The Mammoth Cheeseby Sheri Holman
“Holman has fashioned a tale that is poignant and powerful and, like an award-winning cheese, surprisingly complex.” —Chris Bohjalian, The Washington Post Book World
Acclaimed best-selling author Sheri Holman’s third novel, The Mammoth Cheese, has been hailed as “stunning . . . a Great American Novel par excellence” by Newsday and by The New York Times Book Review as “lovely, disarming . . . tough, sad and surprisingly sweet.”
Three Chimney’s, Virginia resident Margaret Pricket, a single mother and specialty cheese maker, is in danger of losing all she holds dear. Her century-old family dairy farm is falling deeper into debt. Her thirteen-year-old daughter Polly, whom Margaret has tried to shelter from the modern world, is becoming perilously drawn towards her charismatic, subversive history teacher. Her loyal farmhand August, a Thomas Jefferson impersonator by night, is secretly in love with her. And she’s been convinced by the town’s pastor to recreate the original Thomas Jefferson-era, 1,235-pound “Mammoth Cheese,” as a gift for the President elect. Soon the entire town is wrapped up in the endeavor, and Margaret finds herself torn between her principles and her passions.
An American pastoral like no other, The Mammoth Cheese is a delicious and satisfying tour de force.
“Holman has put on seven-league boots to tread a wittily intricate dance step. . . . [The Mammoth Cheese] possesses, page by page, or bite by bite if you prefer, an intense, refined and lingering flavor. . . . [It] lofts global literary thoughts upon agile local activity. . . . I like and admire her novel a lot.” —Richard Eder, The New York Times
“Holman has fashioned a tale that is poignant and powerful and, like an award-winning cheese, surprisingly complex.” —Chris Bohjalian, The Washington Post Book World
“Stunning. . . . A Great American Novel par excellence. . . . The Mammoth Cheese is as smooth, and often as surprising, as dreaming.” —Bethany Schneider, Newsday
“Holman masterfully juggles three distinct storylines involving a rural Virginia town. . . . Holman’s prose seems effortless as she tightens and moves her seemingly incongruous storylines smoothly toward their conclusion.” —Amy Rogers, Creative Loafing
“[An] enjoyable slice of Americana . . . A panoramic social novel with a needle-sharp point of view sends up both small-town America and politics.” —Bella Stander, People
“An intriguing and gratifying read, a mélange of characters and situations rooted in contexts both historical and contemporary, conflicts both personal and political. Though humor resonates throughout the novel, the emotions it contains and evokes are quite real—often poignantly so.” —Jessica Treadway, The Boston Globe
“Holman’s latest novel. . . is written with charm, intelligence, and a lot of nerve. . . . [The plot] sounds bizarre, but Holman is so sure-footed in establishing her characters and subplots. . . that we fall for it in the early pages and never look back. As did Holman’s other books, it shows what can happen when imagination and audacity collide.” —Anne Stephenson, Arizona Republic
“The writing is excellent and the characters are real. It is the type of book that you wish would not end because you care so much for the characters.” —Ken Jablecki, The Chicago Tribune
“Holman’s novel is brilliant, the characters deeply rendered, the philosophic underpinning astute, the touch sure. . . . Holman is one of those novelists whose world you trust completely. She’s as adept as Barbara Kingsolver at tracing the political and intellectual life of small rural communities.” —Barbara Sjoholm, The Seattle Times
“Lovely, disarming . . . Tough, sad and surprisingly sweet.” —Jennifer Reese, The New York Times Book Review
“Holman has written a robust, witty novel that captures the comedy and tragedy of the struggle for independence.” —Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
“Sophisticated. . . . Believability is one of the things that make [The Mammoth Cheese] such a wonderful book. . . . I heartily recommend it.” —Sharon Barrett, The Chicago Sun-Times
“Ambitious . . . Holman’s ability to constantly create sharply turned phrases, and the honestly earned humor that she instills in the story, helps balance the tragic elements and make this a memorable pastoral fable.” —David Hellman, The San Francisco Chronicle
“[The Mammoth Cheese is] a big-hearted story that incorporates the plight of the small farmer with the caprice of modern politics in an utterly pleasing way. . . . Holman has an indulgent storytelling voice. She can set up a scene better than anyone. . . . Holman does such a satisfying job at weaving American history into her modern tale that readers owe it to themselves to take a nibble.” —Karen Sandstrom, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer
“The Mammoth Cheese is a capacious book. Huge and amazing things happen within it.” —Julie Schumacher, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“An outstanding job . . . Holman weaves the stories together so well that it takes only a few chapters for the reader to feel like a native of Three Chimneys. After that, The Mammoth Cheese moves quickly and effortlessly towards its surprising and memorable climax. . . . The Mammoth Cheese is about politics, history, religion, love, money, excess and independence—in short, it’s about all things American.” —Jay Pawlowski, The Rocky Mountain News
“Flawlessly plotted [and] satisfying.” —David Kirby, The Atlanta Journal Constitution
“It takes a truly imaginative writer to weave a captivating story that ties together a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese . . . and a mother who has just given birth to 11 infants. But Ms. Holman proves she’s up to the challenge with this deft pastoral that offers a dead-on depiction of life in a small town.” —Rebecca Stumpf, The Dallas Morning News
“The denouement of Holman’s sharp American satire could easily be a scene cut out of a Robert Altman movie. . . . Holman’s intricately crafted look at family, religion and class in the rural South seamlessly blends the quotidian and the surreal.” —Barbara Aria, Time Out New York
“Inventive [and] entertaining.” —Alec MacGillis, The Baltimore Sun
“Holman’s splendid title denotes a loopy homage to the historical past. . . . This is one of the richest American novels in years. Its abundance of character, plot and promising visuals make a feature film version all but inevitable.” —Bruce Allen, Hollywood Reporter
“A story about modern culture and the punch it packs in all corners of America. Whether it’s the excesses of politics, industrialization or relationships, Holman takes readers on a witty and satirical trip through Three Chimney’s, Va.” —Amanda Davis, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A sweeping, diverse, entertaining and thought-provoking work.” —Regis Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“The Mammoth Cheese is a brave book, daring to compare the good product of the title with the curdled failure of humanity to render our own backstory without malice.” —Neena Husid, The Austin American Statesman
“Holman’s strength as a novelist is like that of her character August Vaughn: an ability to invest a vigorous sense of life into historical fictions. . . . In The Mammoth Cheese, Holman expands the role history plays, creating a rich fabric of ideas—particularly Jefferson’s that inform her character’s actions.” —Scott Hermanson, The San Diego Union-Tribune
