As the new Chairman of the Town Board, Fiona Campbell finds that life has become a series of petty squabbles, dull meetings, and papers everywhere, all complicated by her guardianship of the as yet unidentified screaming goat. In desperation, she hires an unknown newcomer, the compulsively orderly Oliver Robert, to run her office and keep her organized.
Roger’s fame as an idiosyncratic yoga practitioner continues to spread, and he and Elisabeth are looking for a new location to accommodate the growing crowds at their tiny coffee shop. Ferry Captain and poet Pali has an offer to leave the Island, and wonders whether it is time to introduce his son, Ben, to the larger world. Meanwhile, the Fire Chief is threatening to quit, and Fiona finds herself faced with an Island controversy and an unwanted set of new responsibilities.
As Pete Landry prepares to leave for one of his regular journeys, Fiona begins to suspect that his life may be more than it seems. His secrecy raises doubts in her mind about whether he can be trusted, and their breakup plunges her into grief. The reliable Jim, always nearby, is all too ready to offer comfort.
Robert’s Rules is Book Three in the award-winning North of the Tension Line series, set on a remote island in the Great Lakes. Called a modern-day Jane Austen, author J.F. Riordan creates wry, engaging tales and vivid characters that celebrate the well-lived life of the ordinary man and woman.
About the Author
J.F. Riordan was born in New Jersey and first moved to Michigan, then Wisconsin as a child. At the age of 14 she decided to become an opera singer, and was fortunate in the aftermath to have been able to sing. At 16, after two years of high school, she went to the University of New Mexico to study voice, continued her music studies in Chicago and Milwaukee, and ultimately became a professional singer. Homesick after years of travel, she came home to the Midwest, finished her college degree, and became certified to teach high school. She taught for three years in the inner city before taking a position as a program officer for a foundation. She lives in exile from Washington Island with her husband and two dogs. North of the Tension Line is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
It was after school on a warm June afternoon, and Ben Palsson was on his way to School House Beach. The public entrance to the beach cut through the Island cemetery, and graves from other centuries along with those from the recent past were on either side. It was a pretty cemetery, carefully maintained, surrounded by trees, and within the sound of the waves of Lake Michigan. The place held no fear for elevenyear- old Ben, who, if he had thought about death much at all, had the comfortable assurance that it was a very long way off, if ever.
Ben almost always went for a ramble before heading home from school. These days his pattern had shifted a bit, in order to go first to visit the rescued goat living in Nancy Iverssen's barn. It was Ben who had found the animal while it was living in the wild, befriended it, and saved it from drowning when it had fallen through the ice. These experiences had formed a deep bond of affection in Ben's young heart.
But, now that spring had finally come to the Island, the warm weather was so enticing that even his love of animals in general — and of this animal in particular — could not keep him from his walk. The visit today had been brief.
Ben's habit of rambling in the woods and fields of the Island was also the way he coped with problems. Like his father, his mother, and many of his Island neighbors, he took solace in nature, and although he might not have been able to express his feelings with any precision, he knew that he always felt better out on the trails he knew so well. There had been an unpleasant encounter with a classmate at school that day, and Ben needed to sort through the tangle of anger and embarrassment he felt, or at least, to forget that it had happened. It was difficult to have problems with another student when the school was so excruciatingly small.
It didn't take long for the sounds of the waves, of the birds, and the scent of June air to cleanse his spirit. Ben was a keen observer of animals, and he stopped to look for the woodpecker he heard somewhere nearby. He liked to challenge himself to see how many different kinds of birds he could hear, and as he listened, he counted five, including one he did not recognize. He made a mental note to remember it and to ask his friend, Jim, the ranger.
Starting along the driveway again, heading toward the beach, Ben was looking forward eagerly to the vast expanse of summer vacation stretching before him, when he would have all the time in the world. Only one more day. Then he would be free.
He leaped to try to touch the low-hanging branches of a hundred-year-old beech tree along the way. It was getting closer, but he still couldn't quite make it. Maybe in that far away time at the end of summer.
* * *
One balmy, early summer evening, the Town Board of Washington Island was having its usual monthly meeting.
"I ran on a promise not to raise taxes! I cannot go along with this plan."
"But we really need new parking spaces at the beach. Last time I was there in season, cars were parked all along the road. It's a hazard."
