The Mammoth Cheese
As I was reading Sheri Holman's new novel, THE MAMMOTH CHEESE, on the subway, I received countless comments from strangers on the book's title. "THE MAMMOTH CHEESE," more than one person said to me, "What's THAT about?" Although many of the novel's situations --- and certainly its title --- are rather absurd, the novel touches on themes that are anything but silly.
Sheri Holman, whose previous novels, A STOLEN TONGUE and THE DRESS LODGER, were set in Palestine and England, respectively, here writes a novel that is not only American in its setting and scope but also quintessentially American in its themes of self-reliance, family obligation and, most importantly, independence. In many ways THE MAMMOTH CHEESE is an extended meditation on the concept of independence, explored through the examples of several carefully drawn small-town folks from rural Three Chimneys, Virginia.
There's Manda Frank, part of Three Chimneys's most notorious white-trash family, who finds herself the mother of eleven babies after a fertility drug proves a little too effective. Counseled by her pastor to keep all the babies, Manda is completely bewildered by her new responsibilities. When some of the babies start to die, Manda is torn between anguish at her loss and relief at the prospect of regaining the freedom she has always valued and the ability to hunt and roam the woods with her beloved dogs, a freedom that motherhood seems to have stolen entirely.
Also struggling with his own independence is August Vaughn. By day, August is a farmhand on Margaret Prickett's small dairy farm. By night, he dresses up as Thomas Jefferson to interpret Jefferson's life and writings to audiences of locals and tourists alike. Even though August reveres the man famous for writing the Declaration of Independence, he is unable to declare his own independence. He's in thrall both to his parents, with whom he has lived as an adult for more than twenty years, and to his long hidden and unrequited love for Margaret.
Margaret, too, must define what independence means to her. Recently divorced from her husband, she's struggling to keep her small dairy farm afloat while raising her 13-year-old daughter Polly, protecting her from the corrupting influences of modern life. Margaret has pinned all her financial hopes on newly elected President Adams Brooke, who has run on a platform of granting debt amnesty to America's small farmers. As a dramatic expression of her gratitude, Margaret is determined to present President Brooke with a 1,200-pound cheese, a gesture reminiscent of a gift given to Jefferson during his presidency. Soon, though, the mammoth cheese gets out of Margaret's control, and she must decide how far to take the media circus that ensues.
Finally, there's Polly, Margaret's teenage daughter, who loves her mother fiercely but feels lost in the wake of her parents' divorce and the drama of her mother's struggles to save her farm. She is drawn to her history teacher, Mr. March, whose favorite Jeffersonian motto is "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Mr. March paints himself as a radical and encourages Polly to rebel, but it soon becomes clear that his interest in Polly is more sinister than a desire to help her gain her independence.
Amazingly enough, all of these threads do come together during the Mammoth Cheese's pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. Without being preachy or predictable, THE MAMMOTH CHEESE manages to incorporate some big ideas about the nature of independence and the character of America.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 1, 2003
The Mammoth Cheese
- Publication Date: July 1, 2003
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 592 pages
- Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
- ISBN-10: 0871139006
- ISBN-13: 9780871139009