“We lived, we survived, in careful imbalance. This was my unwitnessed existence, as I polished another’s to make theirs appear perfect.”
I mentioned in my first ever post on this blog that I had a book arrive from Amazon and, hours later, bought another new book at Waterstones. This was that book.
I first heard about Maid while travelling to Edinburgh, half-listening to Radio 4. The excerpt that was read made me pay full attention, and I eagerly noted down the title and the author so I could get hold of the book as soon as it was released. I couldn’t get what I had heard out of my head. Maid is a very raw and honest memoir which explores what life is like for those in the US forced to rely on food stamps and government assistance to survive. I found it a very uncomfortable book to read, coming as I do from a privileged background, but it was a necessary read, not only in helping me realise my own prejudices but in telling a story I had not heard before.
Stephanie Land’s memoir details her years as a single mother who has escaped an abusive relationship, with little to no help from her family, trapped in the cycle of poverty while working menial jobs to provide for herself and her daughter. While I found this narrative compelling and horrifying in equal measure, as she struggled daily to gain things I often take for granted, the way in which Land chose to structure her book was frustrating. As her story moved between past and present, and sometimes abruptly jumped from discussing a client’s house to an incident from her past, anecdotes and details were often repeated, making it difficult to keep track of the timeline of the years she discussed. It was also sometimes difficult to engage with her story due to a lack of knowledge, for example, she mentions having a brother, why could he not help her? Also, when was she able to date between working, looking after her daughter, and studying at night to earn a degree? Knowing some more details of Land’s background may have helped explain some of the decisions she made, and then the narrative may have formed a more cohesive whole.
As well as this, while I felt sympathetic towards Land and her daughter for what they had to go through, the somewhat immature way in which she would describe her situation or attempts to deal with it was sometimes quite grating. She was constantly concerned about being judged for paying with food stamps, for example, yet she continually judged and made assumptions about the people whose houses she cleaned.
“The most frustrating part of being stuck in the system were the penalties it seemed I received for improving my life. On a couple of occasions, my income pushed me over the limit by a few dollars, I’d lose hundreds of dollars in benefits.”
I believe that this book is important as it gave me a greater understanding, through the prism of one woman’s life, of a more universal story of millions who suffer because the system is stacked against them. In spite of this the structure of the book, as well as some uncertain tonal shifts, meant that I did not get as much from it as perhaps I could have.