"WITHOUT A MAP"

Published by: Spinifex Press Pty Ltd, Australia
ISBN-10: 1-876756-43-8
ISBN-13: 978-0807072738

Reviewed by: Julie R Enszer

Genre: Memoir

Every life has a story, according to an adage. Some lives, however, are perched at historical moments with profound political significance, and some lives are written by writers who render the story with grace and beauty. Without a Map is the story of a life at these crossroads. Meredith Hall writes her life story with searing self-examination and responsive self-reflection. Hall's self-awareness is combined with precise and lyrical language and an elegant, though meandering, form that is both artful and pristine in its organic emergence. As a result, Hall's memoir is an extraordinary, profound, and moving book.

When she was sixteen years old, Meredith Hall became pregnant during a summer fling with a college student. As a result of this unplanned teenage pregnancy, Hall was shunned by both her family and her small New Hampshire community. Hall renders her emotional isolation and pain during her pregnancy baldly and powerfully. When Hall's pregnancy is discovered, she is expelled from her high school; then Hall's mother sends her to live with her father and his new wife in a nearby town. She writes of her arrival,

My room is in the back corner, with two big windows looking out over the old barn and fields and woods. There are no curtains. Boxes are stacked along the walls and in the small closet. The air in the room is cold, and old. I climb under the flowered bedspread, my arms at my sides, shivering, and watch the last gray light of the afternoon settle over the fields

This passage is emblematic of Hall's memoir. Throughout, her attention is given to observation of exact details and the accounting of these details in prose that is descriptively lush but bare in its emotion. Hall's writing rarely tells what she was feeling but rather gestures to her emotional texture and landscape at the time. These gestures evoke feelings of empathy in the reader making Without a Map an emotionally intense book to read.

While Hall's experience as a pregnant teenager is profoundly political, Without a Map is neither treatise nor polemic. Stories of teenage pregnancy and the political implications of it are well-covered in women's writing. Ultimately, Hall does not connect her experiences as a teenager with any political reflections or political statement. Although the implications of her pregnancy at age sixteen and the events that emanate from it are political fodder, Without a Map is different from other fictional and memoir treatments of teenage pregnancy. Hall's memoir is indelibly shaped by her pregnancy, but she contextualizes this life-shaping experience into the larger narrative of her life. In Without a Map she writes the story of her other children-two sons-and her family. Hall vividly tells of her parents shunning and abandonment during her pregnancy, and then writes about her relationships with them as an adult. Perhaps most significantly, Hall writes about the relationship she develops with the child she relinquished for adoption when he is a young adult. These many relationships, unfolding throughout a lifetime and through a variety of circumstances, make Without a Map a broad and emotional tome that handles its material in new and innovative ways.

Hall's story of her relationship with both her mother and father, who seriously disappointed and even abandoned her as a young woman, are wonderful stories of secular redemption. In addition, because Hall's project is in part to understand family relationships, it is refreshing to learn that while her relationship with her father is never reconciled, she does have a paternal relationship that is loving and nurturing. Hall's story of William, a neighbor in Maine who comes to live with her and her two sons after his wife dies, is illuminating and moving. William lives with Hall and her two sons for ten years until his death in his nineties. This chapter is a powerful reworking of the shunning that Hall experienced by her father and her father's new wife, to whom he was loyal to over his daughter, as a result of her pregnancy. Hall's reflections of her father and her account of her shared years with William are a compelling vision of family outside of biological constructs. She demonstrates the ways that human beings, in spite of biology or even in opposition to biology, nurture relationships that bring meaning to our lives.

Without a Map is organized into a series of chapters that thematically, though not sequentially examine aspects of Hall's life. The chapter from which the book takes its title, narrates Hall's travels in Europe and the middle east as a young woman. There are a dearth of women's, particularly young women's, narratives in this genre. Hall writes powerfully about her experiences of travel. Travel for Hall offers no easy escape from her experiences as a teenager, but the narrative in the book has powerful metaphoric resonance and even aside from the memoir, it is fascinating as a travel narrative.

Hall was awarded the Gift of Freedom prize from A Room of Her Own Foundation in 2004; this prize enabled her to finish this book. Without a Map is an extraordinary achievement. It is riveting in its storytelling and luscious in its language and structure. In the middle of the book, Hall writes about her mother's struggle with and ultimate death from multiple sclerosis. At the end of the chapter, she tells about Nüshu,a secret writing system used for centuries by women in the Hunan Province of China and still one of the least known writing systems in the world. Hall writes, Grandmothers and mothers taught their girls the secret writing by making up and singing a verse, then writing it in the hand of the girl. Verse after verse, day after day, slowly the girl came to share in the mother-language of secrecy, of connection, of loyalty and love.Hall imagines her own mother writing Nüshu verses for her. She imagines her mother writing, You are a good daughter. I will love you always. The world waits for you with all its beauty, but also its fright and its pain. I will be beside you every day. I am your loyal mother. Don't be afraid.Although when she was sixteen Hall's mother did not express either loyalty or love for her daughter, Hall returns to her mother. Even without Nüshu messages from her mother, Hall writes her own messages to us, not in Nüshu, but in language that dazzles, consistently delights, and even takes our breath away. In Without a Map, Hall has written a story in which she is a mother to us all, speaking in a tongue that we understand, intellectually and viscerally, about a life that was lived by one, and now can be witnessed and understood by many. If we choose to read. If we choose to understand.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One's Own, Long Shot, the Jewish Women's Literary Annual, and the Harrington Lesbian Literary Quarterly. You can order her hand-made chapbook, My Lesbian Herstory, or her limited edition broadside, When We Were Feminists, at her website, www.JulieREnszer.com or email her at JREnszer@aol.com.

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