The Washington Post
Without a Map: A Memoirby Meredith Hall
Meredith Hall's moving but unsentimental memoir begins in 1965, when she becomes pregnant at sixteen. Shunned by her insular New Hampshire community, she is then kicked out of the house by her mother. Her father and stepmother reluctantly take her in, hiding her before they finally banish her altogether. After giving her baby up for adoption, Hall wanders recklessly through the Middle East, where she survives by selling her possessions and finally her blood. She returns to New England and stitches together a life that encircles her silenced and invisible grief. When he is twenty-one, her lost son finds her. Hall learns that he grew up in gritty poverty with an abusive father—in her own father's hometown. Their reunion is tender, turbulent, and ultimately redemptive. Hall's parents never ask for her forgiveness, yet as they age, she offers them her love. What sets Without a Map apart is the way in which loss and betrayal evolve into compassion, and compassion into wisdom.
The Washington Post
It was 1965 when Hall was expelled from her New Hampshire high school, shunned by all her friends, made to leave her mother's home, and kept hidden from sight in her father's house—all because she was a sexually naïve 16-year-old, pregnant by a college boy who wasn't all that interested in her anyway. And in this memoir, chapters of which have been published in magazines, Hall narrates this bittersweet tale of loss. After childbirth her baby was put up for adoption so fast, she never had even a glimpse of him. She finished high school at a nearby boarding school, then soon wandered to Europe and eventually found herself just walking, alone, from country to country. Somewhere in the Middle East she scraped bottom and repatriated herself. She accumulated another lover and had two children, before her first son, the one she was forced to abandon, made contact. Making peace with him was deeply healing. This painful memoir builds to a quiet resolution, as Hall comes to grips with her own aging, the complexities of forgiveness and the continuity of life. (Apr.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
The year: 1965. The place: a small, insular New Hampshire community where church and home life are dominant forces. When Hall becomes pregnant at 16, she is shunned by family members and friends she's known throughout her school years. After traveling to the Middle East and suffering the indignities of loneliness and poverty, which include selling her own blood, she returns to the United States and creates a new life out of her still-palpable grief. Finally, she is able to forgive her own parents, who never offer an apology. She then receives a visit from her 21-year-old son, whom she had been forced to put up for adoption and who was raised in an atmosphere of abuse and scarcity. Though Hall's memoir—her first book—occasionally loses ground to the very grief she is trying to overcome, the message of redemptive compassion makes this a worthwhile and moving read. Appropriate for all public libraries.
Elizabeth Brinkley Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
"First-time author Hall pens a haunting meditation on love, loss, and family . . . Hall colors outside the lines with this memoir, full of unexpected twists and turns."—Caroline Leavitt, People (rated 4 out of 4 stars)
"Hall's memoir is a sobering portrayal of how punitive her close-knit New Hampshire community was in 1965 when, at the age of 16, she became pregnant in the course of a casual summer romance . . . Hall offers a testament to the importance of understanding and even forgiving the people who, however unconscious or unkind, have made us who we are."—Francine Prose, O Magazine
"Meredith Hall's long journey from an inexcusably betrayed girlhood to the bittersweet mercies of womanhood is a triple triumph—of survival; of narration; and of forgiveness. Without a Map is a masterpiece."—David James Duncan, author of The Brothers K and God Laughs and Plays
"Each chapter of Without a Map is polished and elegantly written . . . the structure is shapely and the book yields poignant insights."—Juliet Wittman, Washington Post
"Beautifully rendered."—Elle, nonfiction readers' pick
"In 1965, in a small New Hampshire town, sixteen-year-old Meredith Hall got pregnant and was consequently kicked out of her school, home, church, and community. Hall's mother sent her to another town to live with her father and stepmother, who confined her to the house. Days after giving birth (her baby was put up for adoption), she interviewed at a boarding school where she was forbidden to mention anything about her past. Hall's memoir, Without a Map, is a devastating story of what happens when a person is exiled from her own life."—Frances Lefkowitz, Body + Soul
"A poignant, unflinchingly assured memoir . . . exquisite." —Robert Braile, Boston Globe
"Meredith Hall's magnificent book held me in its thrall from the moment I began reading the opening pages . . . a fluid, beautifully written, hard-won piece of work that belongs on the shelf next to the best modern memoirs."—Dani Shapiro, author of Black and White
"An unusually elegant memoir that feels as though it's been carved straight out of Meredith Hall's capacious heart. The story is riveting, the words perfect."—Lauren Slater, author of Welcome to My Country and Opening Skinner's Box
"Without a Map is stunning . . . Book groups, take note."—Booklist
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without a mapa memoir
By Meredith Hall
Beacon PressCopyright © 2007 Meredith Hall
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Lonely Hunter
The day is warm, gray and damp. Early July, but the horizon between the sky and ocean bleeds. It is 1965; I am sixteen. Hampton Beach is almost deserted, with the crowds across the boulevard in the shops.
