Lifesaving Lessons: Notes from an Accidental Mother

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New York Times–bestselling author Linda Greenlaw tells of her greatest challenge: adopting a teenage daughter

The only female swordfish boat captain in the country and a survivor of the real Perfect Storm, Linda Greenlaw was not a woman to shy away from a challenge. Then came fifteen-year-old Mariah—the greatest force of nature Greenlaw has ever encountered. In this chronicle of becoming a mother to a troubled teenage girl, Greenlaw’s fans will be delighted by her trademark ...

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New York Times–bestselling author Linda Greenlaw tells of her greatest challenge: adopting a teenage daughter

The only female swordfish boat captain in the country and a survivor of the real Perfect Storm, Linda Greenlaw was not a woman to shy away from a challenge. Then came fifteen-year-old Mariah—the greatest force of nature Greenlaw has ever encountered. In this chronicle of becoming a mother to a troubled teenage girl, Greenlaw’s fans will be delighted by her trademark candor and down-to-earth style of storytelling, and will see a side of her that’s never been revealed before. New readers, and any parent of a teenage daughter, will find much to empathize with in this brave and heartfelt new memoir.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Linda Greenlaw and Seaworthy

"Book readers should rejoice...Greenlaw's writing sweeps the reader along not only for the incidents at sea but also for her candid reflections about them." — The Huffington Post

"A great read."

— The Boston Examiner

"From mishaps to fish tales, Greenlaw keeps her narrative suspenseful." — Publishers Weekly

"Fast-paced and lively." — The Portland Press Herald

"Greenlaw speaks with unquestionable authority when fashioning the salty atmosphere of swordfishing life. A vanishing slice of life caught with ardor and freshness." — Kirkus

"Greenlaw knows how to spin a good yarn...Seaworthy is a more reflective book, pondering not just the vageries of nature but the nature of success and self-defintion." —

"Greenlaw is a remarkable woman who can hold her own, whether it's in the male-dominated fishing industry or on the printed page." —

"Pure joy." — The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)

"Even if you never really wanted to go to sea for months at a time on a fishing'll be caught from the very first sentence of this engrossing and illuminating book." — San Francisco Book Review

Praise for The Hungry Ocean:

“Anyone who loves the sea will love this book.”

— Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm

“A beautiful book…A story of triumph, of a woman not only making it but succeeding at the highest level in one of the most male-dominated and most dangerous professions.” — Douglas Whynott, The New York Times Book Review

Praise for The Lobster Chronicles:

“These true, interwoven stories of island life and lobstering are as engaging and uncommon as [Greenlaw’s] adventures at sea.” — Boston Magazine

Praise for All Fisherman Are Liars:

“You can’t help but be a bit in awe of Greenlaw for her gutsiness, and she comes across as so darn likable you wish you were sitting at the Dry Dock next to her.” — The Miami Herald

