Thursday, June 15, 2023

Tour Review - - Famous in a Small Town

Famous in a Small Town
by Viola Shipman
Publisher: Graydon House
Release Date: June 13, 2023
Reviewed by PJ

For most of her eighty years, Mary Jackson has endured the steady invasion of tourists, influencers and real estate developers who have discovered the lakeside charm of Good Hart, Michigan, waiting patiently for the arrival of a stranger she’s believed since childhood would one day carry on her legacy—the Very Cherry General Store. Like generations of Jackson women before her, Cherry Mary, as she’s known locally, runs the community hub—part post office, bakery and sandwich shop—and had almost given up hope that the mysterious prediction she’d been told as a girl would come true and the store would have to pass to…a man.

Becky Thatcher came to Good Hart with her ride-or-die BFF to forget that she’s just turned forty with nothing to show for it. Ending up at the general store with Mary is admittedly not the beach vacation she expected, but the more the feisty octogenarian talks about destiny, the stronger Becky’s memories of her own childhood holidays become, and the strange visions over the lake she was never sure were real. As she works under Mary’s wing for the summer and finds she fits into this quirky community of locals, she starts to believe that destiny could be real, and that it might have something very special in mind for Becky…

PJ's Thoughts:

I'm late to the party when it comes to Viola Shipman books. I've only read two - so far - but you best believe I'll be working my way through the back list soon. These books are special. In addition to heart-tugging stories, they are also love letters to my native state of Michigan. If you've ever visited Northern Michigan, Shipman's descriptions in this book will tease your memories to the surface: the lure of a crystal clear Great Lake, the mystical light at dawn and dusk, the dance of leaves on mighty trees, and the faint sound of long-ago drums whispering on a gentle breeze. If you have yet to discover the beauty and legends of this area, this book will have you wanting to correct that. 

While the background of this book sets the stage for the story, it's the characters who bring it to life. Shipman has infused each of them with relatable fears, hopes, and dreams, bringing them to such vivid life that I'm firmly convinced they're actually living their best lives in Good Hope. I love that all of these characters have some miles on them. They've reached ages where they know they need to make life changes in order to move forward, to escape the (false) comfort of the ruts they've been living in and claim the happiness that's eluded them. I love the mystical element of the story that unites Mary and Becky; the connection between generations of women that supports, teaches, and stretches but never breaks. And I love that even Mary, who is sure she knows how the story will end, can be surprised by the twists coming her way. 

This is a book about friendship, family, forgiveness, starting over, finding love, and discovering your destiny. It's filled with quirky characters, unexpected romance, humor, heart, and strong women with the will to claim that destiny. It's also filled with cherries, the lifeblood of this region of Michigan, and the many delicious things you can make with them. Some of my favorite scenes in this book were in the kitchen, with Mary teaching Becky how to bake the many cherry delights sold at the General Store. It took me straight back to my grandmother's kitchen, the recipes she shared as she taught me how to bake, sharing love, and life lessons, along the way. 

I loved every perfectly placed word of this story and am already eager to read it again. It touched my heart, made me laugh, made me cry, and left me eager to return to page one and experience it all over again. It also left me aching to visit the quirky, scenic, fruit-filled small towns of Northern Michigan again; to climb the sandy dunes, play in the cool, clear water of Lake Michigan, walk among the fluttering trees, and open my soul to the faint, distant drums of the past.  


Excerpt from
Famous in a Small Town


August 1958

“Good News from Good Hart!”

by Shirley Ann Potter

It was the spit heard ’round the world!

Our town is still atwitter over the news that the daughter of Mr. Peter Jackson was crowned the 35th Annual Cherry Pit Spittin’ Champion of Leelanau and Emmet County last Saturday. Fifteen-year-old Mary Jackson, an Emmet County high-school sophomore, was not only the first woman—uh, girl—to win the contest, but her stone flew a Guinness Book of World Records–breaking distance of ninety-three feet six-and-a-half inches, shattering the previous record set by “Too Tall” Fred Jones in 1898 at the state’s very first Cherry Championship right here in Good Hart.

News of her accomplishment has flown farther than her cherry pit, with reporters from as far away as New York and London anointing our town sprite with the moniker “Cherry Mary.”

I caught up with Mary at the Very Cherry General Store—our beloved post office/grocery store/sandwich- 

and-soda-shop run by Mary’s mother and grandmother—to see how she managed such a Herculean feat.