“[The Mammoth Cheese] is written with charm, intelligence and a lot of nerve. . . . Shows what can happen when imagination and audacity collide.” —The Arizona Republic
“Holman takes the outlandish . . . and narrows it down, without oversimplification, to what matters most to a book’s readers—its people.” —Jeff Lodge, The Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A detailed and vivid storyteller. . . . Holman proves her literary talent many times in The Mammoth Cheese. Her plotting is excellent with believable, yet unpredictable, twists. Though there are. . .plenty of them, her characters breathe with real life. . . . The Mammoth Cheese is a serious work of literary fiction: a wonderful tale of people fighting for independence from the lives that tie them down.” —Amy Joyner, Greensboro News & Record
“An ambitious creation from an inventive mind. One of Holman’s gifts is the ability to bring to life the small details and social underpinnings of human behavior so realistically that it seems almost effortless. . . . Her story and characters are well-developed, and her narrative descriptions are powerful.” —Amy Rogers, Creative Loafing
“Holman made her debut with the grisly, remarkable The Dress Lodger. She is even more remarkable here. Her story is deep and compelling, populated by characters moving and thought-provoking, and her images are precise and surprising. . . . Wonderful.” —Susan Hall-Balduf, The Detroit Free Press
“[Holman] catches the flavor of small-town America in this story of the rural South. . . . There are many pleasures in this book: its vivid characters, delineations of cheese and cheesemaking, and it’s evocation of the South.” —Lois D. Atwood, The Providence Journal
“Engaging. . . . The novel’s farcical elements are deftly integrated, as are its many stories, by Holman’s limber prose as she movingly captures life in a small American town where even its young are struggling with the wounds of time.” —Sherryl Connelly, New York Daily News
“A deft account of the contradictions of small-town life.” —Time Out New York
“Holman’s well-written words of cheese and love are a balm for those seeking a solid story with fully developed, endearing characters and a fitting and satisfactory ending.” —Anita J. Firebaugh, The Roanoke Times
“Time and setting determine character and plot in Holman’s novels in a way that’s reminiscent of the best Dickens novels of the 19th century, and the best John Irving novels in ours.” —Nan Goldberg, The Newark Star-Ledger
“Wonderful. . . . [Holman’s] story is deep and compelling, populated by characters moving and thought-provoking, and her images are precise and surprising. . . . Any way you slice it, Holman is on her way to greatness.” —Susan Hall-Balduf, The St. Paul Pioneer Press
“Pure Americana. . . . Holman’s characters have Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sides as well Robert Louis Stevenson and baby Jekyl sides. In other words, they are not only well-meaning and inadvertently destructive, they are also, at times, intellectually distant and irrepressibly dreamy.” —Rob Neufeld, Citizen-Times
“The Mammoth Cheese tells an absorbing and multi-dimensional tale.” —Emily Alward, Salem Press
“Written with charm, intelligence and a lot of nerve. . . . Holman is sure-footed in establishing characters and sub-plots. As in A Stolen Tongue and The Dress Lodger, Holman shows what can happen when imagination and audacity collide.” —Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
“The Mammoth Cheese is a modern story steeped in history.” —Amanda Haskins, Newport News Press
“An ambitious and intriguing novel that deals with personal and political conflicts.” —The Chattanooga Times Free Press
“Although entertaining and multifaceted, plot is not the principal attraction of this engrossing book. Instead, it’s Holman’s extraordinary descriptions of places and processes and, particularly, her rich cast of beautifully realized characters. . . . Too well written and too much fun to miss.” —Margaret Black, Metroland
“[A] funny and tender look at American life, literature and politics. . . . An instructive and endearing tale of love gone awry. . . . For a good-natured poke at small-town life and national politics, a recommended read is The Mammoth Cheese.” —Susan Larson, Flint Journal
“Holman manages to wholly engross the reader with the affairs and thoughts of the unfortunate parents of 11. . . . This book was written to be a best seller on someone’s list. It could easily succeed. . . . This novel is about community. The big cheese is us.” —Roy Durfee, New Mexican
“[The Mammoth Cheese] dazzles with its combination of history, religion, political satire and tragedy. Every character here is a delicately nuanced, vivid creation. . . . Holman weaves a deft consideration of American history and political ideals into an exuberantly eccentric tale of smalltown life.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This time out, Holman virtuosically entangles two arresting plotlines. . . . [into an] enthralling narrative, which ranges among the experiences and interrelationships of several expertly drawn characters. . . . Part Jon Hassler, part Robert Altman film—and all-around terrific.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“An engaging work of fiction that explores big ideas with an off-kilter freshness and a genuine knowledge of human experience. . . . Holman is treading in Barbara Kingsolver country here, and she expertly navigates the terrain with similar unfussy prose and wry perception. . . . Sheri Holman has written a marvelous, entertaining novel with characters whose lives are as unabashedly untidy as America itself.” —Robert Weibezahl, Bookpage
“This big but nimble novel . . . is absolutely compelling in its swift satire, yet readers will also respond to its deep sympathies for ‘well-foibled’ individuals. . . . Human nature exposed at its rawest—and most entertaining.” —Brad Hooper, Booklist
“A wedge of pure Americana. . . . Holman is a skillfully detailed writer whose prose blends the factual with the personal in a manner as straightforward as it is compelling. . . . Holman’s characters are deftly drawn, flawed and earnest, corruptible and alight with brave dreams.” —Eliza Clark, Toronto Globe & Mail
“[An] engaging multidimensional tale. . . . Holman’s latest imaginative sprawl of a novel explores quintessential American themes—independence, patriotism and politics—to great tragi-comic effect. . . . A gifted writer, Sheri Holman has written a deft novel about duty and rebellion and the ways we seek to mend the wounds of history. . . . She paints a believable portrait of small-town America, with all its foibles and heartaches, dreams and guilt.” —Anita Shreve, Book Magazine, and bestselling author of All He Ever Wanted
Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book
A Publishers Weekly Book of the Year
A Book Sense 76 Selection
It was a long walk to the end of the driveway. Margaret Prickett saw the sun glint off Mr. Kelly’s U.S. Post Office truck, nearly airborne from the pink and blue balloons tied to his side-view mirrors in cheerful disregard of government regulation. He loved kids, probably because he had none of his own, and kids loved him. When her daughter Polly was a little girl, she used to leave wax paper cups of Pepsi inside the mailbox, the red flag raised so that he wouldn’t drive past thirsty. And though by the time he opened the little black oven the cola was flat and fatty with melted wax, in gratitude he would always leave her a rubber band. It was a splendid economy.
