Generations of young Americans have long heeded the call to “go West.” Some have been clear-eyed and methodical in pursuit of a better life; others have been vague and wishful, blind to the realities at hand.
Author and freelance radio producer Caitlin Shetterly and her photographer husband Dan Davis were among the latter.
Lured by the promise of California, they didn’t really ponder the logistics of such a move or the timing, in 2008, during a recession. So off they drove from Maine to Los Angeles, their cat, dog, and naivete in tow.
“Made For You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home” is Shetterly’s account of their pilgrimage with its assorted misfires, miscalculations and ultimately, redemption.
In the tradition of such journeys, this one has its trials. When they arrive at their first apartment in L.A., Cait and Dan, as we come to know them, find several homeless men camped on the front stoop. At a subsequent apartment, they discover mold growing on the walls, their clothes, everywhere.
Soon comes the unexpected news that Cait is pregnant. Her morning sickness knows no time of day, leaving her bedridden and unable to work.
One by one, the various photo shoots that Dan has lined up begin to unravel, and his search for a job — any job — falls flat. As their money and options dry up, the prospect of going back to Maine — and moving in with Shetterly’s mother — looms. And they’ve been gone barely a year.
“My anger had fueled me to the point of outrage,” Shetterly says. “How could America let me down this way? How could America do this to families? Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were watching ‘Sex and The City’ and buying ‘fabulous’ lifestyles on maxed-out credit cards? What had changed overnight?”
Those questions planted a seed that would transform their lives. And so began Shetterly’s “Diary of a Recession,” a series of audio dispatches for National Public Radio.
Cait and Dan are hardly the first 30-something couple to founder on a dream-fueled odyssey and record it for all to share. But what started as letters home via email grew into a blog and, later, as they headed back to Maine, the audio diaries that would air on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.”
Their story became interactive, amplified, digitized — an endless exchange among family and strangers alike.
Sometimes, those virtual ties were a lifeline. Shetterly’s long-divorced parents played key, fortifying roles, as did a number of friends. Then came responses from the radio audience.
Remarkably, listeners nationwide posted messages offering meals, places to stay, even money.
The audio diary had hit a nerve. In fact, it hit many nerves, not all of them sympathetic.
Some listeners criticized the couple’s fanciful ways and mounting credit card debt. Others railed against the whining and self-indulgence they sensed in Shetterly’s reports.
Nor are these views groundless. Indeed, Shetterly acknowledges that many families are worse off than her own.
Still, she aligned herself with their hardship, even though her own plight proved to be more reparable and short-term.
Unlike millions of families who lack a safety net, the author comes to realize, to her profound relief, that she has a fallback.
After years of on-and-off turmoil with her mother, Shetterly learns that a welcome mat would always be extended for her return.
“I started to feel, as we made our way east, that the whole reason we’d ever gone west was to come back home,” she writes. Then later: “I needed (my mother) to tell me that she was my safety net, that I could come home again. I needed this so that I could go back out into the world.”
“Made For You and Me” is a hybrid of many parts — a combination travelogue and road trip, memoir, cultural commentary and impromptu cookbook.
It’s also a belated coming-of-age story, of sorts, in the way that recent generations of Americans have delayed growing up.
Like the audio diaries and blog that informed it, the book is sure to divide readers.
Some will applaud Cait and Dan for the sheer audacity of their move and their fight to make things work.
Others may contend that their troubles, though unfortunate, were largely self-inflicted.
Safe to say, few readers will be left unmoved.
Joan Silverman is a Kennebunk freelance writer.