"Hrrr," a young man says, dropping down beside me on the old blanket. It sounds like a growl, or a low dark purr. "What are you reading?" He takes the paperback from me. I don't say anything. "Carson McCullers. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Mine is," he says, laughing.
He has black curly hair, dark skin, and a crooked nose. He wears shorts and no shirt or shoes. His legs and chest are covered in thick, black curly hair. The boys in my class have smooth skin still, and most don't shave yet. I am scared, feeling myself caught already in something dangerous.
"You don't say much, do you? You look really good, though."
I take the book back and open it again, pretending to find my place and read.
"What are you doing here all by yourself? I think you need some company." He makes that strange growl deep in his throat again, and smiles. "Talk to me." He takes my book and slides it under his belly on the blanket. "There. Now you're either going to have to talk to me or go after your book. I'm happy either way."
He is self-confident. I feel silly and young, unable to talk, to keep up with his flirtation. But I also feel a sudden rising power, a new sense of my body and my skin-a recklessness, as if I am slipping over a wall into something dangerous and intoxicating. I want this boy, this young man, to love me. I have been embarrassed to be alone on the beach. What sixteen-year-old spends the summer at the beach alone-day after day, whether it is sunny or not-reading books and watching the tide move in and out? But suddenly my aloneness is a commodity, a mystery, payback.
"Cat got your tongue?" he asks.
I don't like the cliché. I haven't smiled yet. It makes me feel more grown-up, sophisticated. I am on my side, my head resting on my cocked arm. I like the way my hip rises from my waist. I roll onto my stomach, then feel his hand on the small of my back. It is shocking-skin to skin. I can't speak.
"Hrrr, Skeet, look what I found," he says to another boy walking up to us.
"Nice one!" Skeet says. They laugh.
"What's a nice girl like you doing down here at the beach?" my boy asks.
I try to sound aloof, careless. "I work here."
"She speaks!" he says. "This is good. Where do you work?"
"Nowhere," I say, turning my head away.
He suddenly jumps up. "Let's go," he says to Skeet.
A bubble of panic rises up in me. I want to hold on to this time, on to him and his admiring eyes and confidence and black hair. I feel as if I have missed something important for a long time and here it is, walking away. I feel hungry, desperate for him to stay, to lie back down next to me and pull my book away and touch my skin again.
"In the casino," I say. "It's my day off." I feel the heat rise in my face and neck. I am breaking every rule. "At the candy store and miniature golf."
He purrs again. "The casino. I love miniature golf, don't you, Skeet?"
I watch him walk up to the boardwalk and across the street. He turns just as he crosses the boardwalk and yells, "My name is Anthony! Don't forget!" I spend the afternoon looking up from my book every few minutes, trying to find his black curly head and dark skin in the crowds jostling in and out of the shops and arcade. Seagulls scream and call, floating overhead, pure white crosses against the dark sky. The afternoon wind comes up. Two months from now I will be pregnant. I put my jeans and shirt on over my swimsuit and wait for my mother to pick me up.
Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, is a honky-tonk place in 1965. Maybe it has always been. For years my mother forbade us children from going there except once a summer when my grandmother drove my brother and sister and me down to "the beach" in her '55 Ford. We'd park in the sandy lot behind the casino and spend the evening walking with the crowd, stopping at our favorite stores. My grandmother spoke familiarly to Mrs. Junkins at the candy store. We watched the big old taffy machine pull and twist and braid the shiny candy and left with a big box for my mother, who refused to "do" the beach. My grandmother gave us dimes in the arcade to play skee-ball and have our fortunes told by the creaking and faded and beautiful gypsy doll in the big glass box. We ate hamburgers at Wimpy's, sitting on the heavy green bench on the sidewalk and watching all the other tourists wander by. They were mostly French Canadians, with very short shorts and white socks in their leather sandals. They were a big part of why my mother refused to let us go down to the beach. She told us that we were too good to be around these people, that we shouldn't even want to be there. That there was something cheap and ordinary going on there, and we were not cheap or ordinary. The beach meant day-tripping workers from Massachusetts, from the mill towns of Haverhill-my mother's hometown -and Amesbury and Lowell. It meant old ladies and men dragging their beach chairs down the boardwalk and onto the sand. It meant families eating sandwiches on striped blankets and playing shoulder to shoulder with strangers in the cold rolling waves. And it meant young people, kids, boys and girls with different rules from mine, prowling the beach for beer and kisses and secret dates somewhere on the mile-long sands. The beach was a playground of the old world: 1950s America, a relic of both innocence and hidden transgressions.
But this summer, 1965, is a threshold time. My mother comes to Hampton Beach, too, every day, with Peter. The editor of New Hampshire Profiles magazine and my mother's boss, Peter has asked her to work with him for the summer on a federally funded project. My father left our family just a few years ago, a devastating loss for my mother. Now she is in love with Peter, or at least with Peter's life-the music, the art, the artist friends, the late nights with their underlying beat of love and heat. Before she met Peter, my mother was president of the PTA and chair of the church social events committee. She polished our silver-plated forks and knives and carefully hemmed my skirts below the knee. But she has entered a new life and is intoxicated with it. She starts to write short stories, to read Sartre and Camus and Hesse and Rilke. She lets her hair grow out from her short and practical wave, and the handsome dark wool and gabardine dresses she sewed with such skill are pushed to the back of her closet. She wears slacks and turtlenecks and Mexican sandals. Finishing her duties as mother to her last child at home seems unmanageable, a commitment she resents and resists. Suddenly, I find myself accompanying her each day to the forbidden beach and spending long lonely hours before and after work waiting for her.
Peter and my mother do important work, work that justifies her drive each morning to the mildewed, sandy office of the Hampton Beach Riot Committee. I don't know how Peter's editorship of a small New Hampshire magazine, how his jazz and writing qualify him to head the riot study commission. I don't know what my mother, with her cool judgments of others' misbehavior, wants to bring to a study of youth gone wild. But for the summer of 1965, Peter and my mother work in the glass-wrapped office of the Hampton Beach Chamber of Commerce, right on the boardwalk along the white sand beach, building a report on the causes of the riots the summer before.
On Labor Day eve 1964, the huge crowd of kids gathered at the beach for the holiday coalesced into a rioting mob. The police and firefighters responded with force, driving the rioters across the beach and into the water. Each time, the crowd swept back into the streets, attacking the cops with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Finally, in the middle of the night, the governor called out the National Guard and declared martial law. The guard closed down all the roads into the beach and set up machine gun stations along the main road. It took them until dawn on Labor Day to contain the riot, with dozens of police and kids left wounded.
The Hampton Beach riots stunned the nation, which still clung to the passive, determined calm of the 1950s. The rioters were average kids from area towns, not troublemakers with a history. A year later, no one has figured out what they were all so angry about. Peter and my mother are charged with interviewing hundreds of rioters, finding answers and coming up with recommendations so this cannot happen again. They do a good job. The police receive extensive sensitivity training. Bongo drums and radios playing rock 'n' roll are finally allowed on the beach with no police action. Bikinis no longer earn a citation for indecency. My mother feels sympathy for these kids. At a moment of great transformation in her own life, she understands the surge of change that is gathering force in this seedy little summer town and is soon to engulf the country.
I feel the swelling energy, the inexplicable, restless hunger, rising in my own innocent life. I don't care at all about the music or the drinking or the gathering together of teenagers for fun and the thrill of belonging. But my father is gone. He has a new life, a new wife and daughter, and never calls or visits. I miss him badly. My mother is inaccessible. My older brother and sister have moved on to their own lives, leaving me very alone at home and on the beach while my mother works and plays with Peter. I feel lost, caught between my old life at home-a safe, small, family life-and the new life on which my mother has opened the door. A growing sense of dread, of confusion, of abandonment and desperation is starting to erase my childhood. I am hungry to be loved, and understand the rioters' anger, the eruptive release, the need to defy. I understand the pulsing impatience. I feel a powerful dark longing that throws me back into myself. Most of this I cannot name or explain. But as the summer slides along, I know one thing very clearly: I am drifting in over my head and want my mother to grab me out of the tide.