Mr. Kelly got out of his truck only when there was something to sign for, yet to Margaret’s eyes, that morning he stepped out seemingly empty-handed.
Two days ago, she had ordered some flour from King Arthur’s, but that couldn’t be here so soon, could it? She waved to him, a big hearty arm-sweep, as if to say, Great to see you. Got something good? He waved back, an unenthusiastic little shake from the wrist which could only mean, Registered letter.
Sure enough, she spotted it on his clipboard, the little square of serious pale green. She stopped about fifty yards away from him, suddenly overwhelmed by the mid-afternoon heat of the day. She felt drowsy from the narcotic tangle of honeysuckle and wild morning glories that overgrew the fence beside the gravel driveway, and nearly deafened by the lawn mower whir of dog-day cicadas. Maybe she could just turn around and calmly walk back to the cheese house. Lock herself in and make August deal with Mr. Kelly. Maybe she could just stand here until he disappeared like the mirage he looked to be in the heat, a postal spectre no more valid than a canceled stamp.
Margaret saw his eyes go from the letter to the house behind her, and some primal protective instinct took over. She pulled herself together and made herself be polite.
“Just give me your John Hancock right here,” Mr. Kelly said, trying not to look at Margaret directly when she reached him. As the mailman, he probably knew more town secrets than the expatriate shrink, Andrew Friedman. “Been to see Manda yet?”
“Can’t get through the crowds,” Margaret answered, happy to have something else to talk about. “We’ll take some food over when she gets home. Polly’s dying to see the babies.”
“You can’t imagine the mountain of letters she’s been getting,” he said, taking back his pen and tearing off the little green indictment. Couldn’t say it got lost in the mail. Couldn’t claim to have never seen it. “And stuffed animals out the ying-yang. Even a full-sized purple gorilla like you’d win at the fair.”
“Amazing,” replied Margaret, taking the letter.
“Well, give my best to the young one.” He tipped his hat as he climbed back into the truck. “Tell her things are mighty parched out on the trail without her.”
“Will do.” Margaret smiled and watched him pull away. She turned back to her hundred acres, imagining the entire parcel yellow and blighted, the barn incinerated, the house blasted to its foundation by the bad news she would release when she opened this envelope. The entire history of Prickett Farm seemed to stand between Margaret and breaking the seal. She slowly started back up the driveway.
Like the Vaughns, the Pricketts, too, could claim one of the town’s three chimneys. Margaret walked past the tower of bricks that sat up the hill by the path that led through the woods to the Franks’ new house. Though a perfectly good shade tree grew not fifteen yards farther on, for as long as anyone could remember, the Pricketts’ herd of buttery Jerseys had grazed their way across a rolling pasture of Potomac orchard grass to this chimney for their midday nap. The history of the cows’ partiality could be read by all who had the eyes to see: the much-hoofed grass from barn to stream, the long detour from stream to woods (avoiding the horrible spot in the middle of the meadow where years before Tiberia’s Queen had dropped a putrid calf, sending the whole herd leaping and bellowing about); the downhill path back to the barn, hard-packed and nearly bald from hungry rushing. But afternoons always found the herd sidled up to the ruined chimney as it cast its long sundial shadow upon them and counted off the hours till evening milking. An old farming adage says that Holsteins will look for the filthiest place to lie down, while Jerseys search out the cleanest, and in some collective cow memory, these girls must have sensed the echo of solid oak floors and imported rugs beneath their shaggy bellies; for back in the old planter days, when the county still sent a delegate to the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, the cows’ chimney had been attached to one of the wealthiest homesteads in Orange. It had heated Mr. and Mrs. Mandeville Prickett, their son, three daughters, and any number of hour-old infants that had been vainly warmed before they were on their way to the graveyard out front. It went on to thaw a second generation of red-cheeked Prickett children, plus the nieces and nephews, the half-frozen out-of-town guests, and even their distant neighbor, young James Madison, who once took shelter with them on his way back from Mr. Robertson’s Boarding School, before the house burned down in 1779. It was the worst kind of fire, a ridiculous, careless fire, when the tallow Mrs. Randolph Prickett used for dipping candles flared and caught the drapes. The whole family and all their people fetched buckets of cold water from the spring that ran along the edge of the property, but to no avail. The wax caught the cloth and the cloth caught the wood and the wood caught the roof until all that remained were a few blackened studs, the iron door hinges, and the chimney. The family sent their indoor people to live with their field people, while they bedded at neighbors until a new house could be erected.