“My mom taught me to whistle when I was a kid (“A kid!” Don’t you just love that, readers?), and I had to be loud enough for her to hear me when she was down at the lake. I think that made my lips strong,” Mary says. “And I started eating sunflower seeds when I was fishing on the boat with my grandma. She taught me how to spit them without having the wind blow them back in the boat.”

Mary says she practiced for the contest by standing in the middle of M-119—the road that houses our beautiful Tunnel of Trees—and spitting stones into the wind when a storm was brewing on Lake Michigan.

“I knew if I could make it a far piece into the wind, I could do it when it was still.”

While her grandmother was “over the moon” for Mary’s feat, saying, “It’s about time,” Mr. Jackson says of his daughter’s accomplishment, “It’s certainly unusual for a girl, but Mary isn’t your average girl. Maybe all this got it out of her system, so to speak. I hope so for her sake.”

The plucky teenager seems nonplussed by the attention, despite seeing her face all over northern Michigan in the papers and the T-shirts featuring her face—cheeks puffed, stone leaving her mouth—and the words Cherry Mary in bright red over the image.

“A girl can do anything a man can,” Mary says in between retrieving mail, spreading mayonnaise on a tomato sandwich and twirling a cherry around in her mouth, before perfectly depositing the stone in a trash can across the room. “You just gotta believe you can. That’s the hard part. Harder than spitting any old pit.”

Mary seems ready to conquer the world, readers. Cheers, Cherry Mary! Our hometown heroine!



June 2023

“Okay, Benjie, would you like it if Ashley did this to you?”

He scrunches up his face to stave off tears and shakes his head. “No.”

“Well, it’s not a nice thing to do.”

I study Ashley’s hair, then take her face in my hands. “It’s going to be okay. Trust me?”

The little girl nods her head. I give her a hug.

I walk over to my desk and open the bottom drawer . There is a large jar of creamy peanut butter sitting next to a bag of mini Snickers. The peanut butter is for emergencies like this: removing gum from a little girls’ hair. The Snickers are for me after I’m finished with this life lesson.

“Well, I’m just glad neither of you are allergic to peanuts,” I say. “Allows me to do this.”

I cover the gum stuck in the back of Ashley’s pretty, long, blond hair and then look at her.

“I promise this works,” I say. “I’ve performed a lot of gum surgery.”

She nods. Her eyes are red from crying, her cheeks blotchy.

“Why did you do this, Benjie?” I ask the little boy seated in the chair before my desk. 

He ducks his head sheepishly, his brown bangs falling into his eyes, and murmurs something into his chest.

“I didn’t catch that,” I say. “What did you say? Remember it’s okay to express your emotions.”

He looks at me, freckles twitching on his cheeks. “I can’t say,” he whispers.

“Yes, you can,” I say. “Don’t make this any worse than it already is.”

Benjie glances toward the door to ensure that it is closed. “Tyler Evans told me to do it or he’d punch me on the way home.”

Being a grade-school administrator is akin to being a detective: you have to work the perp to get the truth. Eventually—no matter the age—they break, especially when a verdict on punishment is waiting in the balance.

It’s the last day of school. Benjie does not want his summer to be ruined.

I lean down and slide the gum out of Ashley’s hair. I go to my sink, dampen a cloth and put some dish soap on it, return and clean the rest of the peanut butter off her locks. I move to a tall filing cabinet and retrieve a clean brush. The filing cabinet is filled with bags of sealed brushes and combs, toothbrushes and EpiPens, certificates and old laptops. I run the brush through her hair. I hold up a mirror for her to see the back of her head.

“See, good as new.”

“What do you say to Ashley, Benjie?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Do you accept his apology?”

Ashley shakes her head no. “You ruined the last day of school. You’re a big ol’ meanie.”

“Ashley,” I say, my tone sweet but authoritarian.

“I accept your apology,” she says.

“You’re free to go,” I say to her.

“But you’re still a big ol’ poop head,” she says, racing out of my office, bubblegum-free hair bouncing.

I actually have to clench my hands very hard to stifle a laugh.

Big ol’ poop head.

How many times a day would I—would any adult—like to scream that at someone?

“Are you telling my parents?” Benjie asks.

“I have to,” I say, “but I’ll tell them why you did it, and then I’ll have a talk with Tyler.”


“I have to do that, too,” I explain. “And I’ll talk to his parents as well.”

He looks at me, his chin quivering.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy here for bullying,” I say. “Trust me, Tyler won’t do it again. You have to stand up to bullies. You have to show them the right way to do things. Otherwise, they never change.”

