Review by Mack Hassler
Two texts in the general literature far from the UP come to mind as the reader listens to the strong first-person opening here, “Me and Ma live off the land. That and her government check. My name’s Nettle Bramble, but folks call me Nettie for short….” One is the great, tragic novel Moby Dick and the other is a recent award-winning Memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Nettie does not read books and so it cannot be a conscious imitation. Still a funny, dumpster-diving long narrative memoir like the Walls as well as a major tragedy like the Melville are important echoes that we like to see in the work of Terri Martin. She gave a talk on “humor” at the recent UPPAA Conference that was well-received, and now the publication of this echo of Walls highlights her authority. The great White Whale is another story for another time.
In fact, even though most of the very funny humor is of the dumpster-diving methods of the family to cope and to feed themselves—I would swear that Martin knows the similarly funny “Nettie” methods of survival that Walls describes in her Memoir—some more serious strangeness has to do with two very wimpy nephews that Nettie cannot understand in her family. These two boys do not like to dig worms for fishing. Nettie herself says that she is furious that a person needs a license (a fishing license) to eat. In any case, her nephews do not like the messiness of digging messy worms out of the ground to fish. They would rather read books and they want to go to college. So the boys may know the great books and some of the writing that goes beyond the UP fishing books. Nettie does not. Actually, Jeannette Walls herself grows beyond her poverty-driven family and becomes a New York writer making large royalties out of her funny telling of her mother’s dumpster-diving and so only has to resort to “messy worms” on the page and not on the hook. But like the white whale that is another story.
In addition to the fishing worms, details about plumbing are the key source of humor as Nettie tells her story. An Out House that has to be lifted off a hole in the ground once the hole is full and moved to a freshly dug hole is very funny, but the nephews do not think so. And pumping the septic tank regularly means that they invent a funny and familiar name for the rich-smelling truck. Nettie delights in narrating all this in detail. The plumbing issue is solved at the end in a very funny way, and they do get indoor toilets. But Nettie explains to Ma that they do not quite know how to use them.
Martin writes smoothly and well. I had to miss her talk this past June on humor for personal reasons—I was out digging worms. But I heard she was great. This book, also, will be very well appreciated. Nettie’s nephews will have to get into college so that they can study it.
Roadkill Justice: Featuring Woodswoman Nettie Bramble, by Terri Martin (Modern History Press, Ann Arbor, 2023), 90 pages, paper, n.p.