August 2, 2007

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Without a Map, by Meredith Hall (Beacon Press, 2007, 248 pages)
Reviewed by Irene Labombarde news@hippopress.com

After a brief romance during the summer of 1965, Meredith Hall finds herself pregnant and all alone. The 16-year-old is expelled from her Catholic High School, thrown out of her mother’s house, and sent to live with her father and his new wife, who forbid her from going outside lest anyone see her in her condition. As she describes it, she is completely shunned. Her former classmates go on to graduate without any contact from her. She is forced to give her baby up for adoption, and never has the chance to even see or hold her son, and then is cast out of her father’s home as well. Everything in her life becomes defined by her sense of abandonment and betrayal.

In Without a Map, the New Hampshire native bares her soul. The memoir focuses on Hall’s attempts to find her place in the world and come to grips with the central relationships in her life. Her writing is simple yet powerful. Without wallowing in self-pity, she conveys her anguish, her sense of loss, her lack of direction. In an effort to forget her past, she ventures to Europe in her early 20s, with the intention of walking to India. She takes the reader along on her physical and emotional journey. 

“I have accomplished the disconnect, and my wanderings are entirely solitary, free of any voices from the past,” she writes. “Grief is my companion. As the child grows bigger, the hole carved in me grows, too. Silent, solitary, moving — step by step, I measure the distance between me and the woman I thought I was going to grow up to be.”

The book shifts back and forth in time, with each chapter covering an important event. Throughout the book, she revisits what she calls the moment of fracture, when her mother learns she is pregnant and throws her out. “My mother loved me,” she says. “My mother was a good and loving mother. Until I most needed that love…. She and I are caught forever in a perpetual dance, bound by love and the mystery of its betrayal.” Ironically, it is Hall who must care for her mother during her final illness years later, and her description of their lifelong relationship is painfully honest, as is her final encounter with her long-absent father.

Hall eventually marries, has two sons, and gets divorced. She spends little time in the memoir on the “routine” aspects of her life, instead focusing on her relationship with her parents, her sense of self, and her firstborn, who finds her after he comes of age. Her recounting that meeting and the way that fragile relationship is cultivated is especially poignant. She also experiences another major betrayal in that she has been lied to about the circumstances of her son’s adoption, and has to come to terms with the idea that instead of a normal, happy childhood in Virginia, her son grew up in Epping in extreme poverty in an abusive environment. Their capacity to move forward and love is enormous.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Hall thanks her family for accepting her need to write this book. It is, indeed, a very compelling story, a perceptive discussion of family relationships, a glimpse into the life of someone with a wide variety of life experience to share.  A+ — Irene Labombarde