Now the cows served as its walls and the abandoned chimney looked down the hill on the second Prickett homestead, built lower on their property, nearby the stream: a whitewashed brick farmhouse in a stand of oak trees, far enough back from the water to weather flash flooding, but close enough for buckets to be passed hand to hand. Margaret took a long look at the new house (though it had been standing for two hundred years, no one referred to it as anything other than “the new house”). It was so familiar, she rarely observed it any more closely than she did her own tired face in the bathroom mirror each morning. Now, in light of the letter, she saw it as Mr. Kelly must have seen it driving up every day, as her neighbors must see it. Its old green tin roof had completely rusted out along the flashing, the verandah screens were squirrel-torn, the bricks in desperate need of repointing and a whitewash. Margaret had every intention of taking care of all those little things before they got worse, and yet, worse they got, year after year, as the money went to the more pressing disasters of crop failure and low production and drought.
She continued up the driveway toward the house, passing the geriatric tractor out in the alfalfa field, and the manure spreader, which she’d spent most of the morning trying to de-clog. With Francis gone, it was unlikely she and August would plant a crop after next year. It would make more sense to keep the pastures up and simply buy their winter feed until she could repopulate the herd. She felt traitorous even thinking such thoughts, for Margaret Abingdon Prickett was born into a proud family, a family that honored its history, that considered giving its child a middle name like Ann or Lynn or Sue as unthinkable as laying shag carpeting over hardwood floors or living out by the airport. Cows are not the only creatures of strong habits, and for many years after the fire, the Prickett sons were proud to live in the new house exactly as their fathers had in the old: planting tobacco, driving the hogsheads down the old rowling road to sell to traders in Fredericksburg, buying their furniture and throwing their barbecues on credit they carried from one crop to the next. When, after the War (and by “the War,” everyone in town still meant the Civil War), the price of tobacco plummeted, and a collective feeling of urgent survivalism gripped farming communities all across the South, it seemed to the Pricketts that they must never allow themselves to become dependent again—if they could not smelt their own cannons, they could at least produce their own food. A great agricultural shift took place in Three Chimneys and the luxurious tobacco crop found itself eschewed in favor of pragmatic corn and peas; hogs for meat, oxen for labor. But of all the money borrowed during Reconstruction to coax a real farm from the brown stubble of Bright Leaf, they spent by far the most (neighbors shook their heads; far, far too much, they said) on their new state-of-the-art dairy: the dairy up ahead that, 140 years later, Margaret Prickett still used.
Omnis pecuniae pecus fundamentum.
The herd is the foundation of all wealth. It was a quote from the Roman historian Varro, and it was a clever lesson in etymology, for the Latin word for wealth, pecunia, comes from the word for cattle, pecus. It was the official motto of the American Jersey Cattle Club, and it was stenciled in strong black letters onto a sign that hung in the Prickett cheese house. Margaret’s great-grandfather was even a member of the Jersey Scouts of America until 1919, when the moniker was dropped on protest by Boy Scouts of the same name. Jersey cattle were to restore the Prickett family fortune, and to that end, they borrowed heavily to raise a modern stanchion barn with newfangled swinging headgates, and to build adjacent, over the running stream so that the icy water might cool the milk most efficiently, a cheese house, complete with floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves and ripening cave. No expense was spared on sowing the pastures and digging the trench silos, and a good thing, too, for the cows chosen to graze upon the Prickett clover and to populate the fine new outbuildings were, naturally, no common stock themselves, but descended from the First Families of Virginia dairy cattle. These mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts could trace their lineage back to the famed Tormentor family and the celebrated stud, Flying Fox. Sultana’s Foxy Increase was true Jersey royalty—on one side the great-great-great-great-great-and so on-granddaughter of Flying Fox, while her distaff side wound back to Sultane, the acknowledged “Mother” of all Jerseys in America. Compared with their cattle, the Pricketts joked, they were mere upstarts.
The herd is the foundation of all wealth. This motto was Margaret’s inheritance. She knew it was only in the mysterious alchemy of those patrician stomachs working together to turn grass and grain and sunshine and water into the most sublime milk, hinting of fresh Piedmont air and summer’s own roses, that the Prickett Dairy Farm had any prayer of survival. She would not abandon the motto—even if the herd upon which it was founded had dwindled to a mere twenty-two when, after her father died, she was forced to sell off three-quarters of the stock to recoup his bad investments, and even if the second house was collapsing around her. She was raised on homemade jonquil-
colored Jersey butter and crumbly sharp Jersey cheese that her great-grandparents had given names like Manassas Gold and Wilderness Cheddar. She had been taught at her grandfather’s knee how to preserve calves’ stomachs at the dark of the moon and how to tell, almost by smell, the exact greenish moment that curd separates from whey, and if she’d become almost Confucian in her fealty to her ancestors’ ways, then so be it. There were some things in life worth preserving.
Margaret shoved the letter deep into her pocket. Nothing so far had shaken her resolve to continue as her great-grandparents had a hundred years ago, not even when her soon-to-be ex-husband Francis Marvel packed his bags and moved out, nor when her daughter Polly wept that their life was getting so weird any minute PBS was going to show up and make a documentary about them. Registered letter be damned. At thirty-six, Margaret Prickett knew who she was and she knew what mattered. There was still a place in the world for those who did things the right way, the old-fashioned way. Sadly, for the aristocratic Jerseys napping at the old chimney, unaware they were about to go the way of all anciens régimes, First Virginia Savings and Loan did not agree.
