What exactly is the American Dream?

That’s at least one of the questions Caitlin Shetterly asked herself during the past three years. During that time, Shetterly and her husband, Daniel Davis, moved from Maine to California to explore new pastures and new opportunities. But their journey coincided with a major recession, and they found they couldn’t make a go of things financially. And Shetterly became pregnant.

So the couple headed back to Maine to live with Shetterly’s mother in a small Down East town.

The experience helped Shetterly re-examine the so-called American Dream, and specifically, what was really important to her and her family. Before moving to California, she had founded the Winter Harbor Theatre Company and did freelance radio pieces for National Public Radio. When she returned to Maine, she did recession-themed pieces for NPR based on her experiences, and blogged about it.

Eventually, she turned the journey into a book, a memoir called “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home” (Voice, $23.99).

The book is, in Shetterly’s words, “not just a recession story, or a story about the American Dream, but it’s also a love story.”

Shetterly will be featured at a reading at Longfellow Books in Portland on Wednesday. The event will also be a potluck, with people invited to bring their favorite comfort foods and celebrate community, friends and family. Children are welcome as well, and passages will be selected that will be suitable for the entire family. 

Q: So why did you decide to move to Los Angeles?

A: We lived in Portland, and my husband had been a studio photographer, and his job got made part time. It was the very beginning of the recession, Christmas of 2007. At the time, I had been running the Winter Harbor Theatre and doing freelance pieces for NPR. I had a lot of projects, but none of them lucrative. But when my husband worked full-time, we got by. Though we were never going to be able to buy a house. So we thought, “Let’s go somewhere else, let’s go west.”

We had friends out there (in Los Angeles), and NPR wanted another person doing pieces there. He went out and met some people and lined up some gigs. We had a lot of friends who were doing well there.

Q: How soon did it take to realize things weren’t going to work out there?

A: I got pregnant the first week we moved out there. His (Dan’s) career was taking off. Los Angeles is in this bubble because of Hollywood, and everyone from manicurists to lawyers get work because of Hollywood. Then, in the winter of 2008, everyone started losing their job. One of the first things magazines and catalog companies do when times are tight is they stop advertising, or magazines fold. It becomes cheaper to use old ad material than to have new material (photographed).

Then in January, we had our son.

The main thing that convinced us to come back was that we were stranded there with no income and (the) baby. I went back to work, but the little bit of money I brought in wasn’t enough for us to survive. My mother offered to have us come home and stay with her, so we piled into the car and drove back to Maine. 

Q: Was that difficult? Moving back in with your mom?

A: Oh, of course. It was hard for Dan to move in with his mother-in-law. But it was a really special thing too. We got to live as a multi-generational family and hang together in hard times. We got to re-learn what the American Dream is — not just that you can make it if you try, it’s that if we come together as a community and a family, we’ll be stronger and can make it.

In my book, I write about my reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. If you look at those books, they were going out alone on the prairie. But even if a neighbor was 100 miles away, Pa would help that neighbor. I think we’ve lost that. There is pressure on young families to survive alone, with two parents working hard, exhausted, to pay off an avalanche of credit cards and other bills. It’s so harsh.

My husband grew up in Westbrook in a trailer park, believing in the American Dream, bartending and snowplowing to pay his way through college. 

Q: Are you all still living with your mother?

A: We live in an apartment (in Portland). Dan’s mother is much closer to us now, and we’re more open to that. She helps us get our son to bed at night, and that’s been really terrific. Our landlady lives in the building, and she’s become an important part of our lives. 

Q: Why do you think we got away from, as a society, living as part of an extended family with shared responsibilities?

A: It’s really an American problem, it’s that gosh-darned American Dream. The image of being a pioneer out on your own. In the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, they were living in Wisconsin, where they had family and community. But Pa wanted something broader; he felt Wisconsin was getting too built up. They left, and they faced a lot of hardship.

But those books are also a love story. Ma and Pa really love each other.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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