In addition to being a detective, an assistant principal is also akin to being the vice-president of the United States. Everyone knows your name, everyone knows you’ve achieved some level of status, but nobody really understands what the hell you do all day.

“I promise it will be okay,” I say. “Just promise me you won’t do it again. You’re a nice boy, Benjie. That’s a wonderful thing. Always remember that.”

“I promise.” He looks at me. “Can I go now?”

“One more thing. You know you aren’t supposed to bring gum to school.”

“I know. But one of the moms was handing it out before school.”

Mrs. Yates, I instantly know. She wants to be the cool mom. She’s Room Mom for 2A, and, Mrs. Trimbley, the Room Mom for 2B, told me that competing with her this year was like being a contestant in Squid Game.

Benjie continues. “It’s Bubble Yum. My favorite. My mom won’t let me have it because it’s bad for my teeth.”

Benjie opens his mouth and smiles. He resembles a jack-o’-lantern. He’s missing teeth here and there, willy-nilly, black holes where baby teeth once lived and adult teeth will soon reside.

Too late, I want to say to Benjie, but he won’t get my humor. Only my best friend, Q, understands it, and my grandparents who made me this way.

I think of how much I loved chewing gum as a kid.

“Do you have any more?”

“Am I going to get in trouble again?”

“No,” I say with a laugh.

He reaches into the pocket of his little jeans and hands me a piece of grape Bubble Yum.

My favorite.

“Do you know what my teacher used to say when I’d sneak gum into class?”

“You snuck gum into class?”

He stares at me with more admiration than if Albert Pujols from the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly appeared with an autographed baseball.

“I did,” I say. “It was about the only bad thing I ever did. My teacher used to hold out her hand in front of my desk and ask, ‘Did you bring enough gum to share with the whole class?’”

“Did you?” Benjie asks, wild-eyed.

“No,” I say. “That was the whole point. She wanted to embarrass me. And it always worked. Teachers just liked to say that.”

I take the gum from Benjie. “This is just between us, okay?”

He giggles and nods.

I pop the gum into my mouth. It’s even more insanely sweet and sugary and tastes even better than I remember. My taste buds explode. I chew, Benjie watching me with grand amusement, and then—looking out my window to make sure the coast is clear—blow a big bubble. A massive bubble, in fact. It expands until it’s the size of a small balloon. Benjie continues to watch me in silence as a child today might do today trying to figure out how to use a rotary phone. After a few moments, the flavor subsides.

“Want to learn a trick?” I ask.


“If you ever get caught chewing gum, don’t stick it in a nice girl’s hair or swallow it. Learn to do this.” I narrow my lips as if I’m going to whistle, puff my cheeks and spit my gum into the air as if Michael Jordan were draining a game-winning three-pointer as time expired. The purple gum arcs into the air and deposits directly into a trash can next to a low-slung sofa ten feet across my office.

Benjie pumps his fist and lifts his hand to high-five me.

“Where did you learn to do that?” he asks.

“Sunday school,” I wink. “My grandma taught me.”

Excerpted from Famous in a Small Town. Copyright © 2023 by Viola Shipman. Published by Graydon House, an imprint of HarperCollins.

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VIOLA SHIPMAN is the pen name for internationally bestselling LGBTQIA author Wade Rouse. Wade is the author of fifteen books, which have been translated into 21 languages and sold over a million copies around the world. Wade chose his grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, as a pen name to honor the working poor Ozarks seamstress whose sacrifices changed his family’s life and whose memory inspires his fiction. 

Wade’s books have been selected multiple times as Must-Reads by NBC’s Today Show, Michigan Notable Books of the Year and Indie Next Picks. He lives in Michigan and California, and hosts Wine & Words with Wade, A Literary Happy Hour, every Thursday.



  1. Another new to me author and books about an area I love. About a month ago I had the pleasure of being able to look at beautiful Lake Michigan in person. A blessing for me. Thanks for the review and introduction to a book I am sure I would enjoy.

  2. I also was late to find Viola Shipman's books. We read Clover Girls for book club and have since read several recent books and have a few of the older books on my radar. The Secret of Snow was a favorite. Famous in a Small Town is on my TBR list.

  3. PJ I enjoy reading your take on books. You takes us into the pages and we live vicariously through you; unless we’ve read it too and then it’s “Yes!” And fan girl moments. You are a gift!