At three-thirty in the afternoon, all was quiet in the barn except for the soft strains of Sinatra that Margaret left playing on the sound system for the girls. Over the years, she’d had success with Grieg and Joni Mitchell—it never mattered, classical or modern, so long as it was the same thing every day—but nothing soothed the girls like the sweet, swinging chauvinism of Frank. Their milk flowed freer when he crooned to them, they no longer kicked over their pails, but stood dreamily by like bobby-soxers, chewing their bright pink Bazooka cuds. The cows even had favorite songs. This summer it seemed to be the melancholic “It Was a Very Good Year.”
Inside, she washed up and dressed for the cheese house, tying her wiry hair under a kerchief. Margaret used to be considered one of the most attractive girls in Three Chimneys, though she thought few were likely to confer the title on her now. She had no-nonsense brown eyes and a tall, vegetal figure; she wore her chestnut hair, grown long through missed salon appointments, in a single plait down her back. Margaret had devolved from attractive into that adjective farmers loved to use for thoroughbreds of any species—she was a “handsome” woman, and had become, like many of pure blood, utterly indifferent to what others thought of her. Now she pulled on her homemade white cotton shirt and pants, the scuffed white plastic boots that came to just below the knee, then tied on a white canvas apron. Before she headed over to the cheese house, she wanted to quickly check on Sultana, the only springer left this fall, since Jolly Chimney’s Anna and Orange Frieda had already dropped their calves and none of the replacement heifers had gotten the job done. They were young yet, she reasoned, and might very well take next month when she got the loan of Franklin’s stud again. Sultana was one of the best milkers Margaret had, so she’d give her a rest of sixty days or so after she laid down, and then bring the stud back in. They used to have a stud of their own, but with only she and August to work the farm, he had become just too much of a handful.
Margaret followed a plaintive low to Sultana’s straw-filled stall, where August had brought her in early from the pasture. Like an ungainly grasshopper, he crouched with his long legs drawn up around his ears, a big red one of which he had pressed against her belly.
“What’s wrong?” Margaret asked.
“Thought I heard—probably nothing,” he said, rubbing the taut caramel bulge. He was trying to convince himself he had not just heard what he thought he heard. A calf’s heart beats twice as fast as its mother’s and so there was always a double heartbeat inside the drum of a pregnant cow. He was not positive, but he thought he detected a faint syncopation. ‘might be twins.”
“Don’t say that,” she answered grimly. “Hasn’t Manda had enough to last us all?”
“She’s due in six weeks.” August rose and checked the calendar on the Palm Pilot he carried in his overalls. “Probably time to dry her off.”
“Let’s take her off her concentrates.”
She gave August directions on what succulents to cut out of Sultana’s feed to help dry up her old milk so that her new milk could come down, and stenciled her rump with a big, purple D in indelible marker. When she leaned over, August noticed an envelope sticking out of her deep apron pocket. She saw his eyes go to it worriedly, but in perfect August fashion, he did not ask her about it.
“I’m going to the cheese house,” she announced.
He nodded numbly, and electronically punched Sultana’s new feed ratio into the spreadsheet he kept on each one of the girls. “Remember, I have my program tomorrow,” he called as she headed toward the cheese house.
“What time will you be back?” she asked.
“By milking time.”
Margaret hosed off her boots before entering the small stone building and dunked her arms, up to the elbow, in a bucket of disinfectant she kept by the door. The whitewashed antechamber, built over a cold, underground spring, was her favorite place on the farm, especially on hot early-September days like this. This morning’s small-mouthed, hooded pails bobbed like stainless steel buoys in the spring-fed tank, and Margaret checked the thermometers she had in each. Through a low doorway, she could reach the main room, where her cheesemaking equipment hung over a thirty-year-old water-circulated double-walled vat, the only real upgrade her father had made, sick to death as he was of feeding the old woodstove. She kept her cultures in mason jars on the shelf, neatly labeled Penicilium candidum, and Lactococcus lactis, and Bacteria linens. August had repaired the old Dutch press she used for the larger cheeses and Margaret tightened the screw on this morning’s creamy almond Caerphilly.
She took the ten steps down to the cheese cave, dug out behind and half beneath the house above. Because of the spring, the cave had nearly ideal conditions for ripening. It was just humid enough and a constant fifty-five degrees, winter and summer. Upstairs, she sweltered over the stove and the curd vat, but below, the sweat dried on her forehead, her heart slowed, she could make the rounds of her wheels and plump pyramids and black waxed blocks of Yellow Tavern and Mattaponi Reserve.
She began this afternoon with her day-old ten-pound Cheshires. Margaret sniffed each swaddled bundle, gently unwrapped it, and rubbed a handful of coarse salt into its sticky rind, going over every inch of her cheese like a mother cat would over her young. These larger cheeses took longer to harden, and if she wasn’t careful, she could lose them all in the early days to cracks and air pockets and all the wrong sorts of bacteria. There was nothing worse than to tend a cheese six months, reverently turning it to make sure it dried evenly, carefully waxing it, only to cut into a gassy bloat of ruined milk. It happened to Margaret from time to time and she never ceased taking it as a personal failure.
Down here in the cheese cave, it seemed safe to look at the letter. She didn’t need to open it to know what it said: It was the emphatic end of the conversation she’d had last week with her extension agent, the same conversation they’d had every few months since her father died. Once more, he begged her to switch to Holsteins—which though giving a far less rich milk, gave in quantities far vaster than Jerseys. Barring that, would she not at least upgrade to milking machines? No one outside of a few crackpot Mennonites, he said, still milked by hand. But Margaret never expected to turn a profit on milk alone. No, in her soul, she was not a farmer; she was a cheesemaker. She had learned her ancestors’ farmstead recipes and perfected them: milking by hand into the same seamless zinc pails her grandparents used; heating the milk in the same copper cauldron; cutting it with the same wire knives. She was obsessive in her quest to keep the recipes absolutely faithful, going so far as to culture her own molds from pumpernickel and rye breads she baked herself, just as her grandmother did. And Margaret’s carefulness was finally paying off. Last July, she saw her sales spike when she was mentioned beside Duke’s Mayonnaise and Hanover tomatoes in Gourmet magazine’s Southern Culinary Hall Of Fame.
