On Mardi Link’s Drummond Girls: A Personal Review

Why is there so little written about women’s friendship? Examples abound, particularly in letters, of singular friendships—those beautiful one-to-one pairings of women who cared deeply for each other’s company, for that essential interaction, and their writing survives and is—mostly—celebrated.  Even if these women friendships weren’t written about, they do exist as pillars in women’s writing.  That said, when I scan my weighted down book shelves, I realize little has been written, from inside or outside,  about groups of women friends.  It’s an observation that has cropped up repeatedly in the reviews of Mardi Link’s rich memoir, Drummond Girls, a memoir that describes a twenty-year friendship among eight women, the self-named Drummond Girls who make pilgrimage once a year to Drummond Island, a remote island off the east coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in chilly Lake Huron.

In her book, Mardi Link becomes a member of an evolving group of women friends—and she also makes their changing lives and changing circumstances her source for both inspiration and steadiness, not the usual drifting apart but the narrative of together.  She writes about each woman, but also how each comes to fit with the group, how each earns a name in the group, how each weathers some test, in or out of the group, and each of those: fitting, naming, testing draws them back to each other in their annual pilgrimage.  I am thinking about women’s group friendships in light of this lovely book, for the highest compliment I can pay to Mardi Link is to gratefully hold her lens to my own life, as I would do with any good book, to think about Drummond Girls through the personal lens of my women friendships, to use literature in the best way, to think of my own.

So here’s what the book does: each chapter focuses on both individual personalities and the group personality as it develops.  It reveals Mardi and her friends at key points, usually through their adventures together on the island.  Together.  The book reconstructs their group, shows how they tend and wander, play and argue, how they are together in a kind of acceptance which, as it evolves, acknowledges bravery and wildness, caution and craziness, letting go and change.  She does not fudge these relationships, but also does not judge the shortcomings each of them betrays.  What a gift.

How did they do this?  How has it lasted?  And how does Mardi come to write this? That is part of her story, which she tells alongside the groups’.  But here is the question for me: which of my women group friendships have lasted, which have stayed?  How long?  Why?  Mardi has given me a gift beyond the usual—to look beyond my singular friendships—which are many—and to look at what group friendship is in light of her book.

In Drummond Girls, the women are not girls, but girls is the term they choose for themselves, because they are not pretentious and in light of the life troubles they face, worrying about political correctness is not top on their list of concerns.  For all their varied personalities and propensities, these women read from the beginning like down-to-earth hard-working women who make the mistakes we all make and somehow work through them, make them survivable by using the skills they have learned in previous surviving.  But in this case, we get the stories of how they weave that broken web together, bound in shifting textures as years pass—because, and this took me awhile to figure out—because they go to a place together. And in that place, both psychologically and physically, they step outside of their norms and release themselves from typical expectations.  Mardi Link writes movingly of the effect of the island on the girls. “Once, Bev had suggested we go some place else—Mackinac Island, Hilton Head, or the Caribbean.  Now we couldn’t imagine anyplace but Drummond. “ I like this idea and in my experience, it is true of groups of women—they come to be bound by both time and place.

Among Mardi’s Drummond girls, there are certain ones who are closer than others, like lightning bugs, some shine mutually at certain times.  So I look at my singular friendships first—what were they like?  Despite the desperate intensity of my childhood and high school friendships, they did not last.  I have retained a rudimentary closeness with one or two women, but not what I would call a deep friendship, and certainly nowhere from that time do I retain the group friendships Mardi describes. No inner circle friendships—because that’s what Mardi Link is revealing, the slow evolution of inner circle gals. Twenty years—that may be part of it.

My closest singular friendships, the long-lasting friendships, have all come after youth, starting in my late thirties and forties, and a couple have come, surprise gifts, only since turning sixty.  What the young Mardi, the Mardi of the early part of the book describes so accurately are those times when she looked for friends, wanted a group, and always felt on the outside of things.  Me too.  She describes how she comes to feel a part of this “gang” and how, over time, the others and she cohere in one place which draws them as much as people do. Mardi writes “That we ever became friends at all is miraculous.” But gathering place, the time, but also the tolerance of those shifting alliances may be clues.

At about the same age her girls began to gather, I finally found that group friendship in theater, in the Old Town Playhouse I joined shortly after turning thirty, and to which I gave a long and fruitful decade. I lived and breathed theater every moment I could muster from my teaching job without jeopardizing it. From that intense and dramatic time—a failed marriage, a failed rebound engagement, a found true love, my group evolved, all of us focused on the theater, and running the “show”—I served on the artistic board for six years. From that time came two close women friendships. We were an inner-circle threesome that held long after those theater years faded.  Until it didn’t.  Now only periodically.