Publishers Weekly
As a swordfish boat captain and successful author, Greenlaw (Seaworthy and The Hungry Ocean) worked hard creating an independent life on an idyllic island off the coast of Maine. She settled into a rewarding routine of writing, fishing and family obligations. Unexpectedly, she became the legal guardian for a sexually abused teenage girl. Creating a loving home for her new daughter becomes a monumental three-year struggle of wills between the no-nonsense Greenlaw and the needy, confused, and surly teenager, who needs extra love and care. As the scope of the girl’s abuse becomes clear and a darker side of island life is revealed, Greenlaw receives support from an unexpected quarter: the island’s community of women. Not prone to friendship with females, Greenlaw revels in the intensity of the bonds created by the teenager’s plight. “These friendships were tight and immediate and as heartfelt as any I had with my longtime guy friends.” While struggling to get up to speed with her mothering skills, Greenlaw laments the status of her romantic but stalled relationship. “But we weren’t married, and I had just latched on to the realization that we never would be. This was depressing.” Greenlaw’s memoir deftly chronicles her journey to motherhood, without whitewashing away the toughness of the trek or the joy she experiences along the way. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky, Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency. (Mar.)
Library Journal
The country's only female swordfish-boat captain, a Discovery Channel star, and the author of three New York Times best sellers, Greenlaw took on a new challenge when her island community made her guardian of teenaged Mariah. Mariah had come there to live with her uncle, a newcomer who turned out to have abused her terribly. A tale, then, of love and healing; with a six-city tour.
Kirkus Reviews
America's only female swordfish-boat captain returns with a straightforward account of the challenges she faced in becoming the legal guardian of a sexually abused teenager and in balancing unexpected motherhood with her reclusive lifestyle on a tiny island off the coast of Maine. A resident of Isle au Haut, whose population at the time numbered less than 50 in the off-season, Greenlaw (Seaworthy, 2010, etc.) and her community were disturbed to realize they did not live in a "[p]ristine" place. Upon learning that a pedophile resided among them, they rallied to aid Mariah, a 15-year-old who had moved to the island with her stepfather's alcoholic brother, "Uncle" Ken. Greenlaw charts the course of her earlier choice to live a childless life through events that led to Mariah's rescue, Ken's arrest, trial and conviction, and its aftermath. The author's no-nonsense approach to daily life led to honest admissions of selfishness and her desire for solitude, but she gradually warmed to the realization that guardianship involved more than providing material needs and security. Secondary themes of sisterhood and of developing female friendships later in life add depth to a work that otherwise explores a sensitive topic in familiar ways--from initial outrage to healing, wariness to acceptance, and an adolescent's tumultuous beginnings to high school graduation and acceptance to college. Though descriptions of emotions occasionally step into cliché, Greenlaw is at her finest when drawing parallels between life at sea and her new role as a mother. A competent work intended to encourage others in similar situations, but will appeal most to fans of Greenlaw's previous Isle au Haut installment, The Lobster Chronicles.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143125129
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/25/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 219,618
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda  Greenlaw
Linda Greenlaw is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, The Lobster Chronicles, Seaworthy, and The Hungry Ocean, as well as two mysteries and two cookbooks coauthored with her mother, Martha Greenlaw. She lives on Isle au Haut, Maine.


Growing up on coastal Maine, Linda Greenlaw was entranced by the ocean and everything that swam in it. When other kids got their first 10-speed bicycles, she got her first 10-horsepower outboard. Later, Greenlaw literally sailed her way through college, spending her summers as a cook and deck hand on a swordfishing boat. After graduating from Colby College with a double major in English and government, Greenlaw returned to the sailor's life, becoming a ship captain when she was in her 20s and earning a reputation as "one of the best swordboat captains, period, on the East Coast" (in the words of Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger).

For over 15 years, this remarkable achievement went generally unremarked-upon. Then came Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, the true story of the fishing boat Andrea Gail, which disappeared in a hurricane at sea in October of 1991. Greenlaw was captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship, the Hannah Boden, which was also at sea during the fateful storm. Though Greenlaw is only a minor figure in Junger's book, readers were intrigued by the idea of a woman who'd made it to the top in a heavily male-dominated -- and highly dangerous -- profession.

Publishers were intrigued, too, and several of them approached Greenlaw with offers for a book about her experiences. At first she turned them down, saying she could make more money actually fishing for a season than writing about fishing. But at last she decided to give it a try, and her readers are glad she did. Her book The Hungry Ocean is a riveting look at the day-to-day operations of a large commercial fishing boat, complete with storms, sharks and, on one grim occasion, a dead crew member in the fish hold. In the great fisherman tradition, The Hungry Ocean is also a ripping good story, one The New York Times Book Review declared a "triumph."

Greenlaw agreed to write her first book in part because she wanted to lead a settled existence for a while, perhaps get married and start a family. In her second book, The Lobster Chronicles, she describes trading the adventurous life of an offshore swordboat captain for the comparatively quiet business of trapping lobsters in Penobscot Bay. As she reconnects with her roots on the tiny Isle au Haut ("forty-seven full-time residents, half of whom I am related to in one way or another"), she deals with nosy neighbors, a dearth of available men, and recalcitrant crustaceans who refuse to crawl into her traps. She also evokes a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency that her readers might well envy: Her island has no Kmart ("or any other mart"), no Starbucks, no cable TV. "Straightforward storytelling and captivating reading: satisfying as a Maine lobster dinner," wrote Kirkus Reviews.

So far, Greenlaw is shaping up to be as talented a writer as she is a fisherman (she objects strenuously to being called a "fisherwoman"). Possibly the only woman ever to captain a swordfishing boat, she has insisted that being a female captain is an asset: "No self-respecting fisherman wants to be outdone by a woman, even if it kills him." Perhaps her books will inspire other female fishermen to join the fray.

Good To Know

In her years as a swordboat captain, Greenlaw's biggest single swordfish was a 635-pound fish caught in the Carribean, according to a USA Today chat with the author. Her largest total load in one trip was 62,000 pounds.

