by Jerry Waxler
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In the beginning of the memoir Freeways to Flipflops, Sonia Marsh portrays a middle-class life in southern California. On the surface, this family seems ordinary and comfortable. But underneath the glossy exterior, trouble is brewing. Her teenage son is veering out of control, introducing a corrosive force that threatens to destroy their stability.
These problems force Marsh to consider making a huge change, but she isn’t sure what. One day a visiting plumber asks, “Have you thought about moving to Belize?” The question grows into a possibility, and then into a plan.
In the parlance of the Hero’s Journey, the plumber is a messenger, and the family answers the Call to Adventure. They leave the Ordinary World and move to Central America where they enter the World of the Adventure.
In this foreign land, the family encounters discomfort, inconvenience, edgy neighbors, and money problems. They valiantly press forward, finding schools for the kids and trying to make friends. But as fast as they solve one problem, new ones arise. Enemies turn against them, backstabbing and shunning them, and finally sabotaging their boat. This world grows increasingly dangerous and harsh. In the end, they can’t stomach the adventure anymore and retreat home to Los Angeles.
Heroes often return home at the end of the story. Ulysses famously returns to his home in Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War, and Dorothy returns home at the end of Wizard of Oz. The return home at the end of an adventure is so important there’s a Greek name for it: Nostoi. With the hero back home, the reader can close the book, satisfied that the story has reached closure. “Ah. Loose ends are tied up. The adventure made sense. I can return to my life.”
The fact that the Hero returns to the same geographic location highlights the fact that the most important transformation takes place in the Hero’s character. Before Dorothy is permitted to leave the Land of Oz, she must assertively confront the wizard. Once she finds her own courage, the door opens and she can return. The development of the character from the beginning of the story to the end is called Character Arc, and it expresses our culture’s deep faith in the possibility that we can grow over time.
Freeways to Flipflops provides a perfect example of this inner development. Externally, Sonia’s family needs to figure out where to find the boat that will take them shopping, where to buy cool birthday presents for the kids, and how to make money. Internally, they are trying to grow emotionally, and reclaim their emotional health. As they struggle through the outer events of their adventure, they are forced to view the world in new ways. Resolving their outer hardship forces them to solve their psychological challenges.
Adapting to this harsh environment has the same effect on the family as a wilderness drug rehab has on addicts. Marsh’s son realizes his parents and siblings are allies, and he rallies around the needs of the clan. In doing so, he learns that the entire world does not revolve around his desires. By the end of the book, he reorients his priorities in a more compassionate, socially responsible way. Dad’s character also develops through the course of the journey. Separation from the corporate grind helps him break out of his career stalemate. And even though Mom started this mission in order to help her family, by the end, she has grown too. No longer limited to acting inside the home, she has become an entrepreneur. And as a bonus, Sonia’s family experienced life outside the boundaries of the United States, an international perspective she had hoped to share with them.
The homecoming at the end of Freeways to Flipflops contains an important twist that adds energy and mystery to the story. If the only goal of the family’s move had been to stay in Belize, the whole adventure would have been a flop*. But settling into permanent life in Belize was only one of the family’s goals. A much more urgent goal was to resolve their family problems, and get their son back on track. From that point of view, they succeeded. Like Dorothy who was allowed to return home after she found the courage to confront the wizard, Sonia Marsh’s family was permitted to return home after the family achieved a new degree of maturity.
In the end of the classic Hero’s Journey, the hero brings back insights and wisdom to the community. Sonia Marsh’s memoir has achieved this heroic goal. By telling us her story about life in the Land of the Adventure, she lets us experience and learn from her lessons without leaving our chairs. And the greatest lesson Sonia Marsh offers aspiring memoir writers…? Messy experiences can be translated into tight, integrated, well constructed stories.
*The paradoxical nature of the family’s journey, turning defeat into victory, literally “flipped the flop,” offering a sneaky double-entendre of the title. Aren’t words amazing?
In Part 2 of this essay, I’ll offer examples of the Hero’s Journey model peeking through the seams of memoirs.
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