As many of my frequent readers already know, I'm taking a memoir class this quarter through UCLA Extension. I'm on a memoir kick, both in my writing and in my choice of reading. I saw John Marshall's Wide Open-World on Netgalley and it looked to be the perfect blend of my love for memoirs and travel writing. Thank you to Ballantine Books for approving my request for an advanced copy of Wide Open-World.
John Marshall is living an average American life with his wife, Traca and two teenagers, Logan and Jackson. Their hectic lives revolve around work, school and being hooked on their gadgets. Although their lives are blessed in many ways, John and Traca can't help but feel like there is more out there. Prior to having kids, they had dreams of travel and they even spent a year in a Portuguese village when their children were young. On a flight home from a yoga retreat (Traca's idea that John eventually embraced), John had an idea come to him. The words Year of Service popped into his head.
Traca was immediately on board with the idea of spending a year removed from their current lives, traveling the world as volunteers. Although they had hoped to move quickly, it took many months to get their affairs in order to make it happen. There is an interesting section at the end of the book where Marshall explains the logistics, like finances, renting their home and taking the kids out of school. He is very candid about the financial implications and gives great advice for anyone who wants to attempt a similar trip.
The original plan was to spend a month in each location, moving to different continents. They would volunteer at an organization that would in turn, provide them room and board. It's not always an even exchange as many places are underfunded, so they need to charge an additional fee. The Marshall family soon realized that they would have to be flexible in their arrangements, as some places were a better fit for them than others and some of their travel plans had to be changed at the last minute. Flexibility and patience were key in many situations. Some of the organizations were located in remote regions, which included long bus or boat rides to reach their destination.
Marshall's memoir was compelling on many levels. It's an entertaining travel memoir. As much as I love the idea of traveling and adventure, I've come to realize that I'm more of a five-star hotel type of traveler. Marshall does a great job of writing for the reader like me, someone who wants to live vicariously through his experiences, rather than actually doing them myself. I love the idea of volunteer-tourism, but the thought of an eighteen hour bus ride through the jungle makes it a tough sell. Eventually the pains of travel are overshadowed by the clear joy that the Marshall family receives from their experiences in the various countries. It's infectious and touching. In particular, the way that the Marshall children learn to embrace the hard work and the relationships that they make is wonderful. It shows that teenagers can easily rise to the occasion, if they are given responsibility. I could feel Marshall's sense of pride in his teens.
In addition to being touching, Marshall's book is very funny. He has a keen sense of humor as he finds himself out of his element and he does a solid job at translating that in his writing. As a protagonist, Marshall is extremely likable, even when he has a misstep. One of the more horrendous and semi-funny parts of the book was a cautionary tale as to why you shouldn't just rent out your house to the first person who comes along. The Marshall family came home to a huge problem with their renter! Also, watch out for spider monkeys in Costa Rica.
I didn't expect one of the last chapters, where Marshall reflects on his marriage to Traca, to leave me so heartbroken. He had some very profound thoughts on what it means to be married, thoughts that stuck in my mind for several weeks after finishing the book. I don't want to give it away, but I highly recommend this book, even if you skip to the very end to read the marriage portion.
Wide-Open World is highly enjoyable. I really grew to love every member of the Marshall family as I read this book. I hope that Marshall plans to write more on his travel adventures, as I would definitely want to be along for the ride.