At first glance, RayAnne Dahl is a typical native 30-something Minnesotan. She loves the changing of the seasons, embraces winter (even the driving), wears Scandinavian sweaters with “armorlike pewter closures and hasps”, and loves the outdoors. She especially loves fishing, and her first major investment in life was a remodeled speedboat that she’s named Penelope, which isn’t surprising since her father is “Big Rick” Dahl, one of the good ol’ boys on the pro fishing circuit and the host of the short lived but well loved fishing show Big Rick’s Bass Bonanza.
RayAnne herself spent time on the pro fishing circuit, but found it to be a bit too “testosterone soaked” and not very lucrative to make a career of it, even though she brought home her fair share of trophies. Still, that experience landed her a job as consultant for the local public television station’s new offering, Fishin’ Chicks, an all-women fishing talk show, which somewhat surprisingly had brought in fairly good ratings in its first season.
The thing is, the original host of Fishin’ Chicks, blonde bombshell Mandy Cox, only made it through the pilot episode before she, um, jumped ship, as it were. Desperate to keep underwriters, sponsors and booked guests happy, the producers, in a panic, had RayAnne step in as substitute until a new host could be found.
Now heading into its second season, with its named changed to a simpler Fishin’ and with guests booked due more to their compelling stories rather than simply being successful women in male-dominated professions, RayAnne remains as the substitute host. She’s still waiting for a full-time host to be named, but the search seems to be going at a snail’s pace. Although RayAnne has warmed to the role, she still feels more like a moderator than the centerpoint of the show, but she has learned the ropes and feels much more at home in front of a camera.
Okay, so maybe RayAnne isn’t as typical as she first seems. But in Ava Finch’s light-hearted new novel, RayAnne is about as genuine as it gets, flaws, doubts and joys all bunching up together – and she’s a breath of literary fresh air.
Here’s a modern woman, slightly neurotic, a bit self-deprecating, who still doesn’t mind living her own life even when it sometimes (oftentimes) throws speed bumps in her way, because the other options are not that great either. She’s not really political, not a card carrying feminist, but seems to be the type of woman that feminists have worked so hard to foster, one who can be independent despite limited means, who knows how to be alone without necessarily being lonely, and one who can certainly recognize bullcrap when it’s being strewn about. She is unmarried, but not stressing about it, much, and she’s certainly not looking for a man to rescue her from anything. That, however, may come from the fact that her own parents were not successful in maintaining a relationship let alone a marriage. Her father, Big Rick, is on his sixth wife (which he urges others to keep track of using the acronym BADGER, comprised of the initial of his wives’ first names, in order of their appearance on his matrimonial slate) while her mother, Bernadette (the “B” in BADGER), is now a “Life-Passages Doula”, or new age aging coach for menopausal women with money to burn.
Thank heavens RayAnne has her down to earth grandmother, Dot, to keep her grounded. Dot is turning 80 years old, and lives in a gated retirement community in Florida, but RayAnne stays in touch through frequent phone calls and extended visits. Dot is RayAnne’s treasured touchstone.
While nothing exactly earth-shattering happens in Fishing With RayAnne, it is RayAnne’s internal dialog that is so enticing. Living in her fixer-upper row house in Minneapolis, researching questions for upcoming guests, musing on the attraction she feels for just-handsome-enough Hal Bergen (who nevertheless is a sponsor of the show, and therefore decidedly off limits), and dealing with a father who has fallen off the wagon – again – and a mother who is living in her own ethereal world, RayAnne is a character who is both familiar and hilariously real. While we may not have to deal with “going on Location” to the north woods or interviewing characters such as a female bounty hunter who tracks down deadbeat dads or 24-year-old happy, healthy conjoined twins (“We just have a different ‘normal.'”), we can still relate to the struggles she goes through and laugh at the all-too-normal situations she has to endure.
Situations such as adopting a dog at the insistence of her grandmother (for “security” since she had supposedly bought a place in a sketchy neighborhood). A disastrous attempt at building a set of bookshelves from IKEA. Enduring a bout of poison ivy. Agreeing to watch her two hellacious nephews for an hour so her brother can blessedly go for a jog on the beach in solitude. Going out to dinner with a former boyfriend who promptly reminds her why he’s a former boyfriend. Author Ava Finch takes each of these situations, and without preaching or navel gazing she binds us to RayAnne because her everyday dramas and foibles are akin to what each of us goes through in our own everyday realities – just as frustrating, just as funny and, at times, just as insightful.
When personal tragedy hits the Dahl clan, RayAnne is suddenly pulled from her familiar environment and forced to deal with decisions and emotions that she is ill equipped to handle and yet cannot hide from. Yet this, too, is something with which many of us can relate, and so we end up aching for her, and for ourselves.
While Fishing With RayAnne does teeter a bit too closely to a precious conclusion towards the end of the book, it remains an utterly entertaining read throughout. Even if you know nothing about fishing, or have never been to Minnesota (even better if you have!), even if your family is a bit more, um, sedate than RayAnne’s or your own path somewhat more conventional, you will be able to read this book and enjoy the strengths and flaws, setbacks and triumphs that reflect from RayAnne onto each of us.
~ Sharon Browning
(NOTE: Ava Finch is the pen name of Minnesota writer Sarah Stonich, pictured above,
author of “Vacationland”, “Shelter”, “The Ice Chorus” and “These Granite Islands”.)