If she could just hold on two months more, she thought, turning the letter over but still not opening it. Two months to keep them at bay. Those eight weeks would make no real difference in the quality of her cheeses, nor in the farm’s cash flow, but two months from today was the first Tuesday in November, and on that day, the one man who had the power to make this little slip of mint green go away would be in office.
Adams stands for Amnesty.
He spoke the word over and over, a banner waving above all those other fraught mn words like amnesia and amniocentesis, an unimpeachable mouthful, a rockets’ red glare of eternal pardon and utter freedom.
It was what Adams Brooke promised when he was elected. An abolition of the estate tax on small farms, but beyond that, a onetime government bailout of farms earning less than $250,000 a year. That simple, he repeated nearly every night on Margaret’s black-and- white television. He was raised on a working dairy farm, he had watched his grandparents struggle, and he promised—no, he vowed, with his forefinger raised and his hair standing on end—to redress the wrongs of four decades’ worth of uncaring administrations, to wipe the slate clean, to find a place at the table for those who grew the food that was eaten at it!
Forgiveness of her dairy’s debt meant everything to Margaret, and not just for her sake, but for the memory of everyone who’d come before her. Amnesty today meant forgiveness at last for Mandeville Prickett who defaulted on his British creditors, and her great-great-great-grandfather Abingdon with his worthless box of Confederate bonds, and her father who speculated on Internet stocks when he didn’t even own a computer. It meant grace for all the preceding generations who had brought her to this dark, gnawing place, so burdened with her family’s mistakes and miscalculations that she would never get out from under it in her lifetime, and thus would be forced, like her father, and his father before him, to bequeath it to her daughter Polly. And did she hear him? Adams Brooke demanded on the Sunday morning talk shows. Not low-interest loans, or postponements, or debt restructuring, but free and clear absolution. This was what he vowed. This was why Margaret Prickett would never again have to sign for a registered letter.
Margaret put the envelope back in her pocket and unlocked the door to an even darker moonscape of a chamber, where in semitwilight her soft cheeses bloomed blue and green, three-inch silken hair nodding faintly as she entered, tasting the air around her. She settled each upon her palm, stroking them like sightless ocean creatures, easing their crine into a velvety softshell. It was not legal for her to sell these, her favorite, secret children, because they grew from raw, unpasteurized milk and were aged under two months. But a few chefs had ferreted out her contraband and were ordering it for the best restaurants in Charlottesville and Washington and as far away as New York City. Margaret didn’t mind breaking the law over something like this. These cheeses were as old as humanity itself, they were as close as you might come to circulating the earth and ether of a place, your plot of land balanced on the tongue of a diplomat in Dupont Circle or a starlet in SoHo. Why suddenly now, in this cramped corner of the twenty-first century, should our government be proscribing the established methods of thousands of years?
Adams Brooke and her cheese. To August and Polly, the two who knew her best, it seemed she cared about nothing else these days. Some people in town thought that had she cared more about her husband, he wouldn’t have needed to spend so much of his time down at Drafty’s with Andrew Friedman. Many said her obsessiveness about Brooke had driven Francis to his affair—what man wouldn’t be jealous if his wife spent every night down at her self-styled Election Headquarters, running off flyers and phoning complete strangers in other counties? But then there were others in town who said it was more a chicken-or-egg sort of thing, that they never saw Margaret out late stumping for Brooke until after the news about Francis and his secretary broke.
Upstairs, she heard the screen door slam Polly home from school.
Margaret set down her mermaid Epoisse and raced upstairs at the sound of panic in Polly’s voice. August had dropped the bag of rolled oats and cottonseed meal he was measuring out for Sultana’s dinner and run outside to see what was the matter. Polly was halfway down the long gravel driveway, pointing wildly to a caravan of cars churning a pillow of dust on the old dirt road that led from Manda and Jake’s house next door. There had been a ton of cars up and down the dirt road since the news was announced—curiosity-seekers mostly, the kind of people who park outside the houses of convicted murderers or drive to the steep embankments off which school buses have plunged, and wait, as if to feel some emanation of the event. But the six black Buicks and two news vans that went flying down the road looked far more official.
“Mom!” cried Polly, catching sight of the license plate. “It’s Governor Brooke!”
“Why didn’t someone tell me he was coming?” Margaret Prickett wailed, flinging off her apron, snatching up one of the many posters she kept in the barn, and sprinting down the driveway to stand with her daughter. August retrieved her apron with its mint green letter, and carefully hung it behind the door before walking down to join them. The three stood by the mailbox while six identical black cars with tinted windows, two white vans impaled by corkscrewing satellite antennae, and the ten-year-old, two-toned banana Cadillac driven by Mrs. Frank, Jake’s mother, rumbled past them. Margaret waved her sign like a madwoman, shouting out his name, jumping up and down, until all that remained was a choking cloud of dust and the magnificat of cicadas.
The cows, when they were driven in for their afternoon milking, immediately felt the full force of her disappointment. They were used to hearing her sing along with Frank—“Summer Wind,” “Forget Domani”—and nothing could make them forget the terror of having stepped in a gopher hole or being barked at by a big dog like coming in from the pasture to Margaret’s sweet singing voice and soothing hands. But today she did not sing. And when she milked them (not even dry—their udders ached afterward) she leaned her head against their flanks as if it were too heavy for her to hold upright.