In Drummond Girls, in a few photos of the girls, usually not all are present at once. They are mostly together—and in each case, what I notice is the edge of heightened awareness in their faces, the anticipation that graces these photos.  Fun yes, but also these separate anticipations—and something else.  Turn the lens to my life: a picture exists somewhere of my threesome together in a friend’s hot tub.  Crusty snow piles on the edge of the tub. Steam swirls across our faces. Beautiful in bathing suits, looking out at the camera with…  that’s it, defiance.  That’s what I see in the Drummond Girls—no matter what their daily lives dish them, Mardi describes the edges of defiance they allow themselves while they are together—a heady unifier.  In my photo: we are the three graces, or furies, depending on how you look at it, but we are with each other.  With.  And defying the world to take us on.  That declaration exists in Mardi’s memoir too.  In the hot tub, we know it, and we know each other.  We can splash, laugh, and we can accomplish anything together—whether we can or not.  We are looking for the next adventure, the next project.   Together, in that small theater world, we are powerful.  And in that power, we care for each other deeply.  We will do almost anything for each other.  In the pictures our arms are linked and we will live—and be friends—forever. That’s how it feels. And we are at our peak.  Mardi writes, “There was a time when we believed we were immune from the passage of time, that we’d be young and sound forever. Now we know different.” But they are still together. And because both the first and the second part of that statement are such unifiying forces, that experience helps keep them together.

That said, even my close teaching friendships, which for years were group-based, did not last the test of time. Once I retired from my beloved secondary classroom, those friendships lost gloss.  We had held a lively respect and a wide net of warmth for each other, but once I left, I also left the structures that surrounded, frustrated, nurtured us. I am no longer part of the group that sits around lunch tables and bitches; we do not worry together about our troubled students or crow to each other about those who knock our socks off. We were drawn into group friendship by the stress and duress of teaching—its joys, yes, they were real, and the place, Interlochen, with its huge history leaning on us,  but now, now, I am not there and I do not know who they are talking about.  That groups still exist, but only for those still enveloped in the institution.   So another aspect: a kind of institution helps groups stay in place. Is it “institution”  that makes the group friendship last—however you interpret that word—the evolution of those structures that hold beyond girls?

That may be stating the obvious, but in recent years, I have become close with two groups that function in similar, though lesser, ways to those teaching groups—and to the Drummond Girls.  These may seem obvious and solipsistic but the way I encounter deep women friendships now is through two writing groups.

Powerfingers (yes, that’s where we finally settled—oh my, the irreverence) or Powder Fingers. Or Powder(er) fingers—depending on who is making the call, is my prose writing group.  Swans is my poetry group.  Two of the members of the group overlap, but there are, yes, a total of eight. The groups know each other, and like the two cars that drive the Drummond Girls north each October—there is separation but also a strong connection among us.   We meet once a month, and sometimes one or more of us is missing for long periods.  But like the Drummond Girls we come back to each other when we can.  From these groups I have begun to draw a rough inner circle.  I find that it is from among these groups, I am most likely to choose the person to call when I am troubled.  From these groups bursts a strange and unexpected mutual humor.  From these groups, mutual language and an awareness of how each writer operates.  Though we drink only a few reserved glasses of wine, and we do not take wild rides into the dark Maxon plains, we do adventure into the world of words with each other, learning the privacies of our lives through our essays and poems, through the stories that unfold over time.

As to place, well yes.  One of these groups meets at a grocery store café, Olesons’; the other in a favorite home.  The place is important, but like Mardi and her girls, we have come to know what Drummond girl Jill proclaims near the end of Mardi’s memoir. “I knew you were here with me. I felt you. Don’t you understand that?  Anytime anything big happens to one of us, we’re always gong to be there.  Even if we’re not there, we’re there.”

My writing groups are not quite there but that may come. One group is only three years old, the other nearly five, and we have been on and off, still evolving the history that pulls people together like a drawstring on a Drummond girl sweatshirt.  I find myself missing these women deeply if I am absent too many monthly sessions in a row.  This year, I have been away so much, promoting my own new book, Love, Sex and 4-H that I long to see them, to be with them, and can’t wait for the rush of literary events to release me to their company once again.  With them,  I find a lasting interest, even though we only see each other once a month. Will it last beyond what we have in common, our writing?  Will it last beyond the survival each of us feels, each one of us having published at least one book in the duration of the groups.  I don’t know.  Mardi writes at the end of her book, “…our friendship gave us the ability to transcend time and distance.” I like to think about that.   I like to think these are the groups that will hold.

Within Mardi’s girls, and within Powerfingers and Swans, there are alliances that shift and miss and stay,  but these no longer separate the group.  This seems to me the key.  A resilience, an awareness of who you are inside the group.  Sociologists could have a field day with this, but on the personal level, what I know is this. In my writing groups there lives a wide-held net of appreciation that belies even where we have personality differences, the experience of being together becomes mortar, both for me and I hope for “us girls” as we will evolve.  And even though the groups are not near as long-lived as the Drummond girls, I know each of these women more deeply with each passing year. I want to believe these are my girlfriends; these are the ones.

In the last scene, Mardi’s Drummond Girls head into the North, crossing the awe-filled span of Mackinac bridge, racing the dark (pitch pure metaphor) toward the island where they will be with each other.  In my writing groups, we take no such adventures, there is no crossing majestic geographic demarcations except household thresholds—but every time someone brings a personal essay or a new poem to the table, a little shiver.  We are here, together, and for as long as we can write, this bracing holds, this complex accumulation of knowings about each other.  Mardi writes: “I could accept all that uncertainty because I had seven constants in my life.  I had the Drummond Girls.  And they had me.”  There it is.  Here we are.

I don’t know why we don’t write more about women’s friendships in groups, and I haven’t really addressed that.  Maybe just being among women friends is enough, and we don’t need to analyze it.  Or maybe that lack is another example of how women remain invisible, no matter how dynamic and excellent we become together.   But thanks to Mardi’s Drummond Girls, we are not as invisible as we were, and that is a gift indeed.