Wednesday, April 1, 2015

WIDE-OPEN WORLD by John Marshall (✮✮✮✮⭐︎)

There are a number of memoirs available written by people who take the trip of a lifetime and then share their stories.  What sets John Marshall’s account aside is first and foremost that he is not a young, single person taking a gap year, and second, his writing is a wonderfully deft, often humorous, dance amongst joy and sorrow.  Not only is John not young and single, but he took along on his journey his wife and their two teenage children.  To anyone who is also a parent, that adds an additional allure to this memoir.  Their choice as a family was to unplug and detach, to spend six months in places with little or no internet, phone service, or even running water and electricity.  The original mantra that kept running through John’s head was “year of service”, and his wife, Traca, and the kids were more than happy to buy into the idea, which they modified to six months to better accommodate the kids’ desire to return to Maine in time to start school in the fall.

Marshall and his wife had often thought of extended travel, but it just never seemed to be the right time to pack up their lives and launch.  Eventually, they came to the realization that the time is never “right” and that if they were going to ever go they would need to just take off.  They packed up their son, Logan, aged seventeen, and their daughter, Jackson, who was fourteen and headed for Costa Rica’s Osa Wildlife Refuge, where they worked with monkeys.  Other stops along the way included organic farming in New Zealand, teaching English in a village school in Thailand, exploring yoga and buddhism and helping orphans in India, and finally, a visit to a small village in Portugal where the family had spent a year when the children were pre-schoolers.

As great as their international travel experience was, John infuses his story with many additional elements.  Beyond the growth that they all were blessed with through serving in various capacities, John tells a story of marriage, family, and self-discovery.  What saves this book from becoming a pedestrian life story is the depth of insight John is willing to honestly portray and his gift for seeing (and being able to smoothly shape into a narrative) the humor in all things.  He successfully tread the fine line between sharing an candid and relatable tale and maintaining respect for his wife’s and children’s privacy.

If, when I receive a galley of a book from a publisher, as I did with this one, and I get my review out after the publication date, I like to address some of the criticisms from other early reviewers.  Several reviewers mentioned that they felt that although the book is marketed as a family’s story, it was really John’s.  Of course it is John’s memoir.  He is the author, and the book is told from his viewpoint.  I felt he did an excellent job sharing insights and experiences that were related to him or experienced together with the other family members.  The reader also has the opportunity to see, through John’s musings, the persona of each person at the outset of the trip and how they changed as they worked their way from place to place.  Another complaint is that the daughter, Jackson, is portrayed rather unsympathetically as a self-centered teen.  I didn’t see that at all.  Jackson was, I felt, at the outset, a fairly typical representation of an American girl of her generation.  I loved her part in the story because I felt that she grew the most of any family member; John gives the impression that he thought so too.

At the conclusion of his memoir, John gives a very brief sketch of what happened with all of them in the years after they returned home to Maine.  He also lays out a brief summary of how their family, on a working class income, was able to finance the trip and gives some advice about finding reputable service vacation opportunities online.

I absolutely recommend this book for any armchair traveler or those thinking that they might like to take their family on a similar service oriented vacation.  The only reason this book came up half a star short of perfect for me was that I would have liked tighter editing—it was a tad lengthy.  John has a great website at johnmarshall.comwhich I highly recommend checking out after you read the book—lots of great pictures!  However, I do recommend not logging on before finishing, as it will spoil the memoir’s ending.