"Three cars along the road do not constitute a hazard."
"Well, you know," added someone else, "when Mel Karnen had his stroke, those cars he hit along the side of the road saved his life."
"That was a fluke. You can't sit there and tell me that people's lives will be saved by not paving the beach parking lot."
"Why do you always have to twist my words? I never said that."
As the arguments went on, a small childlike tune was playing over and over in Fiona's head: "totally meaningless drivel, totally meaningless drivel." She instinctively liked the rhythm of it, with the two three-syllable words at the beginning, and the smoother-sounding two-syllable word at the end. Its rhythm reminded her of a cart rolling along a bumpy sidewalk. It played in her head in minor thirds, like a child's taunt.
"This is ridiculous. Adding three more spaces won't break the budget."
"Have you looked at the cost of paving these days? And it's not as if there's any extra money lying around ..."
Fiona was unaware that a vague drifting smile had come over her face as she sat fiddling mindlessly with her pen. Her yellow legal pad was covered with doodles: storm clouds, lightning bolts, flying cattle, and a rather loopy and bedraggled daisy. Fiona hated meetings.
Unfortunately, as the newly-elected town chairman of Washington Island, meetings were the one thing she had in abundance these days.
"Fiona? What do you think?"
This question, which she had dreaded, now burst through her awareness. She took a moment to look at the faces around the table, all watching her with varying degrees of patience and condescension. By and large, her fellow members of the town board did not expect much from this newcomer — from Chicago, of all places — and even though most of them had voted for her, it had been more a case of voting against her opponent — the almost universally detested Stella DesRosiers — than an endorsement of Fiona's knowledge or experience. They were united, at least, in their conviction that she had neither. Lately, Fiona herself was increasingly convinced that they were right.
She took a deep breath and changed her smile to one of rueful deference. Her chin was down as she raised her eyes and looked directly at each individual around the table, reading them one by one.
No matter what her fellow Islanders might think, Fiona was no fool. She was fully aware that the triviality of the issue was inversely proportional to the rancor it could stir in the hearts of Islanders. Though she had discovered this insight into human behavior on the Island, it is a universal truth of small town life.
She smiled again to assuage them. "Of course, we will need to consider it in the context of our budget cuts, but these are the kinds of decisions that our constituents like to be part of." She saw a few heads nodding thoughtfully. "I think we should handle this exactly as it has been handled in the past. We will invite public comment and allow the voters to have their say. No one appreciates changes in tradition, and there's no good reason to upset everyone about this by being highhanded." She did not add that she found the entire topic utterly trivial. She paused, watching as her words sank in, and then finished with a fillip:
"As Lars Olufsen likes to say, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
This folksy allusion to Fiona's beloved predecessor was greeted with solemn nods around the table. During his decades of leadership, Lars had used a steady hand and good sense to herd this particular group of the Island's notoriously unruly cats.
"I agree," said Mary Woldt, who was prone to agreeing with whatever had been said last. There were murmurs of assent as heads nodded around the table.
Fiona sighed inwardly. Another example of committee work in action. One decisive voice could almost always determine the matter, but only after hours of wandering conversation. Totally meaningless drivel, sang the child's voice in her head.
"Well, that's enough for today, then," she said briskly. She started to rise. "Thank you, everyone."
"But what about the fire department question?" asked Tom Sumner. Fiona stopped, as did everyone else around the table. The fire chief had been raising serious concerns about their cuts to his budget, but, ears to ground, the elected officials were determined not to raise taxes. Nevertheless, they were all well aware that trouble loomed, and no one more so than Fiona herself.
Fiona knew, too, that she could not discuss this without first having some kind of solution to propose, and although she had been studying the budget nightly, she still hadn't found anything she could cut to make up for much needed new equipment. The matter was urgent, but its urgency made it all the more imperative for her to be prepared.
"This is too important to take up as a secondary matter," said Fiona, firmly. "And we need to give notice for it to be on the agenda. Let's address it first thing next time when we're all fresh." And with a grace and swiftness that would have made Lars Olufsen proud, Fiona gathered her doodle-filled notes and glided smoothly and smilingly from the room.