In a TV interview with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN, Greenlaw said she's "one of the only people probably on the planet who does not own a cell phone. But I have a VHF radio."

In the movie version of The Perfect Storm, Linda Greenlaw was played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

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    1. Hometown:
      Isle au Haut, Maine
    1. Education:
      B.A., Colby College, 1983

Reading Group Guide


Linda Greenlaw first rose to national prominence through her role in the events chronicled in the book and movie The Perfect Storm. Known as “America’s only female swordfish boat captain,” she has penned more than eight books (both fiction and nonfiction), captained swordfishing operations in the deep waters off the coast of the Northeastern United States, and briefly landed in a Canadian jail. It seemed, for a fleeting moment, as if Greenlaw had few challenges left to vanquish. Enter a teenager. In Lifesaving Lessons, Linda Greenlaw recounts the story of how she became an adoptive mother to an abused teenage girl, a challenge that made wrangling gargantuan swordfish look downright breezy.

For Greenlaw, home is the remote, craggy Isle au Haut. An island off the coast of Maine with limited access to the mainland, Isle au Haut has a year-round population consisting of a close-knit community of stubborn islanders. In the summer months, the population swells to include carefree vacationers seeking solace in the island’s protected beauty. The combined community breeds a culture that prides both independence and cooperation—along with the inescapable reality that all personal business is, in fact, island business.

One spring, a middle-aged year-round resident named Ken brings his fifteen-year-old niece, Mariah, to Linda to set her up with summer work. Ken recently became Mariah’s legal guardian after moving her away from her alcoholic, abusive family in Memphis, Tennessee. He wagers that buoy painting and trap mending might be just the cure for the teenager’s attitude, which could be described as sullen, at best. In the fall, Mariah returns to school and Greenlaw returns to her solo writer’s routine, the young girl just another blip in the ever-shifting island population.

The solitude of the ensuing winter and the loneliness of island life leave Greenlaw wondering if there might be certain things she missed out on while pursuing her career—particularly the chance to have a family and children of her own. She brushes these concerns aside with the return of summer and her extended family to the island. Suddenly her house, which felt so empty in January, doesn’t seem large enough to hold all of her visitors.

However, the end of August brings a sharp disruption to summer’s carefree joy when one terrible night Ken’s guardianship of Mariah is thrown into question. The shock sends the island into a tailspin and propels Linda to the front and center of a tragic, complicated situation. She finds herself—a middle-aged woman without a child—stepping in as a mother to a troubled teenage girl.

In Lifesaving Lessons, Greenlaw recounts the details of becoming Mariah’s mother, from navigating nitty-gritty details (school, health care, clothes shopping, driving lessons) to dealing with more ambiguous concerns (setting workable boundaries, instituting discipline, finding a way to nurture someone who has never truly been nurtured, breaking a vicious cycle of abuse). With the help of friends and neighbors from around the island, Linda and Mariah find a way to fall into new roles they never thought possible—mother and daughter—and in so doing, a way to break through years of grief and hurt.

Greenlaw brings warmth, grace, and her signature humor to a painful story that needs to be told—both for the sake of the young girl in her care and for countless other children who have suffered a similar fate. Lifesaving Lessons is a story of second chances, and of one swordfish boat captain’s attempt to bring her fortitude and flexibility—and her seaworthiness—to a new life on land.


Linda Greenlaw is America’s only female swordfish boat captain. Featured in the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger and the subsequent movie (in which she was played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), Greenlaw has written eight books of her own. Her nonfiction works include The Hungry Ocean, The Lobster Chronicles, All Fishermen Are Liars, and Seaworthy. She has also written two cookbooks (coauthored with her mother, Martha Greenlaw), Recipes from a Very Small Island and The Maine Summers Cookbook, and two mysteries, Slipknot and Fisherman’s Bend. On television, she has been featured in the Discovery Channel series Swords: Life on the Line as well as on Good Morning America, Today, CBS Sunday Morning, and The Martha Stewart Show. She lives on Isle au Haut, Maine, with her daughter.


In your previous books, you told your own story. How did it feel to tell a story so closely intertwined with another’s? How did you decide what aspects of it were yours to tell?

As with all of my nonfiction work, Lifesaving Lessons is an account of a portion of my life. This book is 100 percent my perception of “our story.” I had my daughter’s blessings to write this story, and am happy and relieved to report that she refers to it as “our book.”

