|Illustration: Matt Vincent
It’s seven on a Wednesday night and eight women of the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church book club are gathered at the Elburn home of Gail Mellish for their monthly meeting. As usual, Gail’s husband is “sequestered” in another part of the house and a potluck dinner has been laid out. Unlike at most book club meetings, however, a phone sits in the center of the dining room table, marking the group’s first ever teleconference with the author under discussion. The guest of honor? Charlene Ann Baumbich, the effusive 60-year-old creator of Partonville, a small town “in the northern part of southern Illinois, where oldsters are young, trees have names, and the obvious sometimes isn’t.”
Partonville is the setting for Baumbich’s “Dearest Dorothy” series, which stars Dorothy Jean Wetstra, a spunky, computer-savvy 87-year-old. Since the series debuted in 2002, Baumbich, a Wheaton area native who lives in Glen Ellyn, has acquired celebrity status among a certain set of midlifers. “There was a real lack of fiction with older protagonists,” says Terri Castillo, the former editor at Guideposts Books who originated the series. “Our readers wanted to read about older people leading lives as interesting as theirs. Some of our readers were older or retired, but they were getting into Winnebagos and traveling across the country, or joining retirement communities in Arizona and New Mexico, not buying into the stereotype that once they grew older they didn’t have anything more to offer.”
Dorothy is a much-loved icon around Partonville, speeding through town in her 1976 Lincoln Continental (nicknamed “The Tank”) and wearing a sweatsuit in her signature color-pink. She is flanked by quirky neighbors, including Maggie Malone, the eccentric 72-year-old hairstylist; Lester K. Biggs, the gruff diner owner with a soft spot; and Katie Durbin, the Chicagoan–turned–country gal with a teenage son and a deep-rooted distaste for rural life. In the first book, urban expansion threatens to drive Dorothy out of her lifelong home; the death of an aunt forces Katie to pay a dreaded visit to Partonville; and Maggie shocks the town when she returns from a hairdressers’ convention with a tattoo.
“The characters are so homey, I felt like I had met them all throughout my life,” says Mellish, the book club host, who is 58. “I think most everyone has a Dearest Dorothy.”
In 2000, Guideposts Books, a small religious press based in New York City, was searching for a prolific, versatile writer to fill what they saw as a gap in the marketplace. The stereotype-shattering character of Dorothy was a natural voice for Baumbich, a freelance journalist and nonfiction author. At Castillo’s suggestion, Baumbich wrote a sample novel that starred an independent oldster, whom Baumbich based on a real-life friend. Books one and two caught the attention of an editor at Penguin, who saw similarities between Baumbich’s creation and Jan Karon’s successful series about life in the fictional small town of Mitford. Penguin bought the paperback rights to the first two novels from Guidepost and subsequently signed Baumbich on for three more books.
Now, years after the real Dorothy’s death in 1998, the fictional Dorothy continues to gain fans. Bolstered by the release of the fourth installment in August and her cross-country author tour this fall, Baumbich says she has received hundreds of fan letters, mostly from hooked middle-aged women. The series has inspired book clubs as close as Itasca and as far from home as Palmer, Alaska. Baumbich recently created an electronic newsletter, dubbed the “TwinkleGram,” which she sends out monthly to about 2,000 subscribers.
“The characters in the ‘Dearest Dorothy’ books remind us that all of life is change and risk,” says Ann Bloch, 62, a St. Charles kindergarten teacher who is celebrating 15 years as a breast cancer survivor and ten years since receiving a kidney transplant. “They show us that you just have to keep moving forward, keep your sense of humor, and hope for the best.” Another welcome example of how in life, as in Partonville, the obvious sometimes isn’t.