A small voice from her inner self observed disapprovingly. "You are starting to sound like a politician," it said. Fiona shoved this unpleasant thought aside and replaced it with anticipation of a well-earned glass of scotch.CHAPTER 2
Fire Chief Gil Einarsson hung up the phone, set it unseeingly on the kitchen counter, and ran a hand through what was left of his blond hair. The call had been a notice of resignation from Jonah, one of his young firefighters. This was the third such resignation in as many months, and Gil was getting worried.
Gil had been the chief of the Washington Island Fire Department for fifteen years, and a firefighter before that. His father had been a firefighter on the Island, too, and both his uncles. Their family code, born of generations of Island life, demanded community participation, service, and a fierce Island loyalty that expressed itself in a hearty distrust of outsiders.
Chief Gil, as he was known, took his job seriously, knowing that the Islanders depended upon him. They, in turn, knew that their trust in him was well-founded. The number of calls on the Island's department were few, but that made the department no less necessary. Fires were mercifully rare, the most recent being that barn fire at Fiona Campbell's place last year. Medical calls, when needed, were particularly vital, since there was no doctor, no hospital, and in serious cases, it was an eighty-mile helicopter ride to the hospital in Green Bay. There was no neighboring community to come in to assist. There was no one to call for a second alarm. Everything came down to the Washington Island Fire Department. When the need arose — as inevitably it must — the fire chief's responsibilities were heavy, indeed.
But this year, things were more worrisome than usual. The slow economy had taken a toll on the Island, and the Town Board wanted to cut the budget rather than raise taxes. The state and the feds had new requirements that would force the purchase of ruinously expensive new equipment, and the old fire house was in such disrepair that renovation made less sense than demolition.
Gil stared at the numbers on the paper before him and shook his head. He needed more money in his budget, not less. The part-time fire fighters — like Jonah — on whom the Island depended were taking other jobs that paid better and had fewer hazards. You couldn't blame them; they had families to support and bills to pay. But, firefighters needed training and the proper equipment. It was a dangerous situation. Somehow, Chief Gil needed to make his case. As he was thinking these things the phone rang again.
"Chief Gil?" came a woman's voice. Without waiting for his acknowledgment, she continued speaking rapidly.
"This is Emily Martin. I suppose you know that the town board tabled the discussion on the fire department budget?" Chief Gil had opened his mouth to reply — the meeting could only have just ended, he thought, how on earth did she know that already? — but Emily moved on without waiting for an answer.
"Apropos of which, I've been thinking about the fire department, and you know, with all my experience in civic affairs, I have to say that I think I am just the right person to figure this out. I've come up with a little plan, and I want to tell you about it. It's perfect. Absolutely perfect."
* * *
On her way home from the meeting, Fiona stopped by, as always, at Nancy Iverssen's farm to make a visit. Having fully recovered from his near-drowning and broken leg, the Goat Formerly Known as Robert was there in the field along the drive, industriously demolishing some small scrubby bushes along the fence.
Since Fiona's own barn had been destroyed in the fire that had supposedly also caused the demise of the original Robert, Fiona's friend, Nancy, had kindly offered to shelter the animal for the time being.
Fiona was still unsure whether this goat was hers, or some other goat. He did not appear to recognize her, despite her regular visits, nor had he demonstrated any of Robert's uncanny vocal abilities. This goat, it appeared, merely made blood-curdling screams at unpredictable intervals. The first Robert's peculiar speaking abilities had been preferable, Fiona felt.
Nancy's truck was gone, and Fiona recalled something about a trip to Green Bay for supplies. Unencumbered by the need for social niceties, she leaned over the fence and spoke to the animal with a mixture of acerbity and reluctant affection.
If, in fact, he were Robert, he had been practically her sole companion during her first year on the Island. She had come to realize rather belatedly that the responsibility of his care had given her early days here a focus and purpose that had kept her going through a particularly bitter winter. It had not been an unmitigated good time, however, and their relationship — if that's what you'd call it, she thought drily to herself — had been a rocky one.
Robert was not a creature whose personality inspired devotion, and yet he seemed to fit well with Fiona's unacknowledged affinity for eccentric characters.
Leaning on the fence, Fiona mused over the dramatic and unpredictable shifts in her life during the past two years. It had started when she had quit her highly stressful job as a newspaper reporter in Chicago and moved to Ephraim, Wisconsin in hope of finding some tranquility. So far, tranquility had proven elusive.
