Midwest humorists can be pretty funny—sometimes very funny, like June Melby. Melby, an Iowa native who for years worked the stand-up comedy circuit in L.A., returns to her childhood serving up sno-cones and wisecracks in her debut memoir about growing up on a mini-golf course, My Family and Other Hazards (Henry Holt and Company, 2014).
Year after year, June and her sisters crushed ice and served sno-cones (only occasionally including bits of the plastic scoop) at her family-run miniature golf course near Beasley Lake in Wisconsin, while their parents kept the colored lights burning, the magic barrels turning, the putters ready for wild swings, and the customers smiling. When George (recalling the George in Winesburg, Ohio) and his wife Jean, Norwegian-Americans of God-fearing Lutheran stock, decide that teaching high school in Decorah, Iowa, lacks something, they put more money than they have into the purchase of a worn-out Tom Thumb mini-golf operation. By their own industry and that of their daughters, they turn it into a wonderland.
My Family and Other Hazards is explicitly structured like a game of mini-golf, beginning with the scorecard picked up at the Ticket Booth (the prologue), moving on to the Front Nine (the first nine chapters), then to the Back Nine, and returning to the Ticket Booth (the epilogue), where the scorecard is tallied. Thus, the chapters offer a geographic sporting journey that frames Melby’s personal journey, from the opening of Tom Thumb to its closing many years later.
Each of the eighteen holes has a special hazard and name, which Melby, in turn, gives to each of the eighteen chapters in her book. At Hole #1, there’s The Rocket, red and white with a bayonet tip; no matter what, the ball will always be out of reach under The Rocket. Hence, the corresponding chapter concerns expectations. Chapter 8, or Hole #8, The Wishing Well—covered buckets over a pile of rocks with two tunnels—is of course about dreams. Hole #17, The Paddle Wheel Boat, reminds you of floating down the old Mississippi, so its corresponding chapter treats the subject of nostalgia. Occasionally, within a chapter or between chapters, a break is taken, during which the “player” or reader takes a break to sit on a bench, an osteopathic examination table originally belonging to Melby’s great-uncle. As the life lessons pile up, putting from chapter to chapter, we get to know customers, neighbors, relatives, George, Jean, June’s two sisters, and the author herself.
The book is full of jokes, plain and stylish. Here’s a kid’s joke: “How many tourists does it take to change a light blub? None. They want us to do it for them.” Then there’s Jean’s straight-faced response to June’s lament that she’s forty and still unmarried: “That’s OK, I waited, too—until I was twenty.” The book also has brilliant strokes reminiscent of James Thurber’s “everyman” tales. In Melby’s story “LeAnn Dropped the Paint,” June’s sister LeAnn fools her parents after getting covered with green paint, and June intones, “She was milking it. She knew what she was doing.” On other pages, there are Walter Mitty fantasies, like when June imagines herself a famous model adored by the handsome boys at her uncle’s canoe rental. Luxuriating on her imaginary pink carpet, she dreams she does not have to “go back to the school in Iowa.” The bubble bursts when a customer at the ticket booth asks her how late they are open.
Certain of the characters and scenes could be straight out of a Jonathan Winters routine. You may remember that one of his where, on an Ohio country road, bumpkin farmer Elwood is asked by a traveler how to get somewhere. Melby’s Dad, George, sounds a bit like Elwood as he prepares a sign to guide Tom Thumb customers around their closed road: “Go north, pass a cornfield, pass another cornfield, some drying hay…until you’re completely lost.” It would have been fine, except, says June, “My father tended to give directions using the wrong finger.”
But the book has poignancy, too. The loneliness, the isolation of small town Midwestern America peeks out at times. The teenage girls want friends, especially boyfriends. But only LeAnn has much success there; mostly their playmates are visiting cousins, and their social bonds come from working long hours at Tom Thumb. June spends many Easters raking the leaves off the course before the spring thaw, wishing for a warm fire and a chocolate bunny. She feels cut off and envies the love that her parents managed to find, having met in church long ago. Jean worries about June, whom she thinks is most like her. “June,” she says, “maybe you should take organ lessons. You could marry a minister someday.”
June does neither of those things, but instead goes off to California to pursue a stand-up career. She wants a better life, or at least a life apart from the hard-bitten, close-knit Midwestern communities she knows. After thirteen years of playing clubs on the West Coast, she returns home, “finally getting around to enjoying my childhood [and] the freedom of picking blackberries along Rural Road.” Now she sees that the mini-golf course where she and her family labored long and hard together, “made so many people happy,” and she decides henceforth to follow her parents’ example of living for others. Each chapter reveals another stage of Melby's moral and social growth. If you read her well-crafted, humorous memoir, it will surely make you reflect on what has value, on what really makes for human happiness. And when you read it, you will smell the seaweed off the lake, hear the customers murmuring over a putt, and see The Barrels on Hole #12 turning.
Michael Lewis-Beck lives and works in Iowa City. He is published in Albatross, Ann Arbor Review, Cortland Review, Chariton Review, and Wapsipinicon Almanac. His essay "My Cherry Orchard in Iowa" received recognition as one of the Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2011.
My Family and Other Hazards: A Memoir
by June Melby
Henry Holt, 2014
$25 hardcover, ISBN: 9780805098310