The Mammoth Cheese

The Mammoth Cheese

by Sheri Holman

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Overview


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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802141354
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/09/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.02(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.23(d)

About the Author

Sheri Holman is the author of A Stolen Tongue; Th e Dress Lodger, a New York
Times Notable Book; and Th e Mammoth Cheese, short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction and a San Francisco Chronicle and Publishers Weekly Book of the Year.

Hometown:

Brooklyn, New York

Date of Birth:

June 1, 1966

Place of Birth:

Richmond, Virginia

Education:

B.A. in Theatre from the College of William and Mary, 1988

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.

Reading Group Guide

Our Book Club Recommendation
Taking as its theme the consequences of our shared history, Sheri Holman’s new novel brings the debts we owe to the past, our families, and ourselves to a crossroads in the small town of Three Chimneys, Virginia. With richly drawn and original characters, The Mammoth Cheese is more than a truly entertaining read; it is also a thoughtful exploration of identity and community on the smallest and largest scales.

At the onset, we meet Leland Vaughn, Episcopal priest and town father, who rallies the town in support of a local woman who has gone through a record-breaking multiple birth. The miracle of the "Frank Eleven" unites the town and attracts nationwide attention. But when some of the infants die and concern for the family sours, he shifts the town’s focus to a second opportunity for redemption, in the form of an unlikely gift to the newly elected president: a reincarnation of a legendary Jefferson-era cheese weighing 1,235 pounds. The birth of the cheese is in the hands of Margaret Prickett, a strong-willed dairy farmer, and Leland's son, August, a Jefferson impersonator who works for Margaret -- and secretly, hopelessly loves her. Each of them places their hopes for salvation in the new undertaking, but as the idea comes to fruition, what grows in Three Chimneys is even greater than the mammoth gesture.

The life of this book is in the characters who inhabit it, for it is through their struggles that the author’s concerns are brought to bear. Leland desperately wishes to restore the town's lost vitality, but as he comes to doubt his own motives, a complicated moral question is raised for readers as well. Meanwhile, Holman shows how loyalty to the past can blur our view of the present, as Leland’s regret over the choices his shy, solitary son has made lead him to desperate measures to craft a legacy. In trying to rescue her 140-year old farm, Margaret’s foolhardy devotion to a possibly corrupt politician blinds her not only to August's love but also to dangers even closer to home. And, as he hides behind the mask of Thomas Jefferson, August’s battle between head and heart, and his arduous journey to self-actualization, will surely win over every reader. The characters' struggles lead us to ask how far we will go for self-preservation, and at what true cost.

August Vaughn asks, "What better way to learn history than to engage in a dialogue with it? Than to prod it and demand it explain itself?" The Mammoth Cheese does just that, engaging in discussions and debates over the Founding Fathers and staging its conflicts both in the world of politics and in the dark night of the individual soul. In the choices they make, these characters find themselves drafted into a battle, often pitting past against present. And as they fight through toward an uncertain future, they will undoubtedly leave readers with questions that go far beyond the novel's final pages. Elise Vogel

Commentary and Discussion Questions from the Publisher
Beautifully crafted and driven by warm, vibrant characters, The Mammoth Cheese follows the residents of rural Three Chimneys, Virginia, on their historic journey to re-create the making of the original Thomas Jefferson-era, 1,235-pound "Mammoth Cheese." As the book opens, the town is joyously celebrating the birth of the Frank Eleven (eleven babies simultaneously born to Manda and James Frank after fertility treatments) and enjoying the thrill of notoriety as reform-minded presidential hopeful Adams Brooke visits the newborns. But as autumn progresses and the babies start to die, the community seeks to redeem itself through the making and transporting of a symbolic Mammoth Cheese to Washington, as a gift for the newly elected President Brooke. The cheese is the brainchild of August Vaughn, a farmhand by day and a President Jefferson impersonator by night, and the creation of Margaret Prickett, a single mother and cheese maker trying to save her century-old family farm. As Margaret slips deeper into debt and desperation, her thirteen-year-old daughter, Polly, slides closer to an inappropriate relationship with her radical, attentive history teacher.

Sheri Holman seamlessly weaves together the lives of Three Chimneys, delving into her characters' inescapable family histories as they grapple with religion, divorce, politics, and unrequited love. The Mammoth Cheese is a triumphant exploration of the burdens and joys of rural America and the debts we owe to history, our parents, and ourselves.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:

1. In this generous, lively, penetrating novel, how does Holman link the values of early America with contemporary times? Although geographically limited to a small town in Virginia (with one foray to Washington, D.C.), the book enlarges our experience on many levels. What do we learn about Thomas Jefferson? About the consequences of modern medicine? About dairy farming and cheesemaking?