Lifesaving Lessons, which partially recounts legal proceedings involving a minor, contains a fair amount of sensitive information. How did you navigate this material?

I chose to be brutally honest. I obtained all of the court records and police records to insure accuracy.

In talking to your readers who might not be fishermen or -women themselves, are you ever shocked at what people don’t know about the profession? What are some of the strangest questions your readers have asked you?

I am more shocked by how much nonfishermen DO know about commercial fishing. All of the excitement surrounding many reality television shows, in addition to books like mine that continue to ride the wave created by The Perfect Storm, have helped to educate people about the profession. However, I have heard some fairly strange questions. “When you go to the Grand Banks from Gloucester, do you go through the Bermuda Triangle?” This is more a problem with geography than lack of knowledge of commercial fishing.

How do you make highly technical descriptions of your trade accessible to an audience that may not know the first thing about fishing?

Editors! The most frequent comment I get from editors when working on a manuscript is asking for better description of an industry term, activity, or piece of equipment. I have spent more of my life offshore than I have on dry land, so I never imagined that anyone would not understand that a fathom is equal to six feet.

How does the need for improvisation and flexibility as a swordfish boat captain come in handy as a mother?

The attributes that make me a good fisherman are not necessarily ALL good when applied to mothering. I suppose that persistence and determination are great in any situation, but being unwilling to compromise or bend is not. A fishing boat is not a democracy. So, “choosing battles” is not something that I am accustomed to doing. I fight all battles. That’s the captain in me.

When you chose to take guardianship of Mariah, did the reaction of your friends and family surprise you at all or were they predictable? How so?

I was not surprised by anyone’s reaction to my decision to become Mariah’s legal guardian, with the exception of my longtime guy-friend, Simon. He wanted no part of parenting a teenage girl. This may have had some bearing on our eventual, friendly split. My friends were all very supportive. My parents were not.

What was the importance of mental health professionals in dealing with the aftermath of Mariah’s abuse?

Counseling from mental health professionals was extremely important in dealing with the aftermath of realizing Mariah’s abuse. Mariah was not open to help at first. She eventually met a counselor she clicked with, and benefited from weekly appointments through four years of high school. The island community also received counseling, which was of great importance for all who chose to partake.

What do you think of the protections currently in place for minors who have been victims of abuse? How do communities contribute to ensuring the safety of their children?

I am not impressed with protection for minors who are victims of abuse. Just yesterday, a recently released-from-jail child abuser was allowed to move back to my island—the home of his victim. He was run off the island by an angry mob. I suspect that does not happen elsewhere. So if the community doesn’t step up and take care of their own concerns and problems, they have no one to blame but themselves. (We have no law enforcement on our island.)

In the book you must break difficult news to Mariah regarding her cat, Cowgirl. What did the “Cowgirl incident” teach you?

I learned to not walk gingerly around an issue but rather to dive right in. I worried way too long about breaking the news.

In the book you talk about how “terroir,” a term borrowed from winemaking, affects our character. Can you elaborate on this concept?

My discussion of “terroir” in the book was in relation to the age-old question of nature versus nurture. Was Mariah’s rotten disposition a result of her early upbringing and abuse? Or was she just a particularly difficult teen? I’ll never know the answer to that.

Do you still have the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your front door?

I have replaced the “Do Not Disturb” sign with a “Welcome” mat. I am currently not working on a writing project. When this changes, so will the sign!


  1. What role do women play in Mariah’s story? What value does Greenlaw find in her female friendships that differs from the value she finds in her male friendships?
  2. What does Lifesaving Lessons have to say about the idea of choice between career and family? Do you think one is always at the exclusion of the other? What is the result of this choice in Greenlaw’s case and how does she feel about it?
  3. How is Isle au Haut characterized in the book? How does this character change through the seasons?
  4. Would you say the residents of Isle au Haut value community, independence, or both? What are some examples of each from the book?
  5. What does the word “mother” mean? Is it a biological role or an emotional one?
  6. What are some examples of motherhood put forth in Lifesaving Lessons?
  7. How does Ken’s arrest affect the entire island?
  8. In what ways does the island come together in celebration? In what way does the island come together in hardship?
  9. Greenlaw coins the term “islandish” (p. 163) to describe the tendency on Isle au Haute to resolve things “inside the bubble.” In what ways does islandish aid Mariah? In what ways does it harm her?
  10. What role does the idea of “home” play in this book? How does Linda’s concept of home differ from Mariah’s concept of home?

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