Until recently, Sue Harrison was known mostly for making the best bread-and-butter pickles in Pickford, Mich. (pop. 600). Now she is famous for more than that. Doubleday has just gone back for a fifth printing (a total of 100,000 copies) of Mother Earth Father Sky, Harrison’s 313-page novel about the Aleutian peoples in prehistoric times. The publisher gave her a staggering half-million-dollar advance for the book, the first of a projected trilogy, and is spending another $100,000 on publicity. In a world without Jean Auel, Mother Earth Father Sky would be an unlikely candidate for such lavish attention. But after the surprise success of Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear series, prehistory is commanding near-historic prices.
Sue Harrison, 39, would also seem an unlikely candidate for celebrity. Born and raised on Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, she is America’s picture of the perfect mom, a woman who leads with a smile, wears her hair short and neat, and goes to the steepled Methodist church on Sundays. So far her world has not extended much beyond her computer-specialist husband, two teenage children, and a house her husband built so far back in the woods that lynx scream in the yard at night. There are still no malls in the area and so few bookstores that her children are peddling her novel out of their home.
As a child, Harrison idolized Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books about pioneer life. When she was 19, she married Neil Harrison, who had first caught her eye when he chased her to the playground monkey bars in first grade. Together, they struggled to put themselves through a nearby college and then bought a sporting goods store, which he tended while she kept the books. Their first daughter died of meningitis. Two healthy children later, their business failed after the local Air Force base closed.
Undaunted, Harrison resurrected an early dream of being a writer. She had read Roots and, though uncertain about her own roots (she describes her ethnicity as ”Heinz 57”), she decided to trace the origins of Native American tribes such as the ones living on the reservations near her home. She came to believe, based on anthropological skull studies, that those tribes had migrated from the Aleutian Islands centuries before. ”As soon as Neil Douglas, our son, got into kindergarten, I started the research for the book,” Harrison says. ”Our daughter, Krystal, was a quiet little person. I would say, ‘This is Mommy’s writing time,’ you know, and she’d say, ‘Okay,’ and truck off and get her toys and play on the floor next to me.”
Although the nearest big library was 300 miles away, Harrison tracked down books and learned how to make her characters filet whales and worship volcanoes, light fires and navigate kayaks. She studied Native American vocabularies, attended powwows, learned scrimshaw, queried scholars, and made her own choices when scientists disagreed over issues like whether the early Aleutians were pestered by flies (hers are). She also used her emotional life as a pattern for her primitive heroine — or, more accurately, she found her own feelings echoed in the philosophy of the people she was describing. ”It’s a very Aleut characteristic,” she says, ”that everything you have, you pay for.”
Every day for 11 years, Harrison paid for her novelistic aspirations by juggling domestic and financial responsibilities. At one point she took a job as secretary to the head of public relations at the local college and then inherited his job when he retired. ”It was very difficult because I didn’t get a secretary: I’m a woman. I can type,” she recalls. ”I was getting up at 5 in the morning, going to work at 5:30, and getting home at 6 so I could get the children supper. And then working at home on the college’s projects from 7 to 10 at night.”
Perhaps that is why her novel displays a certain feisty feminism. Though the book is something of a romance novel in sealskin dress, its heroine, Chagak, is a resilient 13-year-old who sets out alone on cold seas after her village is destroyed by a warring tribe.
Like her heroine, Harrison does not give up easily. Sixteen agents turned the book down. One accepted it, but soon went out of business and returned the manuscript with apologies. Another made her rewrite it and then rejected it anyway. In January 1989 an agent finally accepted the manuscript, and several months later Harrison got a call from an editor at Doubleday, who eventually took the book. ”We were talking and talking,” Harrison says, ”and I looked over at Neil, sitting at our square kitchen table. And he had tears running down his face because we knew it was going to go.”
While literary critics wonder whether Harrison, with her simple prose style, will match Jean Auel’s success, the money has already given her intimations of a loftier life-style. Before selling the book, the Harrisons had been out of the lower 48 states only once, when they won a trip to Jamaica for selling snowmobiles. But in April they flew to Alaska and took a four-day ferry ride to the Aleutian Islands, where Sue Harrison had been bold enough to set her novel without ever having seen the landscape for herself.
In May Harrison was the center of a weekend-long promotional fete at the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. Reporters questioned her. Established writers toasted her with champagne. Michigan Governor James Blanchard sent his regards.
But Harrison looked more like a Pickford, Mich., homemaker than a half- million-dollar writer who had just unleashed feminism on the early Aleutian Islands. She sat demurely, smiling and sipping her ginger ale. Her famous pickles were in crystal dishes on every table.