Book Review: Starting from Scratch by Susan Gilbert-Collins

Preferring discretion over valor, I won’t refer to Starting from Scratch, the first novel from South Dakota native Susan Gilbert-Collins, as “chick lit.” So, how about “food lit”?

All right, while the book involves cooking from scratch and is interspersed with recipes, that also is probably a little too flip Gilbert-Collins, in fact, is looking at issues that we all encounter — the loss of a parent, coping with grief and dealing with family. At the same time, I have to admit Starting from Scratch isn’t up my alley. I read it because Gilbert-Collins is appearing this week at the South Dakota Festival of Books. And even though it isn’t my cup of tea, its setting and her being born and raised in South Dakota make much of the book comfortably familiar.

The novel is built around Olivia Tschetter, the youngest of Vivian and Charlie Tschetter’s children. Olivia was raised in Brookings, S.D., where Charlie is an engineering professor at South Dakota State University. On the day she successfully defends her doctoral dissertation in linguistics at an Ohio college, Vivian falls from a step stool and strikes her head. Olivia flies home immediately but Vivian, the only one who knew when Olivia was defending her dissertation, never regains consciousness and dies two days later. Although Vivian dies in the first, brief chapter, she is a pervasive presence in the book.

Each family member struggles with Vivian’s death in their own way and, when mixed with their collective histories, the result is a variety of occasionally strained family dynamics. The absence of their mother leaves them all, in one way or another, starting their lives from scratch. For example, Olivia decides to remain in Brookings, uncertain as to her future. She doesn’t tell her family about her successful dissertation defense (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear other than perhaps some longstanding sibling rivalry). For several months Olivia spends most of her time in the family home, where, like her mother, she makes most of the meals from scratch. While this helps her feel close to her mother, it also seems to prolong her grieving.

Vivian, in fact, enjoyed cooking so much that for years she produced a newsletter called Cooking With Vivian. With several hundred subscribers, the newsletter contained recipes, tips and responses to inquiries sent in by readers. Olivia decides to try to get out the issue Vivian was working on when she died. Again, though, her desire to complete her mother’s task in tribute to her reinforces what Olivia and the rest of the family has lost. It is often during the preparation of the newsletter that Gilbert-Collins puts recipes between several of the chapters that relate not only to Vivian or her newsletter but events in the book.

Vivian’s notes about trying to answer a reader’s question for that issue are also related to another element of the book. At the urging of her family, Olivia ends up helping out at the local Meals on Wheels program. She meets an elderly woman client who knew her mother and ends up uncovering secrets of both families. Gilbert-Collins handles this angle sufficiently enough that it doesn’t become simply a hackneyed plot tool.

Starting from Scratch has an engaging tone and is quite well written. It probably, though, is outside what most male readers would read and, likewise, the device of using the recipes is unlikely to strike much interest in readers who don’t do much cooking. In fact, at best I skimmed the recipes. In addition, the family interplay seems to ring true and creates a slight undercurrent of tension despite aspects of it not being tremendously complex (although perhaps they have a commonality that makes them more fathomable). For anyone who has spent any time in Eastern South Dakota or Brookings in particular, though, the book resonates with cultural identity.

Gilbert-Collins captures the way we speak and act and how many of us tend to think. When names like Tschetter and Hofer appear, you know there’s some Mennonite heritage and specific geographic areas involved. Olivia’s sister Ruby is a local celebrity simply because she does the weather on one of the Sioux Falls television stations. As Olivia travels around Brookings, there are references to actual restaurants (one now defunct), parks, streets, the Dairy Micro building on campus that makes and sells what may be the world’s best ice cream, and churches, such as the one at the top of a T-intersection with a 30-foot painting of Jesus with his arms outstretched that leaves him appearing to be directing traffic (just a block and a half north of the house on Main Street where I lived my last two years of college). All in all, a reader familiar with the area has no doubt of Gilbert-Collins’ South Dakota heritage.

Thus, while the book’s approach doesn’t engage me personally, there are plenty of readers in or from South Dakota that will find it enjoyable. That also makes Gilbert-Collins an excellent choice for the Festival of Books. She is scheduled to speak about the book at 10 am Saturday and sit on a “Writing About Small Towns” panel at 11 am Saturday. She will also be at Readers Den in Mitchell at 11:30 am Friday and 3 pm Friday at Cover to Cover in Brookings, just five blocks south of where Jesus is still directing northbound traffic.

[Vivian] had the South Dakota pedigree, she had married a Mennonite boy with a sensible civil engineering degree, and she knew the value of a good honest meatloaf.

Susan Gilbert-Collins, Starting from Scratch

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