The Mammoth Cheese

The Mammoth Cheese

3.4 9
by Sheri Holman

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When Manda Frank conceives eleven babies with the help of fertility treatments, she brings the world's attention to rural Three Chimneys, Virginia. As the news media descends on the town, even bringing presidential candidate Adams Brooke to Manda's hospital bedside, the residents of Three Chimneys celebrate before the cameras. When all eleven children are born…  See more details below


When Manda Frank conceives eleven babies with the help of fertility treatments, she brings the world's attention to rural Three Chimneys, Virginia. As the news media descends on the town, even bringing presidential candidate Adams Brooke to Manda's hospital bedside, the residents of Three Chimneys celebrate before the cameras. When all eleven children are born alive, Pastor Leland Vaughn rejoices in his belief that the miraculous event will enliven his community.

Meanwhile, artisanal cheese-maker Margaret Prickett has devoted herself to campaigning for Brooke, who has promised to instate a sweeping amnesty for family farms that will erase the debt that threatens her own centuries-old farm. At home, tension swells as Margaret's daughter Polly, after suffering through her parents' messy divorce, finds her own rebellious urges expressed in the radical ideas of Mr. March, a young history teacher. At the same time, August Vaughn, Margaret's loyal farm hand, struggles with his feelings for Margaret, taking solace in being a living historian of Thomas Jefferson. As autumn progresses and the sickly Frank babies begin to die, all of Three Chimneys becomes infected with the same disquiet simmering in the Prickett household.

In an effort to heal his shaken flock, Pastor Vaughn encourages Margaret and August to recreate the Mammoth Cheese, a 1,235-pound wheel of Cheshire delivered to the newly inaugurated President Thomas Jefferson by his New England supporters. Margaret reluctantly agrees, and soon the whole town is involved in the new project. As Margaret plunges herself into first the Adams Brooke campaign and then the making of the giant cheese, she loses sight of the events unfolding in Polly's life. Polly's crush on Harvey March, her revolutionary-minded history teacher, gradually develops into a dangerous relationship. As the novel progresses, March's words and actions towards Polly become questionable and finally blatantly inappropriate and sinister, soon showing that Polly's suspicions of his affection for her aren't wishful thinking at all.

August Vaughn also begins to question his place in Margaret's life. For years, he harbored a love for her that kept him living at home with his parents and working as a laborer on her farm. Now that Margaret's marriage has ended, August admits his feelings for her, and Margaret, overwhelmed by her work on the farm and the increasingly threatening letters from the bank regarding foreclosure on her property, rebuffs him. August distances himself from the Prickett and Vaughn families, buying a piece of land and overseeing the construction of his own, small home.

August's parents are hurt by their only son's decision to leave home, especially his father Leland, who struggles with guilt from his involvement in the birth of the Frank Eleven. He begins to question the wisdom of his council in encouraging Manda to carry all eleven embryos to term. The first babies die and the rest suffer in the hospital and or at the new Frank home, which has been left half-finished by Polly's father's construction firm in the wake of dwindling interest in and charity for the Frank family. But even Leland doesn't understand Manda's suffering. A celebrity and town hero while pregnant, the deaths of her children have returned Manda to her status as the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She miserably cares for the six implacable infants, babies with whom she has been unable to bond. As her life descends into increasing chaos, and her older daughter Rose suffers a terrible dog bite from Manda's untrained pack, Manda finds herself overcome by deep despair and even contemplates killing the babies and herself.

Finally, the cheese is complete. Leland, optimistic that all of Three Chimneys will benefit from Margaret's project, organizes the trip to Washington D.C. Polly's history class, under the supervision of Mr. March, joins the trip, as does a reluctant August, who despite his father's pleas, has refused to dress as Jefferson for the trip. The cheese has at this point become an ethically questionable endeavor, but Margaret finds herself unable to stop what she has begun. Brooke has used Margaret's family motto to get elected, and Margaret is dismayed by the commercial aspect her gift to Brooke has taken on-the cheese now sports corporate sponsorship and is trailed by the media. Margaret's feels even more defeated when a reporter accompanying the caravan tells her that Brooke's farm amnesty is sure to succumb to a compromise with congress. She also realizes her own feelings for August but is unable to bridge the distance that has grown between them.

As Margaret, Polly, August, Leland, and Mr. March travel towards Washington, the tensions threatening their families and all of Three Chimneys builds to a startling conclusion that forces everyone to face the gap between their intentions and their actions.

