook is swamped and the wait is long and we’re out of silverware and I didn’t know the fish was gone when I took their order.

  • Gladys always tells Madeline how much of an outsider she is, how much she doesn’t understand the ways of McAllester. By the end of the novel do you think Madeline is a part of the town? In what ways has she let the community of McAllester transform her? In what way has she transformed the community?

  • Throughout the novel, Madeline is looking for a sense of purpose, for something to guide her life. At the end of the novel, do you think she’s found that sense of purpose? What do you think it is? How is it different from what she was expecting when she first came to McAllester?

  • Change is a major theme of the novel, and yet so much of what both Gladys and Madeline love about McAllester is how the town follows an older way of living. What kind of changes happen in the novel? Which character do you think is the most changed by the end?

  • While Madeline and Gladys are deeply stubborn people, Arbutus is more likely to be adaptable. Do you think this makes Arbutus any less strong than the other women? In what ways is she just as stubborn? What do you think Madeline learns from Arbutus’s way of getting her own way?

  • Think about the Bensons. Do you think that they are wrong to want to improve their business? What could they have done to be more in keeping with the community? What does Madeline learn that they do not?

  • Values are important to all the characters in the novel. How are Madeline’s values different from Gladys’s? Paul’s? What do you think Randi’s values are? The Bensons? Think about yourself. Which character do you feel most similar to?

  • At the start of the novel, Madeline takes an immediate dislike to Randi while Gladys has more patience for her. What do you think Gladys sees that Madeline does not? Think about how Madeline and Randi’s relationship changes. How do you think Madeline’s increased knowledge both about herself and about her history changes how she feels about Randi?

  • We never get to meet Joe Stone or learn why he gave Madeline away. What do you think his motivations were? Do you think he made the right choice? How did his giving Madeline away make her more like the Stones?

  • Life in McAllester is hard. Why do you think Madeline ultimately chooses it over returning to Chicago? What virtues do you see in it? What qualities would you want to emulate in your own life?

  • The novel ends on a note of anticipation. What do you think will happen to the characters after the book has ended? How do you think what Madeline has learned will help her handle future hardships?
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