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BOOK REVIEW

Looking back on a road less taken

Meredith Hall's off-track life makes poignant reading. Meredith Hall's off-track life makes poignant reading. (Sandra Hall Bourie)

Without a Map, By Meredith Hall, Beacon, 220 pp., $24.95

In a moment of curiosity and longing in an otherwise conventional life, Meredith Hall became pregnant out of wedlock at age 16 in 1965 . She had been a church-going, college-bound high school junior, living on the New Hampshire coast at a time when the established trajectories of American life did not include this one.

As told in this poignant, unflinchingly assured memoir, the arc of Hall's life after giving up her newborn son for adoption in 1966 was anything but traditional. She lacked not just a path to follow but the love of her divorced parents, who shunned her. Like her generation, whose upheaval serves as a backdrop to her story, she was without a map, left on her own to find her way in the world.

Hall tells of that trek with journalistic dispassion, stripping it of self-indulgence and thus enhancing its honesty. She writes of being expelled from school, of living in isolation at her father's home until she gave birth, of spending her senior year at a quirky boarding school, of living with a Harvard sophomore named Erik after she graduated, of leaving Bennington after a term, of working in a Cambridge copy shop, of returning to Erik and taking up commercial fishing with him for a while. As she writes, there is not a whisper of self-pity or self-aggrandizement, so often the banes of memoir.

Her taut, sharply edged voice deepens the authenticity. "Each night I watch the country go gray, then black. I keep walking. Voices I know -- my mother's, my father's, mine, the cry of a child -- press at my back," she writes of a night in Syria in 1972, when she backpacked across Europe and the Middle East.

Over a more episodic second half of the memoir, Hall details her family history and more of her uncharted life. She moves to Maine and has two sons, the father absent. She attends Bowdoin at 40. She copes with her mother's illness and death from multiple sclerosis. She meets her father one last time after years of estrangement. Most forcefully, she is found by Paul, the son she had given up 21 years earlier. "There are no patterns for how to do this, how to hold each other safely and fully after a lifetime apart," she writes, a year after his return. "We cannot plot out the future. We are a family. We love each other. We need each other. That is our only map."

Hall does find a semblance of peace in her life, one rooted in nature, a theme that resonates throughout this exquisite memoir. "But as I stain the clapboards and sashes, laid up by these hands in lovely square and true, I am at ease," she writes, of a cabin she and her sons built in the Maine wilderness. "This is an ordinary story, the story of a search for a steady course. Love, its sustenance and its costs. My mother. My father. My children. Me, the child and the mother."

Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.

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