For a parent, a child’s teenage years can be a frus trating time, when adulthood and independence start to rear their twin heads. Most parents, though, have the benefit of knowing the ins and outs of their child, having raised them since birth. But what if you were to skip the younger years entirely and suddenly find yourself a first-time parent to a 15 year old?
Such is the case in Linda Greenlaw’s Lifesaving Lessons. Ms. Greenlaw is perhaps best known as the captain of the Hannah Boden, the swordfish boat that survived the Perfect Storm of 1991. In 1997, she moved full time to Isle au Haut, Me., where her family had long spent summers, and entered the lobstering business. Her first book, The Hungry Ocean, detailing her experiences as a female swordfish boat captain, was published in 1999. Since that time, she has written nine books, including two recipe books co-written with her mother, and two detective novels.
Lifesaving Lessons is a leap from Ms. Greenlaw’s other works, depicting events so surreal they might have been plucked off the fiction shelf. At age 47, Ms. Greenlaw is trying to start up a herring business to supplement her lobstering income. She is also trying to figure out her romantic life, and to work through the emotional terrain of living in such an isolated area. Her musings on life in the off-season will likely ring true to anybody who has spent winters on Martha’s Vineyard. Thirteen-year-old Mariah (real name changed to protect her privacy) enters her life as a summer worker on Ms. Greenlaw’s lobster boat.
When Mariah and her uncle Ken arrive in the tiny Isle au Haut community — year-round population 73 — the islanders welcome them into the fold. Two years later, they rally around the teenager after learning that Mariah has been sexually abused at the hands of Ken.
Ms. Greenlaw becomes Mariah’s legal guardian and embarks on a navigation task unlike any other she has faced. The book is both an adoption story and a survival story.
“You can mother Mariah,” Ms. Greenlaw’s sister tells her at one point, “but you can’t be her mom. What do you want your relationship to be?”
As Ms. Greenlaw and Mariah are working to build their own family unit, other families come into focus. The island community chips in to help pay for Mariah’s boarding school education (there is no high school on Isle au Haut); Ms. Greenlaw’s sisters sit in on Ken’s subsequent court trials; and Ms. Greenlaw’s sort-of boyfriend, Simon, takes in Mariah’s cat. It takes a village.
Ms. Greenlaw’s writing style is frank and at times tangential, but one never gets the sense of information being withheld. She’s not afraid to turn on the harsh glare of self-reflection.
“I think with all of my books, people have mentioned that they’re surprised how honest it is,” Ms. Greenlaw said in an interview with the Gazette. “There’s nothing in there that I’m ashamed of.”
She said that she was encouraged by her editors throughout the process.
“Writing’s really hard work for me anyway,” Ms. Greenlaw said. “It’s so personal and it’s a difficult subject matter . . . just to talk myself into sitting down and writing it [was tough].”
“I think that was the biggest challenge, just keeping in mind that I was supposed to be protecting my daughter’s privacy while wanting to tell the story,” she said.
Mariah, who is now 21 and in college, was fully supportive of the project and has “read the book and liked it.”
“It’s my perspective on the story,” Ms. Greenlaw said. “Somewhere down the road she might decide to tell hers.”
Linda Greenlaw will speak at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 3, at the Harbor View Hotel and at 11:15 a.m. on Sunday, August 4, on the grounds of the Chilmark Community Center.