2) Holman has great fun satirizing scoundrels. Who are they, and how does she skewer them? How do little lies grow into real culpability?

3) The Mammoth Cheese is startlingly original and intricately plotted. There are political shenanigans in high places and enough surprising events in Three Chimneys, Virginia, to make the novel a real page-turner. Try to trace the various plots and subplots and show how they interconnect. How are we spurred to think about the wit and complexity, venality, and potential for grandeur in small-town America?

4) In some ways the issues of the book are as fresh as today's newspaper, yet Holman resists topicality. Her story is as tireless as Our Town or To Kill a Mockingbird. Villains there are, with people betraying themselves as well as each other. But heroes emerge, too. Can you name a few?

5) The Mammoth Cheese celebrates courage to honor responsibility and mutual dependence on both the community and personal levels. How does the author posit real belief in America and possibility and bedrock values as against the meretricious? How does she convey characters with compassion instead of the I-feel-your-pain of some politicians? Do you find this a book that says despite it all, we do not have to succumb to cynicism?

6) The center that holds in this novel is the slow-rolling love affair of Margaret and August. It is a relationship of mature adults, one that's been on simmer for many years. As readers we hope against hope that these two decent people will "come to their senses" as Leland puts it. How do we grow to know and care about these characters who are both thorny individualists? How do the exigencies of farm life both bond them and separate them? What are the other things that keep them at bay? You recall that in the barn there is a moment when Margaret arrives bearing steaming coffee cups. "The shadow cast by the megalithic, suspended wheel fell over her face, giving her an almost Sibylic countenance. How mysterious and chthonic she appeared to him at this moment, as if, should he ask her to, she might very well pronounce his fate. . . . Yet, even possessed as he was, he could not declare himself directly: I love you, Margaret. Will you be my wife? Instead, he picked his words carefully, and tried his best to sound lighthearted" (p.218). In the end when they finally drop their guard, they are called "two old friends." Do you find it appropriate that Holman uses restraint to describe Margaret's revelation? "She had invested so much time and energy in Adams Brooke and his amnesty, when the last honorable man, if not in America, at least of her acquaintance, was sitting right here beside her" (p. 413).

7) "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle Jefferson had said upon his inauguration in 1801. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists" (p.185). Could such a thing be said today? August goes on to wonder "what Jefferson would have said had he lost." The connection between history and contemporary life is insistently drawn in this book. Can you find other examples of this theme in the text?

8) What do you think of the mix of charity, hucksterism, and religion as it is practiced by Pastor Vaughan? Do you think Leland is wrongheaded in his version of right-to-life for Manda? Yet what a real human being he is, with his Fibber McGhee closet and his Wall of Ancestors, on which he looks as a young man so scruffy in his clerical collar "as if they'd buttoned up a stray dog." Is it surprising that this ordinary man of failing powers becomes in the end a hero whose funeral rates even the sanctimonious vice-president of the United States?

9) A. How does Sheri Holman demonstrate the art of the unexpected in language? It may be through the offbeat adjective or verb or a wholly original image that she captures the reader. Can you find examples that struck you? Consider, for instance, Pastor Vaughan coming to terms with his ominous prognosis: "The night of Pastor Vaughan's doctor's appointment, the sky let forth a fantastic autumn thunderstorm. . . .Maybe it was easier to blame the weather than the black cat of his own mortality hunkering on his chest, stealing away his very breath" (p.234).

Or think of Margaret keeping her eyes open as August finally kisses her: "It was easy to crave a soft, spoiled girl, whose own self-love was infectious, but now she was old, and sharp as baling wire, and she wanted to see what a man looked like who was willing to kiss an electric fence" (p.414). Where else do you find Holman using words with fresh acuity?

B. How does she carefully develop symbols in the book? What are the implications of the chimneys, as well as the invasive kudzu vine? Look on page 120 where Mr. March, himself an alien here, is associated with the entangling vine.

10) Holman is Swiftian in taking current trends to satiric conclusions. How are the enormous complexities about fertility drugs presented? Is the reuctio ad absurdam of eleven babies so outlandish that we have trouble taking it seriously? How does the spiritual dilemma of Pastor Vaughan make us more involved in the problems? What do we think about a town that dives into world fame and then jumps off quickly when babies wilt and die? Are the catastrophes that swamp the feckless Franks relevant to multiple births of even three or four?

11) The idea of independence is central to the novel. How is this concept developed on many levels? Jefferson, of course, provides the philosophical framework. Do you find that this device of working learning and history into the fiction works well? (Can you think of other novels that use scholarship and history in analogous ways?) How is the quest for independence important for Margaret? For August? Polly? How does each character learn the art of compromise in seeking independence?