My mother was a guardian of the old rules until she met Peter and stepped into his world. Now, I teeter on a frightened edge between our two lives, understanding that I am to follow the old system, that I must be contained. I grew up with certain indisputable expectations for my behavior: I would dress modestly. I would never call a boy. I would never be alone with a boy. I would not lie or sneak. I would not talk back. But this summer, as my mother moves farther and farther into her new life, I spend more and more time alone. After her work on the committee ends late in the day and my work at the casino is over, my mother drives me home and then heads to Peter's house, up the coast five miles to eat, drink, make music and conversation with friends. She is happy and alive. Our house is very quiet.
The biggest change is that she suddenly allows me to date. My mother stops asking where I am going and with whom. She tells me to be home at ten, but she is not there to hear me come in. Suddenly, I am on my own to make up the new rules. Once, I told her how much I liked a boy putting his hand on my leg at the movie. She disapproved: "Meredy, never let a boy do that."
She was disgusted. "Because one thing leads to another." But she wouldn't tell me how to reconcile her expectations for my proper behavior with the new universe we both found ourselves in.
I spend the first weeks of the summer holding myself to the old rules. Then one day, I shop in the cheap little stores along the beach while I wait for her to get out of work. I find a bikini-white dotted swiss with big black polka dots and ruffles over the seat. I try it on in the cramped dressing room. I love what I see. I am thin, brown, mature. It confuses me, the good girl.
The next day, I strut all morning up and down the beach outside my mother's wall of windows at the chamber. Up and down, up and down. Only a few girls wear bikinis still, and I am the center of attention. Men whistle. Boys fall into step beside me and ask for my name, my phone number. I love their interest. I want them to love me, to hold me, to fill the vast empty space in my life that is starting to scare me so much.
I can see my mother bent over her desk on the second floor, answering the phone, walking out of sight and returning. Several times I wave but get no response. By the end of the day, I decide that this is going to be my new skin. I leap into a new life that afternoon, blind and alone, reckless. When I climb into my mother's car at the curb at five thirty, I don't cover up with a shirt. I wait, wanting her to draw me, to draw us, back to the safety of our other life, the life in which a father and mother hold ground. She looks sideways at me but doesn't say a word.
When I am back in the shelter of my small, sunny room at home, I fold my old one-piece swimsuit into the back of a drawer for good. I hear my mother's car pull back out. I close my door and stand in front of the mirror, studying my body. A trained dancer, I am strong and thin. The polka-dotted ruffles on my bottom look innocent, playful. I stroke the soft roundness of my breasts, the dark hollow between them, and the smooth curve at the small of my back. I have areas of baby-fine white skin on my chest and belly and back that need exposure, need to brown up in the open air. Except for that, I am ready. When Anthony puts his hand on my back that cloudy July afternoon, I am ready.
* * *
It is Labor Day 1965. There are no stars tonight. No moon. The beach is divided in two: the upper part by the boardwalk is a sad greenish-pink from the mercury lights overhead; the lower part is dark, with a silvery light from the wave crests rising and then seeping over the sand, rising and seeping. That's where Anthony takes me, over the line of light into the dark. The beach monument-a seated woman looking out to sea for her lost love-marks the spot where Skeet waits in Anthony's car. It has been exactly a year since the riots erupted and two months since we met. Everything at the beach is quiet, but inside I can feel rising something dangerous, a chaotic push and pull.
As we walk along the water's edge, Anthony laughs and teases me, as he does each time we are together, about how protected I have been, how naïve, how girlish I am. "Are you sure you're not afraid of the dark?" he asks. "Your mother must have told you never to let a guy like me take you to the beach on a night like this." Later, he says, "Don't worry. I'm here to protect you from the sharks." He doesn't hold my hand or put his arm around me. In fact, we have barely kissed all summer.