Within a few months after her arrival in Door County, she had accepted a dare that she couldn't survive the winter on Washington Island; bought a house; acquired a goat as a gift; held on through a difficult winter which had included a campaign to publicly humiliate her and drive her from the Island; endured a barn fire in which Robert seemed to have perished — until he didn't, or possibly did — decided to run for chairman of the town board; mounted a campaign against her vicious neighbor, Stella; won; and now was keeping body and soul together through a grim series of particularly mind-numbing meetings.
There was, of course, one adventure that had more than made up for the various trials of her Island life. Smiling to herself, she said goodbye to the indifferent animal and headed home, where, undoubtedly, Peter Landry was waiting. Even more undoubtedly, he had a scotch already poured.CHAPTER 3
Having made her phone call to the chief, Emily Martin of Windsome Farm Goats was preparing to finish her final visit of the day to the barn. Looking around, she noted with satisfaction that everything was in order: stalls were clean; food troughs full; fresh water available; tools put away. She gave a small sigh of self-congratulation.
Emily's satisfaction did not come merely from the order of her little empire. The conversation with Chief Gil had gone extremely well, she thought. "I will take this little matter in hand, and bypass all of those bumpkins on the town board," she thought to herself. Fiona Campbell, of course, was no bumpkin. She was a city girl, like Emily herself. But, thought Emily, she needed the guidance of someone with wisdom and experience: someone, thought Emily, like Emily.
There were few topics about which Emily was not convinced that she knew best, and in the case of the Island's budget problem, she found the dithering of the town board particularly frustrating. She had supported Fiona Campbell in her bid to be town chairman, but only because she herself had not been on the Island long enough to launch a campaign. She had assumed that Fiona would be easily influenced, but this was turning out not to be the case.
As she left, she carefully latched the barn door and made her way to the house, barely noticing the beauties of the early summer evening.
Emily's care in locking the barn had come hard won, since the winter's errant goat escapade had resulted in the feral animal — now known tentatively as Robert and residing in Nancy Iverssen's barn — impregnating more than a dozen of her does. Emily's profound irritation over this turn of events had been mitigated by the tidy profit she had made selling the offspring, and she now chose to laugh merrily about it whenever someone might happen to mention it.
"Goodness!" she would say, laying a hand on her chest to quell her hearty, mirthless laughter. "What a to-do! Well, we certainly made out well on that little episode, didn't we, Jason?"
And her husband, his eyes darting in confusion as he tried to pick up the thread of a conversation from which he had mercifully drifted away, would just as heartily agree. "Oh yes!" he would say. "We certainly did!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Robert's Rules"
Copyright © 2018 J.F. Riordan.
Excerpted by permission of Beaufort Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I just finished reading Robert's Rules, and so have read all 4 of Ms. Riordan's books. Through her stories, the author conveys her love of Washington Island and all of Door County, WI. In telling these delightful tales, Ms.Riordan captures the beauty and simplicity of local life, and how that life is cherished by the people who call Door County home. For anyone with fond memories of North Woods vacations, and for those of us who yearn to spend more time there, these books are for you! Can't wait for the next book!
A satisfying third movement (though you can start with this book, too) to this word-symphony about modern mores in a fascinating corner of America. This is less a narrative with characters than it is a friend's recounting of real people you just haven't met yet. Riordan's Washington Island is like a Salterton you can actually find on a map. And "Robert's Rules" reads as if Trollope were reincarnated in Door County. Highly recommended. Read it and it'll make your summer.
J.F. Riordan has become one of my favorite authors. Robert’s Rules is spectacular and compelling. I have read all of her books and this is my favorite. She is a masterful storyteller that has a knack of crafting a gripping storyline tinged with humor. Her now familiar and likable characters continue to add depth as they work their way deeper into your heart. The new character, Oliver Robert, is a quirky delight. Her description of life North Of the Tension Line makes me want to make a road trip. Warning: Set aside time to read, you won’t want to put it down. I didn’t. It is not necessary to have read her other two novels, North of the Tension Line and Audacity of Goats, but after you finish Robert’s Rules you will want to do so. Put me down as first in line for the next Riordan novel.