Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home, A Memoir by Caitlin Shetterly, 248 pages, Voice-Hyperion, New York, $23.99 Hardcover
The lure of the West is strong in America.
Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain and Harvey Milk, along with hundred of thousands of anonymous sojourners have sought new beginnings on the country’s other coast.
Writer Caitlin Shetterly and her husband, Dan Davis, a freelance photographer, set off from Portland for Los Angeles in March 2008 for what they believed would be a new start in a land of sunshine and opportunity.
“There was no going back; just the shiny black macadam of unfolding change and new everything,” Shetterly wrote in an early chapter. “We, like generations of Americans before us, were going west.”
Less than a year later, they were driving east — a 2-month-old son and 90-pound dog in tow — to live with her mother in midcoast Maine. In 11 short months, they discovered what others, real and imagined, had learned before: joy and sorrow often dance together; the bonds of family are more supportive than careers or possessions; living more simply really can turn out to be a gift.
Shetterly’s story may be familiar to regular listeners of National Public Radio. She sold several “radio diaries” that aired around the country to illustrate how the Great Recession was affecting young families such as hers.
Some readers may scoff at Shetterly and Davis’ naivete. Others may feel she is giving voice to their own experiences. Few will question her skills as a storyteller.
“What I first saw were their feet: six huge, dirty, men’s feet facing me in our headlights,” Shetterly wrote of the first thing she saw as the couple arrived at the L.A. apartment they’d rented sight unseen. “Then I saw bodies. Hopper [the dog] started growling from the backseat and Dan said, ‘There’s someone sleeping in front of our apartment.’ ‘Someone’ was a euphemism for ‘many someones,’ because it was, in fact, five people, three with their feet propped on our stoop.”
That was the first in a long line of very bad luck that only abated, at least emotionally, with the birth of their son.
“[T]hrough some kind of unexpected grace I had confidence in being a mother, and the surety that I was good at this one thing surprised me,” Shetterly wrote. “I didn’t move to L.A. to find this out; motherhood had not been in my plans. Becoming a mother just when our lives hit every fan not only changed but also saved my life.”
Throughout the memoir, Shetterly compared her family’s own journey to the many moves described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her “Little House” books. It seemed a jarring comparison at first since the Ingalls family’s travails occurred in the 19th century and Shetterly’s took place in the 21st, but her devotion to the metaphor will grow on readers who, even in middle age, cannot part with copies of their “Little House” books.
“Made for You and Me” ends in the fall of 2009 as the family moves to its own apartment in Portland, and Shetterly sells the memoir. Her husband is about to begin graduate school in Boston, her son is still an infant and the future remains uncertain.
Today, things are decidedly better, the writer said in a recent email. For the past two months, Shetterly has been promoting the book. Davis will graduate in a few days and is applying for teaching jobs. The couple’s son now is 2 years and 3 months old.
Shetterly is not sure she will ever feel her future is entirely secure financially, but one fall day 18 months ago, at the age of 35, she found peace in an apple orchard.
“My life had come back to a kind of order,” she wrote in the final paragraphs of her memoir. “I knew who I was, where I was meant to be. It was here in this place, with my small, brave family, that I found some kind of Eden. We had gone all the way to the land of milk and honey only to come home to this garden of abundance, this place made, it seemed, just for us.”
Caitlin Shetterly, author of “Made for You and Me,” and Melissa Colman, author of “This Life is in Your Hands,” will read from their books at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, at the Owl & Turtle Bookshop, 32 Washington St., Camden. For information, call 236-4769.