Do you find that this device of working learning and history into the fiction works well? (Can you think of other novels that use scholarship and history in analogous ways?)

12) How does the concept of amnesty expand in the book? Consider Margaret and other small farmers. How is the idea related to Mr. March and his father? Do we hear much about amnesty these days? What begins as a concept of forgiveness of debts for small farmers and extends to pacifists grows in the end into "a forgiveness of self, of one's own selfishness and cruelties, one's myriad small disappointments and epic failures" (p.414). Explain. Does this sound like a healthy way to forge relationships and get on with one's life? Which characters do you think this applies to?

13) Holman is a master of dialogue. She uses it brilliantly to develop character and advance plot. We really know these people through their voices. What are some outstanding examples? Think of the exchanges of the miserable Franks. Or the mundane, loving, old-marriage conversations of August's parents, the Vaughans. Or the dead-on banalities, often very funny, of teenage girls. Or the rich, hesitant talks of Margaret and August. Others?

14) Teaching is extolled as an art in the book. Polly is bright and receptive, to her peril. How? Her mother often seems punitive in raising Polly, but the dangers are there. What are they? Mr. March is undoubtedly a gifted teacher, but is he sympathetically portrayed?

15) The farmyard at times reminds us of the movie Babe, with its appealing cast of four-legged characters. Did you find that Polly's loss of her calves inevitably recalls The Yearling? Does the interaction between human beings and animals seem authentic? Were you reminded also of Flannery O'Connor stories that involve animals? How does Polly's proximity to the penned bull and the hired boy reinforce what else is going on in her life?

16) Some dreams are undeniably trashed in the novel. What are they? Consider the mighty cheese enshrouded in bunting making its way to Washington, swathed in advertisements. Or Margaret and Chapter 11. Or the shocking end of Polly's will-o'-the- wisp quest. But what is salvaged? What emerges from the dross at the end?

17) How can we justify or even absorb the outrageous, potentially tragic scene on the Potomac? Do you find it peculiarly fitting for the excesses of this mammoth cheese and everyone's expectations? How do various characters behave in absolutely characteristic ways, starting with Polly's memorializing the slogan she learned in history class?

18) August is a man of precision. His gravitas, his habit of doing things somberly, comes as a welcome corrective to the excess and hype of parts of the community. Can you think of examples? He is a deliberate person, one we welcome in our lives as well as Margaret's. Does he make you think of Atticus Finch? What are some of his warming and funny moments? Think of him, empowered from having left Margaret freshly kissed on a park bench, as he wonders what it would have been like to kiss more women. It's a deft undercutting of romance, almost a Mark Twain moment. But we cheer as this most self-effacing of men becomes an action hero when he pummels and vanquishes the man traducing Polly. Did you find it a scene of elemental power?

19) At the end, for public figures, what is the reader left to hope for? Are we forced to take solace and pride in founding fathers? Their qualities are notably lacking in the Washington of the novel. Marked by neither intelligence nor commitment, the politicians seem to be reduced to a debasement of William James's idea that truth is what works. Should a firm grounding in Jefferson and Adams as well as the Greeks and Romans that informed them be a litmus test for our leaders?

20) In interviews, Holman has said her novel could be read on two levels-as a straightforward story and as a commentary on America's recent foreign policy. What do you think Holman means by that? Do you see any parallels between Polly's coming-of-age and her country's?

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The Mammoth Cheese 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 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.
thinkpinkDana on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up based in the recommendation of a trusted fellow bibliophile. Then it sat on my shelf. For. a. very. long. time. Finally I got kickstarted into gear with the TBR challenge, and commenced reading. To begin with, I loved it. The characters were delightfully eccentric, and the funny details made me smile, and then laugh outloud. Soon though, I began to be dismayed. Things were not going as I hoped. Not only were they not going as I hoped, they were going disastrously wrong. I began to despair. I planned hate mail for my bibliophile friend who had led me so astray to make me read a book that would force me to love it and then end in disaster.... I won't say more because the ending must be experienced, but I will say this..Thomas Jefferson and pastor's wives really know how to save the day.
LizzieD on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was thoroughly entertained by this book, a conglomeration of daily grind, humor, horror - a lot like life. It's a coming-of-age story about eighth grader Polly Marvel in love with her history teacher. It's also a coming-of-age for her mother Margaret, divorced and desperately trying to hold on to her family dairy farm. It is the story of Leland Vaughn, the local Episcopal priest, a most persuasive man who finds himself appalled by the outcomes of his persuasion. Their lives intertwine with others in their small town as everybody in the novel sees what he has given his life to and learns what is ultimately important.
coffeesucker on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Can't get through this book even after two tries. This one's going on eBay.
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.