“A man like that,” August said from his own milking stool, “He must be booked solid with appointments. He must be racing around all over the country.”
But Margaret didn’t want consolation. She left her pails for him to empty. She had to go turn the cheese.
That night, Margaret washed her hair with borax and an egg yolk, and while it dried, she kneaded two loaves of raisin bread for Polly’s breakfast in the morning. Her kitchen was dark and quiet, with only one low-watt bulb in the ceiling fixture and a kerosene lamp on the counter. The lamp cast its flickering shadow on her coffee mill, still perfumed with home-roasted beans for tomorrow’s percolator, and on the crank wooden butter churn, freshly washed with sweet cream and well water, which had just an hour before yielded its new butter to the icy shelf of her old white Hotpoint refrigerator, as heavy to open as a coffin. It was a large but homey kitchen, with patina-streaked copper pots hanging from the ceiling and a brick hearth big enough to roast a whole pig. Margaret sifted flour onto the worm-knotted farmer’s table in the center of the room and slammed the bread down, punching and heeling the gluten to elasticity. Polly was tucked safely into bed. Margaret had laid out her one hundred percent cotton school clothes and was preparing a preservative-free breakfast: homemade yogurt and butter in the refrigerator, hand-canned peach jam in the pantry, fresh raisin bread. While she worked, the old black-and-white TV played the ten o’clock news soundlessly in the next room: scenes of Amanda Frank’s stricken face against the white hospital pillow, of Jake and Pastor Vaughn standing by like boys waiting for a ballplayer’s autograph, and of Adams Brooke—her good, honest Adams Brooke—straddling the hospital room threshold like a colossus. Margaret shaped the loaves, draped them with a damp cloth, and set them to the back of her old cast-iron gas stove, where the pilot light kept everything a little bit warmer. Another day of saving her daughter from pollution. Another day closer to amnesty. Margaret sat down at her floured kitchen table, buried her head in her hands, and waited for the bread to rise.
Beautifully crafted and driven by warm, vibrant characters, The Mammoth Cheese follows the residents of rural Three Chimneys, Virginia, on their historic journey to re-create the making of the original Thomas Jefferson-era, 1,235-pound “Mammoth Cheese.” As the book opens, the town is joyously celebrating the birth of the Frank Eleven (eleven babies simultaneously born to Manda and James Frank after fertility treatments) and enjoying the thrill of notoriety as reform-minded presidential hopeful Adams Brooke visits the newborns. But as autumn progresses and the babies start to die, the community seeks to redeem itself through the making and transporting of a symbolic Mammoth Cheese to Washington, as a gift for the newly elected President Brooke. The cheese is the brainchild of August Vaughn, a farmhand by day and a President Jefferson impersonator by night, and the creation of Margaret Prickett, a single mother and cheese maker trying to save her century-old family farm. As Margaret slips deeper into debt and desperation, her thirteen-year-old daughter, Polly, slides closer to an inappropriate relationship with her radical, attentive history teacher.
Sheri Holman seamlessly weaves together the lives of Three Chimneys, delving into her characters’ inescapable family histories as they grapple with religion, divorce, politics, and unrequited love. The Mammoth Cheese is a triumphant exploration of the burdens and joys of rural America and the debts we owe to history, our parents, and ourselves.
1) In this generous, lively, penetrating novel, how does Holman link the values of early America with contemporary times? Although geographically limited to a small town in Virginia (with one foray to Washington, D.C.), the book enlarges our experience on many levels. What do we learn about Thomas Jefferson? About the consequences of modern medicine? About dairy farming and cheesemaking?
2) Holman has great fun satirizing scoundrels. Who are they, and how does she skewer them? How do little lies grow into real culpability?
3) The Mammoth Cheese is startlingly original and intricately plotted. There are political shenanigans in high places and enough surprising events in Three Chimneys, Virginia, to make the novel a real page-turner. Try to trace the various plots and subplots and show how they interconnect. How are we spurred to think about the wit and complexity, venality, and potential for grandeur in small-town America?4) In some ways the issues of the book are as fresh as today’s newspaper, yet Holman resists topicality. Her story is as tireless as Our Town or To Kill a Mockingbird. Villains there are, with people betraying themselves as well as each other. But heroes emerge, too. Can you name a few?
5) The Mammoth Cheese celebrates courage to honor responsibility and mutual dependence on both the community and personal levels. How does the author posit real belief in America and possibility and bedrock values as against the meretricious? How does she convey characters with compassion instead of the I-feel-your-pain of some politicians? Do you find this a book that says despite it all, we do not have to succumb to cynicism?
6) The center that holds in this novel is the slow-rolling love affair of Margaret and August. It is a relationship of mature adults, one that’s been on simmer for many years. As readers we hope against hope that these two decent people will “come to their senses” as Leland puts it. How do we grow to know and care about these characters who are both thorny individualists? How do the exigencies of farm life both bond them and separate them? What are the other things that keep them at bay? You recall that in the barn there is a moment when Margaret arrives bearing steaming coffee cups. “The shadow cast by the megalithic, suspended wheel fell over her face, giving her an almost Sibylic countenance. How mysterious and chthonic she appeared to him at this moment, as if, should he ask her to, she might very well pronounce his fate. . . . Yet, even possessed as he was, he could not declare himself directly: I love you, Margaret. Will you be my wife? Instead, he picked his words carefully, and tried his best to sound lighthearted” (p.218). In the end when they finally drop their guard, they are called “two old friends.” Do you find it appropriate that Holman uses restraint to describe Margaret’s revelation? “She had invested so much time and energy in Adams Brooke and his amnesty, when the last honorable man, if not in America, at least of her acquaintance, was sitting right here beside her” (p. 413).
