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Review: 'Mobile Home: A Memoir in Essays' by Megan Harlan

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Matthew Culligan

In her memoir in essays, Mobile Home, Megan Harlan explores her unusual nomadic upbringing. During her childhood, her family moved 17 times — on average, once a year — across four continents, mainly because of her father’s string of jobs all over the world. The family lived in places as diverse and far-flung as the Alaskan tundra and a Colombian jungle. They inhabited a posh flat in London and a doublewide trailer near the Arabian Gulf.

Through it all, Harlan observed the myriad ways that members of her family defined the word “home” to suit themselves, rather than allowing the traditional construct most of us understand, to shape their lives, their relationships, or their sense of place and belonging.

Over the last several months, the idea of “home” has taken on a new meaning for many of us. As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued its relentless hold on life as we know it, home has become more than a place to come to after a long day at work. It has become the place where we do most things, including work. Many of us are — still — staying close to home, avoiding crowded spaces and hunkering down — at home. Many of us have also given up traveling — to conferences, to business meetings, for vacations, or to see family.

Her parents, writes Harlan, “chased locational adventures like they were game, wielded an unshakeable curiosity in the world’s many forms, thought best on their feet. What they couldn’t do was stop and stay healthy.”

The essays tell Harlan’s personal stories, but they are also well-researched. She examines the cultural histories of places, from Bedouin nomadic traditions to modern life in mobile homes. She studies the psychology of motels and suburban tract housing, as well as the built landscapes of the Manhattan metropolis. Harlan connects each space to her family’s story, but also extends and expands the ideas of home.

The prose in Harlan’s essays is remarkably unsentimental as she guides us through the natural and built landscapes of her formative years. The family history, for all of its chapters about roaming, still speaks to a kind of stability and maintains a definite poignancy.

At each new mooring, Harlan’s mother set about to renovate the new space and make it a kind of home she wanted to create for her family.

Harlan’s father had a career in engineering that prompted and facilitated the family’s many moves. But, she says, he “never packed a single box.” He was, however, the family’s breadwinner, his role and industriousness hid an entrenched addiction to alcohol. His addiction was, for the most part, a secret he hid for a long time. Soon Harlan comes to see the ways in which her father’s penchant for uprooting the family and moving again had in itself become a kind of an addiction, accompanied by the exhilarating adrenaline rush of traveling and conquering a new space.

In the essay “Dadaholic,” Harlan shares an exchange she had with her mother about the efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous for her father during those peripatetic years. Her mother explains that in AA, there is a method of realizing that there are some things that we cannot control, of releasing the idea of control and holding on to that reality from moment to moment to moment. In those support groups, everyone wants the same thing. To get through. Harlan asserts that the method worked for her father, and that even if it is all temporary, “so is everything.”

When she became a mother, Harlan made the decision to put down permanent roots after the birth of her son, settling in Berkeley, California. Soon, she figures out that this is what was missing for her on the road and in each new space created by her mother. For her, home had always been a metaphor. For her own son, it could also be a physical space. “An actual space,” as Harlan writes, “It has a roof. It can generally be expected to be there when you get back, filled with your stuff.” It is, she says, “simply and vastly the backstage of life.” The heady excitement that does come with traveling is an energy that can fuel other survival systems today as we continue our long march, separate and together, during the pandemic.

Our homes change, too. We move the furniture, replace the flooring, add a potted plant. External forces affect us enough to make our sense of place in the larger world feel tenuous. Even in our small, closed spaces, our foundations quake. Life happens silently but seismically. In some ways, we are all inhabiting our home spaces in ways we never had to before the pandemic. Some of us feel rootless for being rooted — or mandated to be so, to protect ourselves and others.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.