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Author navigates some false roads in 'Without a Map'

It's been a long time since I was shattered by a book, but that's how I felt after I closed the back cover of Meredith Hall's memoir, "Without a Map: A Memoir" (Beacon Press, 2007).

Hall's formerly cozy life fractures one cold day in 1965 when, at age 16, she is expelled from high school for being pregnant, the result of a single, ill-considered act. Fearful of the community's judgment, her mother says, "Well, she can't stay here." She is sent to while away the months of her "confinement" with her father and his second wife in a house cold in all senses of the word.

There is no question that she will give up her embarrassment - the baby - for adoption. Hall describes lying curled under her blanket, feeling her baby move, caressing an elbow or a heel as it pokes against her belly, dreading the moment of separation. Shunned by family and townspeople she thought herself loved and accepted by, Hall describes moving through the next years of her life in a stunned state, dissociating more and more from society. Untethered and adrift, Hall feels most at home as a hitchhiker among Palestinian refugees, people who, like her, have lost nearly everything but their lives.

She returns to New England to try to rebuild a life for herself. Many years later, the son she gave away - named Paul by his adoptive parents - contacts her through a social worker. They correspond and finally meet and try to expand their lives to include this new other - second mother to Paul, third son to Hall.

The prose is lovely; the story riveting. But I worry about getting attached - or rather, I worry about getting dropped.

The realm of memoir, creative nonfiction, is dangerous territory. People were touched by the memoirs of JT Leroy and James Frey's "Million Little Pieces," only to find out they were hoodwinked. There have always been snake oil salesmen and in the literary world, and memoir is the platform from which they prey on people's emotions. What's at stake is not only the price of the book and the time spent reading it. When a reader trusts the emotional truth of an author's nonfiction account and discovers she or he has been gulled, it's an abandonment and a betrayal.

There were a couple of red flags that make it difficult for me to yield wholeheartedly to this narrative's pull. One is the deliberately deployed motif of milk - Hall's milk soaking her bra and flowing down the drain, the ewe's milk a shepherd warms for her, the milk ("hot and thick and sweet") a Palestinian woman expresses from her own breast into a tin cup for Hall. As a seven-year La Leche League volunteer and nursing mom, I balked. Human milk is generally thin and bluish and most certainly not hot. Also, without a nursing baby to stimulate the flow of milk, it is unlikely that Hall would have been able to produce the copious amounts of milk she describes after giving away her baby.

Another red flag is the scene where Hall tells her son that labor was so long that she doesn't remember whether it was still Memorial Day when he was born. He tells her sharply that his birthday is on Memorial Day and that as a child, he believed it was a holiday just for him. Excuse me for interrupting, but doesn't Memorial Day fall on different dates year to year? You can't have a birthday on Memorial Day.

So why not just publish "Without a Map" as a novel? Good novels also deal in emotional truth. But here's a key difference: a novel, no matter how moving, comes with a built-in safety net - the knowledge that it springs from the writer's imagination. Memoir rips away that net, intensifying its impact on readers who believe the events happened to a flesh-and-blood person they have come to care deeply about. It's this intensifying of the reader's experience that makes memoirs easier to sell than novels.

Still, as a novel, "Without a Map" would have moved me without raising my defenses against manipulation.

"Without a Map" is available at the Los Altos Library.

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