Maggie Downs's Braver than You Think - More than a Travel Memoir
by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
Thanks to partner Counterpoint Press for the ARC of Maggie Downs’s Braver than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime in exchange for an honest review. The memoir releases Tuesday, May 12. “How am I supposed to keep going when there is nobody to guide me? Will I be strong enough to carry myself?” (34). Maggie Downs’s memoir opens with a return to Cairo. She had gone home briefly–mid-way through her year-long trip around the world–to bury her mother, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease for ten years. Now she’s back, to finish this globe-spanning tribute to her mother’s dreams. Downs’s trip begins on July 8, 2010, on her honeymoon with Jason in Peru. She is preparing to leave him for a year, determined to make a trip that will both cement her own ability to seize the moment, to live her dreams, and her devotion to the adventures her mother was never able to take. Though she had yearned to travel the world, Maggie’s mom had set aside those goals to raise Maggie and her two older siblings, constantly asserting that she would take those trips “Someday” and that “[t]here’ll be plenty of time later” (13). After the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease appeared, it became clear to the family that she would never be able to see the sights she’d pored over in National Geographic magazines. Eventually, as her mother enters the final stages of the disease, Maggie declares that the time for adventure is now, that she will not repeat her mother’s mistakes and put off adventures until some unnamed, mythical future that may never happen. Maggie vows to move away from “ten years of telling other people’s stories, not [her] own” (8). Her own story begins with Maggie and Jason’s struggle through their first hike and their exhilaration at seeing the glory of Machu Picchu for the first time. Then, Jason returns to their home in the United States, and Maggie continues by herself. Throughout her solo travels, Maggie remembers her mother’s words “each day before she sent [her] off to elementary school: ‘You are braver than you think’” (17). This inspiration accompanies Maggie through volunteering at a primate sanctuary in Villa Tunari, Bolivia, and surviving the perils of a snowstorm in the mountains on the way to the great salt flats. She confronts the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda and, in Goa, India, explores what it means that “enlightenment is boring” (242). She is disappointed by friends who prove to be unreliable and meets acquaintances who become friends. Throughout this beautifully written memoir, thoughts of Maggie’s mother are her constant companion. The way her mother’s illness accompanied her to every new experience is understandable and, for the most part, effective. I did think some of the connections in the writing felt forced—when examining bodies exhumed from mass graves in Rwanda, for example, Maggie meditates on her resentment of a future they may include Alzheimer’s and concludes, “The bodies that surround me didn’t have that luxury. They were promised a future, and it was a lie” (158). I wish she could have trusted the reader to understand the ways that her mother’s Alzheimer’s underscored her experiences without having to connect explicitly each supporting paragraph back to its thesis. Overall, however, the spirit of Maggie’s mother infuses the memoir with an inspiration and meaning beyond the superficial challenges and triumphs of such a journey–instead, we see the ways that Maggie forges a stronger connection to her mother while coming to understand herself more. Braver than You Think is a gorgeous meditation on love, loss, and grief. It’s also an exploration of how we come to understand what is meaningful and important in life and the ways that answer can be different for different people. It is a triumph as a book about travel and as a memoir. Maggie Downs’s thoughts about how we understand our relationships with our parents and how those relationships inform who we become are honest and vulnerable. I’m so glad to have read this powerful book.
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