In the vivid world of The Mammoth Cheese, the present is immersed in the ppppppast and the meaning of community is elusive. As the characters struggle to understand their own debts to parents, friends, and neighbors, they learn to assert their independence.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Like the 1,200-pound cheese of the title, Sheri Holman's novel is a big, ambitious enterprise. Unlike many such enterprises -- though again like the cheese -- it possesses, page by page, or bite by bite if you prefer, an intense, refined and lingering flavor. — Richard Eder
The Washington Post
Holman deftly weaves these stories together, as well as a series of subplots, some of which are profoundly moving. Will Margaret ever notice the Jefferson re-enactor who loves her? Will Polly fall victim to the predatory Harvey March? And what will Washington make of a mammoth cheese floating down the Potomac? That first big cheese may have been a particularly silly slice of Americana, but from it Holman has fashioned a tale that is poignant and powerful and, like an award-winning cheese, surprisingly complex. — Chris Bohjalian
Publishers Weekly
Set in the jittery postboom present, in Three Chimneys, Va., this inventive, offbeat novel by Holman (The Dress Lodger), weaves a deft consideration of American history and political ideals into an exuberantly eccentric tale of smalltown life. With the help of fertility drugs, Manda Frank has just given birth prematurely to 11 babies, and the whole town is reveling in the media attention. But Manda can't quite bond with her fragile brood and feels besieged by their "glittering black fathomless eyes, full of seawater and accusation." Meanwhile, Manda's neighbor Margaret Prickett, about to lose her 18th-century dairy farm, strives desperately for face time with Gov. Adams Brooke, who is running for president on a profarm platform. So obsessed is Margaret with Brooke's candidacy that she blinds herself to 13-year-old daughter Polly's dangerously blooming crush on her American history teacher, as well as to a declaration of love by farmhand August Vaughn, a "living historian" who dresses up as Thomas Jefferson. Then the Frank babies start to die, the cameras leave town and the mood turns ugly. August's father, Pastor Leland Vaughn, comes up with a diversionary tactic: Margaret will recreate the 1,235-pound wheel of cheese presented to Jefferson by Massachusetts Baptists and deliver it to the newly elected President Brooke. What ensues on the banks of the Potomac is unconvincingly violent, but it's the only misstep in a work that dazzles with its combination of history, religion, political satire and tragedy. Every character here is a delicately nuanced, vivid creation-even Margaret's cows, standing "dreamily by like bobbi-soxers, chewing their bright pink Bazooka cud." Agent, Molly Friedrich. (Aug.) Forecast: This is a departure for Holman, whose previous two novels were historical. Here she proves herself adept at contemporary settings as well, while retaining a historical angle. Backed by a $100,000 promo budget and a 12-city author tour, the novel may very well match the success of The Dress Lodger, which has sold more than 200,000 copies to date. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
This wonderfully complex novel is set in Three Chimneys, a rural community in Virginia, a state that has been intrinsically involved in the history of the United States. It is a community that believes in hard work, religion and patriotism, but many of those beliefs are challenged by reality. One reality is the "miracle" birth of 11 babies to one of its poor residents and the subsequent death of some of them. Another is the demise of the small farmer, as typified by Margaret Pricket who is struggling to maintain her family dairy farm. Another is the belief that our children are safe in a small town and that we can trust our government. All these issues become wrapped up in the town's effort to recreate a "mammoth cheese" that was presented to Thomas Jefferson. The characters and plot make a good story, but the author has also created a written montage of some of the issues of modern-day America. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2003, Grove, 442p., Ages 17 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
The story of the inhabitants of Three Chimneys, VA, as they struggle with life, death, and love is woven from many different threads that come together to make a whole cloth. The characters include an adolescent child of divorce with a crush on an unprincipled teacher; a shy, insecure man afraid that life has passed him by and is hiding in the identity of his hero; a minister trying to bring the community together and doubting his wisdom; and a desperate woman who is trying to save her birthright and, in the process, is losing her daughter. All strive to do the best they can, but their human flaws sabotage their progress. Talented Laurel Merlington reads with sensitivity and precision; she brings an understanding voice that involves the listener in the motivations and limitations of each character. Her pacing and pitch are always on target, and her Southern accent is gentle. Highly recommended for all fiction collections.-Juleigh Muirhead Clark, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Lib., Colonial Williamsburg Fdn., VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A rambunctious third novel from the author of A Stolen Tongue (1997) and The Dress Lodger (2000). This time out, Holman virtuosically entangles two arresting plotlines: the ripple effects of the birth of (count 'em) eleven babies to an exhausted Virginia woman and the creation and transportation to Washington of the eponymous protein source. When "Manda" Frank, scion of a white-trash family, in the tidy, history-rich town of Three Chimneys, produces unprecedented results of her consumption of fertility drugs, well-meaning neighbors shower the beleaguered Franks with gifts and promises; presidential candidate Adams Brooke (the self-proclaimed "Farmer's Friend") drops by, and fiscally embattled dairy farmer Margaret Prickett is persuaded to re-create an obscure incident from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson: the creation and delivery to the White House of a 1200-pound wheel of cheese. Holman's enthralling narrative, which ranges among the experiences and interrelationships of several expertly drawn characters, also incorporates an impressive amount of detailed information about such resolutely untrendy matters as farming, cheesemaking, animal husbandry, house construction, and the flexible,if austere moral nature of one of our most ingenious and articulate Founding Fathers. Poor Manda Frank's nightmarish maternity (exacerbated when several babies inevitably die) is smartly juxtaposed with Margaret's initially passionate, eventually wavering support of the pragmatic Brooke, and her conflicted relations with two other beautifully realized characters: her hired hand August Vaughn, a part-time "Chautauquan living historian" (i.e., Thomas Jefferson impersonator), unable to declare his love forMargaret; and her adolescent daughter Polly, herself seeking "liberation" through a romantic fixation on her intense, challenging history teacher. All strands are conjoined as the cheese marches to Washington, shepherded by Holman's most winningly complex character: Pastor Leland Vaughn (August's father), a tireless Christian worker torn between his guilt for having partially encouraged Manda's perilous pregnancy and benign intervention in the needy lives of his parishioners and neighbors. Part Jon Hassler, part Robert Altman film-and all-around terrific. $100,000 ad/promo; author tour. Agent: Molly Friedrich/Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency

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Read an Excerpt

It was a long walk to the end of the driveway. Margaret Prickett saw the sun glint off Mr. Kelly's U.S. Post Office truck, nearly airborne from the pink and blue balloons tied to his sideview mirrors in cheerful disregard of government regulation. He loved kids, probably because he had none of his own, and kids loved him. When her daughter, Polly, was a little girl, she used to leave wax-paper cups of Pepsi inside the mailbox, the red flag raised so that he wouldn't drive past thirsty. And though by the time he opened the little black oven the cola was flat and fatty with melted wax, in gratitude he would always leave her a rubber band. It was a splendid economy.

Mr. Kelly only got out of his truck when there was something to sign for, yet to Margaret's eyes, he stepped out seemingly empty-handed. She waved to him, a big hearty arm-sweep, as if to say, Great to see you. Got something good? He waved back, a small, unenthusiastic little shake from the wrist that could only mean registered letter.

Sure enough, she spotted it on his clipboard, the little square of serious pale green. She stopped about fifty yards away from him, suddenly overwhelmed by the mid-afternoon heat of the day. Maybe she could just turn around and calmly walk back to the cheese house, lock herself in, and make August deal with Mr. Kelly. Maybe she could just stand there until he disappeared like the mirage he looked to be in the heat, a postal specter no more valid than a canceled stamp.

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The Mammoth Cheese 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this author's previous two books, but I found this one seriously lacking in dramatic tension. But more seriously, when I put the book down I was angry and disturbed at what I can't help but read as an anti- Semitic passion play. 'The Mammoth Cheese' is about a small, quintessential 'American' town ¿ read: Christian ¿ struggling with itself and in a world of greed and lies. In the end, everyone discovers that Life is about the Future, and the Future is about the children, symbolized by Polly. The villain here is Mr. March, inexplicably Jewish. He is, as Polly once calls him 'a spy,' not from the South, an intellectual, a double-talker, a predator and a pedophile ¿ read: Jewish. He is there, naturally, to rape the innocent Christian Future. The story ends, the day is saved, when the Virgin is saved from the Jew by violence, after which he is expelled from the community. I'd love to hear another reading of this charming parable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a beautifully written novel taking the reader into a way of life that most do not experience. Current controversial sociological issues are delt with compassionately. One can easily identify with the human conflicts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a great delight to read. The title had me curious from the get-go. The characters were incredibly believeable and I found myself relating to their lives a little too closely. The Mammoth Cheese is such a fun read that when it was over I made myself a grilled cheese sandwich!
Guest More than 1 year ago
First and foremost, this is a beautifully written book. Ms. Holman's writing is almost poetic, her imagery concise and often humorous. Her characters are beautifully drawn. Her story confronts many contemporary issues like multiple births/abortion, personal and political ethics, the dangers of adolescence, etc., without being judgmental or didactic. This is one of those books you'll keep on your shelf and actually re-read in a few years.
Guest More than 1 year ago
started out OK but eventually grow to really dislike most of the characters, ESPECIALLY Margaret the main character - completely disappointed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel-though I have not read it- seems to be just a retelling of A BIG CHEESE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE a book by Candace Fleming. This children's book is based on the true story of how, in 1801, the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts, made a 1,235 pound block of cheese to send to President Jefferson. This story just seems to be a rehash of an old book- updated of course. Why not use an original idea!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A marvelous cast of characters that draws you through their individual yet joined stories. You feel as if you've known Margaret, August, Manda and the rest all your life, and experience each nuance with them. Even better than 'The Dress Lodger.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
In her most accomplished novel to date, Ms. Holman succeeds in involving us with each of her characters. She intertwines subplots ingeniously; her dialog is realistic and compelling. This is a novel that can be read for its entertainment value alone, but the ethical issues are far more important. If no one is pouncing on movie rights, an opportunity is being missed.(There are a couple of egregious spelling/grammatical errors, but they will undoubtedly be edited before subsequent printings.) Don't wait-read it now!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Holman, who has previously taken us into unfamiliar times and intimidating geographies, delivers an extraordinary contemporary novel whose territory is a small Virginia town and its well-intended, terribly imperfect inhabitants. If it sounds improbable that a novel about multiple births, religious faith, modern politics, dairy farming, Jeffersonian ideals, romantic frustration, and a dangerous adolescence could be coherent, this is worth every page. The Mammoth Cheese takes on these elements and delivers a beautifully told story, flawlessly executed.