“My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter,” writes Stephanie Land. It’s a devastating opening line to Land’s memoir of poverty, parenting, and survival. The sentence will jar readers — it did me — and at the same time it raises the question: Just what does it look like to live in a homeless shelter with your infant? In this case, because Land’s story takes place in the Pacific Northwest, the shelter isn’t the grim near-prison many might picture; instead, the young mother and her daughter lived in a tiny cabin for homeless families, “the fragile place of our beginning,” Land writes after they had fled her violent former partner, her child’s father.
The pair landed next in an apartment in a transitional housing complex, where tenants are subject to random urine tests and a nightly curfew. As Land makes clear throughout, the hardest parts about poverty aren’t always what you might expect. Cramped surroundings, utilitarian food, and limited options are unpleasant, but the mental and emotional toll is the most difficult aspect. “Being poor, living in poverty, seemed a lot like probation,” she writes, “the crime being a lack of means to survive.”
Growing up in a family that mostly considered itself middle class (though with some frayed edges and no cushion), Land knew she wanted to be a writer. Her plans to study creative writing at the University of Montana were derailed when she fell in love with Jamie, who cooked a mean tiramisu and had books by Bukowski and Sartre on his shelves. He also had a mean temper and a cruel streak, but by the time Land noticed it was too late: She was pregnant in her late 20s and wanted to have the baby. The book’s most painful moments include the couple’s arguments about whether to end the pregnancy — it’s hard not to cringe, wondering if their child will read those words. Land gives birth to a daughter, Mia, and soon afterward flees the relationship, which has become not only toxic but also violent. Without family support or a financial safety net, she had few options. “I ripped up my college application,” she writes, “and went to work.”
Land describes the work she falls into with the kind of specificity and detail that are more frequently employed in descriptions of surgery or dance: Cleaning left to right, top to bottom, room by room, Land sketches the choreography of drudgery. The work is hard on her body, leaving her with a persistent backache and pain in her hands and arms. It pays poorly, especially when she factors in the commute time, gas money, and repairs on her aging car. Worst of all, it is lonely, anonymous work.
On the other hand, there’s an oddly rich vein of observation available to the domestic worker with writerly instincts — readers may recall their first encounters with David Sedaris were in public radio essays about the homes he spruced up in New York in the 1990s. In “Maid,” Land displays a keen eye for how her clients live, what their houses say about their lives. She nicknames them. There’s the Porn House, named for the movies the husband watches while his wife reads romance novels in another room; and the Sad House, where a widower lives alone surrounded by unchanging artifacts, relics of life with his late wife. In the Cigarette Lady’s House, Land sniffs out the secret evidence of a habit well-hidden. “It was the secrecy that fascinated me,” she writes, “the amount of energy she put into appearing perfect and clean.” At times, fascination gives way to pity: the self-help books and dirty toilets suggesting lives no less desperate than her own.
If this were all “Maid” chronicled, it would be almost too sad to bear. And there is a lot of despair. More than any book in recent memory, Land nails the sheer terror that comes with being poor, the exhausting vigilance of knowing that any misstep or twist of fate will push you deeper into the hole. Thankfully for Land — and for readers, to be honest — a few circumstances break her way, and her years of work begin to pay off. Her dream of Montana begins to come into view; it’s not a spoiler to say that the book ends with Land in a better place than she began.
In a way, then, this is a survivor’s tale. But it’s also a cautionary one, not only warning of the fragility of prosperity in a nation where social mobility goes both ways, but admonishing those of us not currently poor to remember the humanity of those who clean our houses, mow our lawns, cook our meals. At one point, Land wonders how she would interact with a maid, if the roles were ever reversed. “I’d treat them like a guest, not a ghost,” she writes. “An equal.” In these times of radical inequity, it’s a message we need more than ever.
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Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive
By Stephanie Land
Hachette, 288 pp., $27.95
Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.