Spitting pits and breaking rules

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Viola Shipman’s latest book features Cherry Republic, matriarch Mary Sutherland

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Wade Rouse, aka “Viola Shipman”

Wade Rouse, the international bestselling author who writes under the penname of his late grandmother, Viola Shipman, experienced Cherry Republic the way many tourists in Glen Arbor do. After eating lunch and enjoying a glass of wine at a nearby restaurant, he walked down Lake Street and found himself nibbling on chocolate samples at Cherry Republic’s retail store.

Curious about the cherry pit spitting area facing Glen Arbor’s park and captivated by the playful joy he felt in the crowds visiting that day, Rouse walked to the Cottage Book Shop to sign copies and later Googled the history of Cherry Republic and founder Bob Sutherland’s family. He learned about the lore that Mary Sutherland, the matriarch of the family who passed away in January at age 92, still holds the record for pit spitting distance. Rouse read further and learned that Mary was a teacher, a feminist, an author, and a champion for gender equality, and he thought about his own mother, a hospice nurse, and his grandmother, Viola, who never finished high school and worked as a seamstress.

“She had a simple life, but was not a simple woman,” said Rouse. “When I began writing fiction, I didn’t see many characters like my grandmother or my mom, or Mary Sutherland.” Rouse who spent boyhood summers with his grandparents in the rural Ozarks in Missouri. They had no indoor plumbing, and dessert was a watermelon they kept cool by placing it in a nearby creek. Watermelon pit spitting competitions were a summer highlight. Viola also put books in her grandson’s hands, which piqued his curiosity in writing.

“It wasn’t easy growing up in the Ozarks as one who loved to read. I had a target on my back.”

Mary’s story, and her role in Glen Arbor, inspired “Viola Shipman’s” latest book Famous in a Small Town, which released on June 13 and has already received accolades as one of the Best Summer Books of 2023 by the Good Morning America TV show, Reader’s Digest and Katie Couric Media.

Rouse will appear at Cherry Republic on Friday, June 23, from 4-5 pm in the Cherry Public House Beer Garden for a book signing and conversation with Bob Sutherland. Copies of Famous in a Small Town will be available for purchase in the Great Hall, as well as a book and best-selling cherry products giveaway. Copies will also be for sale at the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor. The following day, on June 24, Rouse will appear at 5 pm at Bay Books in Suttons Bay.

Mary Sutherland

The summer novel features as its protagonist Mary Jackson, who at age 15 in 1958 illegally enters and becomes the first woman ever crowned “The Cherry Pit Spittin’ Champion” of Good Hart, Michigan, which lands her in the Guinness Book of World Records, and earns her the nickname “Cherry Mary.” Nearly 80 years old at the story’s start, Mary runs The Very Cherry General Store, a business that has been passed through three generations of women in the family. While there is no female next of kin, Mary believes the fourth is fated to arrive, as predicted by “Fata Morgana,” a Lake Michigan mirage of four women walking side by side.

“I wrote the book thinking about Bob’s mother and my own grandmother, who took ne’er-do-wells to church” said Rouse. “She took people under her wing, and the little town didn’t really love that.” Rouse finished the manuscript early and sent a copy to Bob Sutherland, who responded with a heartfelt letter about his mother’s role as the family matriarch. Sutherland’s letter is included in Famous in a Small Town.

“It’s an honor to learn that I had some influence in the making of this celebrated book,” wrote Cherry Republic’s founder. “I love how well Viola captured Michigan’s cherry industry, our small town of Glen Arbor and our place in the greater world. For a simpleton like me, who feels selling more than one fruit would be too complicated, I can’t imagine how a whole novel could be written about such a humble life and peaceful place. …

“Very much like the heroine in this book, my Mom was a champion. Diving and swimming were her specialties and although I rarely saw her in the water doing her magic, she exuded the success and confidence of a champion in every domestic move she made. And there wasn’t a day that she didn’t share that belief and confidence and trust she had in herself with others. I was fortunate to be in close proximity.

“I lost this great lady in January 2022, but I feel her legacy lives in these pages. Because these pages are about family and the values and shared experience that ties us all together. This book is about the value of the super matriarch—that outstanding woman who is so strong that they not only knit a family together, but a community as well.

“I can testify that Viola did her homework as these pages capture the essence of our great land so poetically. But it is the writing on family that makes this story sing. These intertwined northerners, living deeply in each family member’s lives captures my family and so many families I grew up with.”

Rouse’s grandmother Viola Shipman had a similar outsized influence on his life.

“If you’re privileged to have a woman like this in your life, you bask in their light, and you become stronger in your life,” said Rouse. “I didn’t realize the influence (Mary) had on (Bob) until he wrote me that letter. Cherry pit spitting is an analogy for what women are expected to do and not to do—the societal expectations placed on women.

“It’s also a love letter to northern Michigan, to rediscovering the magic within yourself and summer, too. We become the best versions of ourselves when we’re up here on vacation.”

Rouse lamented that he never met Mary Sutherland, but perhaps the timing of Famous in a Small Town is fortuitous, given that a public memorial was held for her last month at the Glen Arbor Township Hall.

Rouse is an international bestselling LGBTQIA author has authored 15 books, which have been translated into 21 languages and sold more than one million copies worldwide. Viola Shipman’s previous novels include A Wish for Winter, The Edge of Summer, The Secret of Snow, The Summer Cottage, The Clover Girls, The Charm Bracelet, The Hope Chest, The Recipe Box, and The Heirloom Garden. He splits his time between Saugatuck, Michigan, and Palm Springs, California, though his aunt also has a cottage in Leland.