Reviewed by Sara Hodon
Lifesaving Lessons: Notes from an Accidental Mother
by Linda Greenlaw
March 21, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-0670025176
Swordfish boat captain Linda Greenlaw has sailed some of the most treacherous waters in the world. She survived the storm that claimed the lives of the ill-fated fishing boat Andrea Gail’s crew (the Perfect Storm that inspired the book and film). But nothing prepared her for an even greater challenge—motherhood. Greenlaw chronicles her rapid journey from a self-sufficient, adventurous fisherman to the legal guardian of a teenager in Lifesaving Lessons: Notes from an Accidental Mother.
Greenlaw enjoys her independent lifestyle on the remote island of Isle au Haut, Maine. But that changes with the arrival of Mariah, a quiet, sullen teenager who recently moved to the island with her uncle Ken. Greenlaw hires Mariah for the summer, and while she is impressed with the girl’s work ethic, she assumes the end of the summer will also mean the end of their relationship.
But as it turned out, it was just the beginning.
The close-knit island community is soon rocked by the discovery that Mariah had been suffering abuse at the hands of her “uncle” for years. Rather than place the teen in foster care, Greenlaw assumes responsibility for her, later becoming her legal guardian.
Greenlaw doesn’t romanticize their relationship or the sometimes rocky road the pair traveled on their way to becoming mother and daughter. Besides weathering the usual trials that accompany one’s teenage years, Greenlaw has the added challenge of trying to establish herself as a maternal figure to an emotionally and psychologically traumatized young woman. Greenlaw is very candid in her confessions that she didn’t always feel up to the task. Mariah puts her new guardian through the paces, alternating between bouts of silence and dramatic outbursts of anger. Typical teenage behavior for sure, but wildly unfamiliar territory for Greenlaw, who until this point was an expert at buoys, not boys. Slowly but surely, both women warm toward the other and begin some real bonding.
The relationship causes an unexpected change in Greenlaw’s life. She writes at some length about feeling isolated and bit on the fringe of her community. It’s not that she didn’t fit in, exactly—fishing being a major source of income for many of her fellow islanders—but more that she chose to be removed from her neighbors. Single and childless, Greenlaw finds herself at a bit of a personal and professional crossroads when Mariah enters her life.
The book is part memoir, part journal. Greenlaw goes into some detail about the community in which she lives. By all accounts, the island is an idyllic, peaceful environment where its residents look out for each other. In a way, Mariah is adopted by everyone, not just Greenlaw—she is welcomed by an extended network of friends, relatives, and well-intentioned neighbors who only want the best for the young woman. By bringing Mariah into her home, Greenlaw discovers a brand new group of friends and acquaintances she never knew she had, which gives her a new respect for her home.
Greenlaw’s honest, conversational writing style keeps the reader engaged. She is relatable—we want to know what happens next…to both Mariah but also to Greenlaw (will she find love?, will she give up fishing and her life’s passion for a more “conventional” occupation?) Although the book is a bit slow in places—it was good to get a sense of the wild, isolated beauty of the island and why Greenlaw chose to remain there, the plot slows considerably. It picks up again once Ken is arrested and Mariah becomes Greenlaw’s responsibility in earnest, and the pace of the book remains steady throughout. Greenlaw touches on the issues many mothers face—striking the balance between being the disciplinarian and “fun” mom, helping Mariah tackle high school (although the teen attends a top private school, she struggles at times, but the love and support of her new family helps her through) and, eventually, graduate and enter adulthood. Although hesitant at first, by the end of the story it’s obvious that Greenlaw has wholeheartedly accepted Mariah as her daughter. While it would be difficult to completely erase a past as difficult as Mariah’s, after reading Lifesaving Lessons it would seem that thanks to an extraordinary stroke of luck, a caring support system, and some good old fashioned hard work and perseverance, the young girl’s future is very bright. An all-around gripping and inspiring story that shows that sometimes life can deliver the most unexpected, but welcome, gifts.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com