I have seen Anthony six or seven times since I met him. I have never been alone with him; he and Skeet are a team. They made their way to the second floor of the casino on a hot evening a few days after that first inflaming afternoon and found me at the miniature golf desk handing out clubs and balls to a steady flow of people. I was bored. When I noticed Anthony standing in line, I felt no surprise. I knew he would come.
The upstairs of the old casino is dark and musty and cold even on a hot, sunny day. The floorboards creak as people move around the cavernous room. Anthony and Skeet played three rounds of golf. Anthony has an athletic body and a confident, easy walk. He joked with me about the silliness of my job and the fact that I was all bundled up against the cold wind that blasted up the wide concrete steps of the casino. "Why aren't you in that cute little thing you had on the other clay?" he asked. "The thing with the ruffles." I was busy and didn't have to do anything more than smile back. By the time he and Skeet left, Anthony knew my name and how to call me.
Carl, a friend who worked with me every day, asked, "Who was that?"
"Just a guy I met," I said. I felt guilty.
"He's got to be twenty years old, Meredy. Why are you talking to a guy like that?"
"He's nice," I said. "Don't worry. We're not going out or anything."
"Does your mother know about him?"
"Yeah," I said. "She just said no cars." He knew I was lying. I had never mentioned Anthony to my mother, and she had stopped worrying about cars.
Excerpted from without a map by Meredith Hall Copyright © 2007 by Meredith Hall. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
At the age of forty-four, Meredith Hall graduated from Bowdoin College. She wrote her first essay, “Killing Chickens,” in 2002. Two years later, she won the $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award from A Room of Her Own Foundation, which gave her the financial freedom to devote time to Without a Map, her first book. Her other honors include a Pushcart Prize and notable essay recognition in Best American Essays; she was also a finalist for the Rona Jaffe Award. Hall’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, The Southern Review, Five Points, Prairie Schooner, and several anthologies. She teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire and lives in Maine. Visit Meredith Hall's website at www.meredithhall.org.
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One of the best books I have EVER read! Unbelievable story of survival and emotional turmoil around. I read this book in a very short amount of time because I just could not put it down! This book is not only absorbing but inspirational!
I took a class from Prof Hall at University of New Hampshire. I enjoyed the class so much that I decided to pick up her book at the library. It was a fantastic read and I feel very grateful to have been taught by such a raw and captivating writer.
I picked up this book because like the author I am a birth mom. I found the book way too confusing as it bounced back and forth from child to adult to teen to child to adult etc. I even found a few chapters disturbing. I understand the pain behind her actions but some were just WAY too out there and bizarre. I would not recommend this book.
As I was reading this book, I would glance to see how many pages I had left as I didn't want it to end! The writing style made me feel and walk with the author through her life and made me examine myself and relationships in my life. I love this book.
As a contemporary of Ms Hall, I remember the stretching and straining of mores with "girls in trouble". In more cosmopolitan NJ, girls were choosing to not be forced into marriage and still keeping their babies. Entering University of NH in the Fall of 1967, I found NH a much more insular - pizza was much too ethnic a food for this college town - so the shame and guilt visited upon her seem so genuine - The tone of the story reinforces the difficulty in the telling. It must have been such a difficult story to write. A great reference for our daughters and granddaughters to understand the social strictures and blatant double standard of the 1960s. Thank you for your courage
This is a story about a teen age girl in the 1960's who becomes pregnant & is ostracized by her family. The book describes what happens to her over the next 30 or so years.
I don't know what that previous reader was talking about not believing the author, saying they grew up at the same time in the same place and remembers it differently. I think that's a matter of perspective and maybe he or she lived their lives , differently and didn't follow the same people or were just out of touch. I grew up in Hampton , raised children in Hampton and hung out at Hampton beach. I remember it and her descriptions are right on. Not to mention that I also reside in epping NH and its just wonderful to read a book that describes the towns and environment , that you can related to literally. It makes this book take on a vivid life. It breaths. It is true how pregnancy was considered tabu with a young girl and a one night stand so to speak, its true that your schools and churches and friends seem to validate the shame more than the unconditional love. Especially in 1965. So for some who think she made it up? How about just giving the benefit of the doubt. I would bet that the same 10 people could live in one town, have similar memories but have different perspectives. Thanks you Meredith.