Friday, June 5, 2009

Mrs. Mike, my rite of passage

Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D

That's pretty much how my first copy of Mrs. Mike looked when I married and moved to Omaha many years ago as a teenage newlywed. The badly worn blue cover, the line drawing of the young bride and her handsome Mountie, the pages all creased and bent, stained with hot cocoa and endless tears. Suddenly I was Mrs. Mike on my way to my own adventure far from home. My new husband wasn't a Mountie but he was a man in uniform and the trip from New York City to the plains of Nebraska seemed every bit as exciting.

Someone once told me that the books we read as children are the books that stay with us for a lifetime, the books that most influence the men and women we become, and I agree. Okay, so maybe Nancy Drew (girl sleuth), Cherry Ames (apple-cheeked nurse), and Vicki Barr (post-war stewardess) weren't exactly what she had in mine but there's no denying that inside this 58 year old writer lives all three of those characters.

And, of course, there's Mrs. Mike. I was ten years old the first time I read Benedict and Nancy Freedman's book. A day-dreaming, book-loving only child who liked nothing more than to disappear into a great story. Some kids dreamed of growing up and moving to NYC. I dreamed of getting out. (The truth? I would have kicked the Big Apple to the curb for the chance to live in suburbia.) And you couldn't get much farther away than the Great North. You can keep those sun-swept beaches; give me the Canadian wilderness in the dead of winter with a gorgeous Mountie to push back the blizzards and keep you warm at night.

I'll admit it. I fell head-over-heels in love with Mike Flannigan. The way I remembered the book, he was the perfect romantic hero. In my memory, Mrs. Mike was the love story to end all love stories, the one that swept me off my feet and kept me that way for over forty years. I write romance for a living and I read it for pleasure and nothing I'd encountered, no matter how wonderful the book, came close to the dazzling tale of Kathy and Mike.

And the best part? It was true!

Or at least I thought it was right up until an issue of O Magazine (12/07) hit my mailbox and I devoured Peggy Orenstein's wonderful article Mrs. Mike Changed My Life and discovered that not only was there no Santa Claus, my beloved Mrs. Mike was fiction.

Yes. FICTION. Like Orenstein, I'd paid no attention to that very telling word on the spine of my paperback. I'd swallowed the book whole and made it my own. I believed every word like it was the Bible handed down from the Mount. Mike and Kathy Flannigan were real. They lived and breathed and loved.

Except they weren't. Mrs. Mike was based on Kathy Flannigan's real story but it was still a novel. My heart was broken. Silly, isn't it, to be so invested for so long in a book and feel so betrayed to discover that the Freedmans had plied the novelist's trade in telling it.

So I did what you would probably have done too: I sat down and re-read Mrs. Mike. I expected to be swept up again into the romance of it all same as I had been as a child. I expected to empathize with Kathy, fall madly in love with Mike, make lots of happy friends in my frontier town.

Hey, wait a minute! What's going on? This isn't the sweet love story I remember. This story has hard edges. People get hurt in this story. Children die. Towns burn to the ground. Terrible illnesses sweep across the range. Marriages don't always work out quite the way you expect them to.

It all seemed new to me. Somehow over the years I'd air-brushed the book into a glossy (snowy) love story with the kind of perfect happy ending we all dream about. The kind the fictional Kathy and Mike really didn't get. (Neither did the real life Kathy and Mike, for that matter.)

My memory retained the sparks and the passion and discarded the rest. Yes, I still like the book but do you want to know the truth? Right now I wish I hadn't re-read it. I miss the Mrs. Mike of my dreams.

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