I must admit I was lukewarm over the prospect of reviewing a novel with the odd title The Mammoth Cheese. And I was not familiar with its author, Sheri Holman, or her two well-received earlier novels. My reluctance was short-lived, though, for after reading only a few pages I was hooked. It was clear from the start that The Mammoth Cheese is an engaging work of fiction that explores big ideas with an off-kilter freshness and a genuine knowledge of human experience.

Holman's previous books, A Stolen Tongue and The Dress Lodger, are historical novels set in 15th century Palestine and 19th century England respectively, but The Mammoth Cheese takes place now, in the contemporary South, where the homogeneity of Wal-Mart and the Internet is poised to bulldoze the small-town way of life. Holman is treading in Barbara Kingsolver country here, and she expertly navigates the terrain with similar unfussy prose and wry perception.

Three Chimneys, Virginia, has become the center of national attention because a local woman has given birth to 11 babies thanks to some out-of-control fertility treatments. The whole town has embraced the Frank Eleven, plastering its cars with bumper stickers and tying baby blue and pink ribbons on trees. It is just the kind of empty, media-fueled enthusiasm that has become commonplace in America, and, as with most such blitzes, public interest peters out fast. Hapless Manda and Jake Frank, initially buoyed by public contributions and promises of perpetual help, are quickly cast adrift to fend for themselves.

The Franks' modern tragedy, though, is really just a subplot in this textured novel. The main focus is on Margaret Prickett, her 13-year-old daughter, Polly, and their hired hand, August Vaughn. Recently divorced, Margaret is trying to hold on to a small dairy farm that has been in her family since pre-Revolutionary times, and she is fast losing the battle. Too strong-willed to surrender to Chapter 11, she is placing all hope in presidential candidate Adams Brooke, who promises an amnesty for debt-strapped family farms.

While running the farm and tirelessly campaigning for Brooke, Margaret neglects Polly who, while very intelligent and largely self-sufficient, is nevertheless an adolescent dealing with the blows of her parents' divorce. Polly has developed a huge crush on her history teacher, Harvey March, a freethinker who encourages his students to live by Thomas Jefferson's dictum, "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Polly, though, is still too callow to understand the full responsibilities and ramifications of rebellion, and her rash attempts to assert her independence will culminate in the dramatic climax of the story.

The overtaxed Margaret also fails to notice the faithful August, who has been in love with her since high school. Now that she is divorced, August has renewed hope, but he is too shy to express his love. When he is not working the farm, August spends his time as a Chautauquan Living Historian, dressing up as Jefferson and giving public presentations. His adoration of Jefferson, like Margaret's devotion to the farm, keeps the bigger issues of life at bay.

August's father, Leland, is Three Chimney's Episcopal pastor and the man who counseled Manda Frank to go full term with her aberrant pregnancy. Guilt-ridden over how that ignoble experiment has turned sour, he latches onto a new idea. When Margaret suggests she send the newly elected Brooke one of her renowned cheeses as a thank you for his concern over the farmers' plight, Leland recalls the story of a 1,235-pound cheese some Baptists sent to Jefferson to thank him for his promise of religious freedom. Why not replicate that historic event? The idea, absurd at first, grows into a monumental undertaking that eclipses the frenzy that surrounded the Frank Eleven. But while the cheese ages, these good people's lives continue to falter.

Sheri Holman has written a marvelous, entertaining novel with characters whose lives are as unabashedly untidy as America itself. While The Mammoth Cheese underscores the less-than-admirable way we live now, at its core is the Jeffersonian ideal that as a nation if not as individuals we are perfectible. Holman's affirming message is echoed in Margaret's realization that the true meaning of amnesty is not "a forgiveness of debt, but a forgiveness of self, of one's own selfishness and cruelties, one's myriad small disappointments and epic failures."

Robert Weibezahl has worked as a writer and publicist for 20 years.


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