7) “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle Jefferson had said upon his inauguration in 1801. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” (p.185). Could such a thing be said today? August goes on to wonder “what Jefferson would have said had he lost.” The connection between history and contemporary life is insistently drawn in this book. Can you find other examples of this theme in the text?
8) What do you think of the mix of charity, hucksterism, and religion as it is practiced by Pastor Vaughan? Do you think Leland is wrongheaded in his version of right-to-life for Manda? Yet what a real human being he is, with his Fibber McGhee closet and his Wall of Ancestors, on which he looks as a young man so scruffy in his clerical collar “as if they’d buttoned up a stray dog.” Is it surprising that this ordinary man of failing powers becomes in the end a hero whose funeral rates even the sanctimonious vice-president of the United States?
9) A. How does Sheri Holman demonstrate the art of the unexpected in language? It may be through the offbeat adjective or verb or a wholly original image that she captures the reader. Can you find examples that struck you? Consider, for instance, Pastor Vaughan coming to terms with his ominous prognosis: “The night of Pastor Vaughan’s doctor’s appointment, the sky let forth a fantastic autumn thunderstorm. . . .Maybe it was easier to blame the weather than the black cat of his own mortality hunkering on his chest, stealing away his very breath” (p.234).
Or think of Margaret keeping her eyes open as August finally kisses her: “It was easy to crave a soft, spoiled girl, whose own self-love was infectious, but now she was old, and sharp as baling wire, and she wanted to see what a man looked like who was willing to kiss an electric fence” (p.414). Where else do you find Holman using words with fresh acuity?
B. How does she carefully develop symbols in the book? What are the implications of the chimneys, as well as the invasive kudzu vine? Look on page 120 where Mr. March, himself an alien here, is associated with the entangling vine.
10) Holman is Swiftian in taking current trends to satiric conclusions. How are the enormous complexities about fertility drugs presented? Is the reuctio ad absurdam of eleven babies so outlandish that we have trouble taking it seriously? How does the spiritual dilemma of Pastor Vaughan make us more involved in the problems? What do we think about a town that dives into world fame and then jumps off quickly when babies wilt and die? Are the catastrophes that swamp the feckless Franks relevant to multiple births of even three or four?
11) The idea of independence is central to the novel. How is this concept developed on many levels? Jefferson, of course, provides the philosophical framework. Do you find that this device of working learning and history into the fiction works well? (Can you think of other novels that use scholarship and history in analogous ways?) How is the quest for independence important for Margaret? For August? Polly? How does each character learn the art of compromise in seeking independence?
Do you find that this device of working learning and history into the fiction works well? (Can you think of other novels that use scholarship and history in analogous ways?)
12) How does the concept of amnesty expand in the book? Consider Margaret and other small farmers. How is the idea related to Mr. March and his father? Do we hear much about amnesty these days? What begins as a concept of forgiveness of debts for small farmers and extends to pacifists grows in the end into “a forgiveness of self, of one’s own selfishness and cruelties, one’s myriad small disappointments and epic failures” (p.414). Explain. Does this sound like a healthy way to forge relationships and get on with one’s life? Which characters do you think this applies to?
13) Holman is a master of dialogue. She uses it brilliantly to develop character and advance plot. We really know these people through their voices. What are some outstanding examples? Think of the exchanges of the miserable Franks. Or the mundane, loving, old-marriage conversations of August’s parents, the Vaughans. Or the dead-on banalities, often very funny, of teenage girls. Or the rich, hesitant talks of Margaret and August. Others?
14) Teaching is extolled as an art in the book. Polly is bright and receptive, to her peril. How? Her mother often seems punitive in raising Polly, but the dangers are there. What are they? Mr. March is undoubtedly a gifted teacher, but is he sympathetically portrayed?
15) The farmyard at times reminds us of the movie Babe, with its appealing cast of four-legged characters. Did you find that Polly’s loss of her calves inevitably recalls The Yearling? Does the interaction between human beings and animals seem authentic? Were you reminded also of Flannery O’Connor stories that involve animals? How does Polly’s proximity to the penned bull and the hired boy reinforce what else is going on in her life?
16) Some dreams are undeniably trashed in the novel. What are they? Consider the mighty cheese enshrouded in bunting making its way to Washington, swathed in advertisements. Or Margaret and Chapter 11. Or the shocking end of Polly’s will-o’-the- wisp quest. But what is salvaged? What emerges from the dross at the end?
17) How can we justify or even absorb the outrageous, potentially tragic scene on the Potomac? Do you find it peculiarly fitting for the excesses of this mammoth cheese and everyone’s expectations? How do various characters behave in absolutely characteristic ways, starting with Polly’s memorializing the slogan she learned in history class?
18) August is a man of precision. His gravitas, his habit of doing things somberly, comes as a welcome corrective to the excess and hype of parts of the community. Can you think of examples? He is a deliberate person, one we welcome in our lives as well as Margaret’s. Does he make you think of Atticus Finch? What are some of his warming and funny moments? Think of him, empowered from having left Margaret freshly kissed on a park bench, as he wonders what it would have been like to kiss more women. It’s a deft undercutting of romance, almost a Mark Twain moment. But we cheer as this most self-effacing of men becomes an action hero when he pummels and vanquishes the man traducing Polly. Did you find it a scene of elemental power?
19) At the end, for public figures, what is the reader left to hope for? Are we forced to take solace and pride in founding fathers? Their qualities are notably lacking in the Washington of the novel. Marked by neither intelligence nor commitment, the politicians seem to be reduced to a debasement of William James’s idea that truth is what works. Should a firm grounding in Jefferson and Adams as well as the Greeks and Romans that informed them be a litmus test for our leaders?
20) In interviews, Holman has said her novel could be read on two levels—as a straightforward story and as a commentary on America’s recent foreign policy. What do you think Holman means by that? Do you see any parallels between Polly’s coming-of-age and her country’s?