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Lifesaving Lessons: Notes from an Accidental Mother
by Linda Greenlaw (Viking, 258 pages)

By Jennifer Graham



3/28/2013 - Linda Greenlaw is not just an accidental mother but also an accidental writer. Until Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm thrust the swordfish boat captain into the media spotlight in 1997, she fished in obscurity. “Then after that, publishers basically invited me to write a book,” Greenlaw confides on her website. And the invitations kept coming.
 
Writing longhand in a notebook, and later transferring her thoughts to Word documents, Greenlaw has since produced a respectable catalog of best-selling titles, from The Hungry Ocean to The Lobster Chronicles to Seaworthy to a pair of cookbooks co-written with her mother. Now comes Lifesaving Lessons, in which Greenlaw chronicles her journey from perpetually single and childless to perpetually single with child — more specifically, with a mouthy, troublesome, neglected and abused teen.
 
Greenlaw first met “Mariah” when the girl came to live on tiny Isle au Haut, Maine, where Greenlaw moved in 1997. Isle au Haut is six miles long, two miles wide, and has about 65 year-round residents, who largely keep to themselves despite their close proximity. Therefore, it was a shock when Greenlaw and other islanders learned that the pretty teen with thick blond hair was living not with a devoted uncle but with a drunken pedophile.
 
It may take a village to raise a child, but the child has got to have one place to call home. For Mariah (and her cat), this place was Greenlaw’s house, though not without a lot of angst and trepidation. Greenlaw actually decided on a whim to seek guardianship of the girl, and those words, once issued, aren’t ones easily retracted. “There was no way I could take it back now,” she writes. “It had to have come from somewhere real inside me, but what did it really mean? Guardianship and all things maternal fit neatly into the category of things about which I am clueless.”
 
If we know how the story turns out (the idyllic cover photo of Greenlaw rowing a boat and smiling at a young blonde woman), it’s OK; we all knew how “The Perfect Storm” turned out and went to see the film anyway. Besides, even with advance knowledge that Mariah is somehow going to wind up with Greenlaw, there are traces of tension that keep us turning the pages. We need to know, for example, if the woman that Junger called one of the best sea captains on the East Coast eventually mans up, learns to parent and throws a bucket of chum at this insolent kid.
 
OK, so yes, the girl was abused — her “uncle” is now in jail and her Tennessee blood relatives, by comparison, make Honey Boo Boo look like a debutante — but oh, the eye-rolling contempt that issues forth from this kid, and oh, our desire to ground her. Parenting teenagers is hard enough when you give birth to them. Having been thrust into parenthood with no practice or warning, Greenlaw muddles through a tough time admirably, and hers is a compelling story, though it may not make you rush out to adopt a troubled kid.
 
Nor will you be posting excerpts on the refrigerator for the beauty of phrase, although Greenlaw does occasionally deviate from workmanlike prose to deliver a passage that is startlingly lovely. Like this, a description of Ken, the abuser: “His face was thin and hung sadly from his forehead, which was fully exposed in a bit of breeze that swept greasy tendrils of hair to his temples. He placed a hand over a silk-screened Jerry Garcia on the chest of his T-shirt and tapped his heart as if consoling it tenderly.”
 
Does Mariah save Greenlaw’s life? Does Greenlaw save Mariah’s? Can anyone save Cowgirl, the stinky cat? These are not questions that will keep anyone up late at night, but Greenlaw fans will welcome a new porthole into her life. Others might find her earlier fare has more bite. B-  





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