Ask Megan Harlan about her origins and she’ll tell you, “I don’t know where I’m from.”
In Mobile Home, her debut memoir in essays, she describes moving to seventeen places in seventeen years before graduating from high school. Her family relocates to a double-wide trailer in Saudi Arabia, a Kensington flat in an upscale district of London, a motel with a view of Denny’s in Los Angeles, and other “campsites” across four continents in pursuit of her father’s engineering jobs. Her globe-trotting parents seek “location adventures” without asking if moving their two children so often could “be detrimental in some way to their development.”
An emphasis on geographical locations characterizes travel memoirs, but Harlan’s work differs from most in the genre because the narrator lacks agency during much of her literal journey. As an adult, she revisits her childhood homes through research, memory, and travel to reflect on how nomadism has impacted her life. She connects her ten essays about place, family, cultural history, architecture, phobias, and her father’s alcoholism to her inner journey—creating meaning and identity from her fragmented childhood.
Trauma is implicit in her quest. Alienation is common in the lives of immigrants and migrants, notes Oscar Handlin, who won a 1952 Pulitzer Prize for The Uprooted, a story dealing with the emotional, intergenerational impact of disruptions on immigrant families. To leave the familiar, to become a foreigner, engenders a lasting sense of unbelonging which haunts for generations.
Harlan senses the legacy of alienation when writing about her parents who “hunger for distance.” In “Mystery House,” she asks if her parents were “trying to outrun or distract themselves from their various anxieties, unwanted pasts, ghosts?” She’s not sure; we’re not sure. Their restlessness is her restlessness. It “seems inborn, intractable,” something bequeathed.
In “A History of Nomadism,” she describes her ancestors as “colonial-era religious refugees” who migrated west until they bumped against the Pacific coast. Her parents don’t stop there—they fly over the ocean. They take to the sky, which offers Harlan safety because “it’s always the same place.” And in “Spider Season,” she describes a painful childhood memory—a brown recluse spider bite—an experience she relates to her nomadic background. “Spiders secrete domicile,” and her parents “dismantled homes with a similar quick-witted motility.” She views home as “a crazed moving target” in response to her mother’s drive to constantly change houses—an estranged way of life Harlan rejects after she becomes a mother.
Harlan adapts to these shifting environments by honing her powers of observation. “I learned to suss out everything meaningful I would ever feel about a place within about twenty seconds,” she writes, and she develops into an “epiphyte, all nutrients critical for development absorbed from the traveled-through atmospheres—fabrics of light, language, scent, and sound, their inherited and intuited meanings.” She becomes a nomad. It forms one aspect of her identity.
While her mother packs and unpacks boxes and catalogues the family’s belongings in “voluminous” detail, her father works on building projects, a “partial cover for his secret, deepening absence.” His alcoholism leads the family to Alcoholics Anonymous in “Dadaholic.” When invited in an Alakids meeting to join the “go-around-circle-of-hell,” Harlan resists. “There’s not much to talk about.” Her younger brother takes his cue from his sister, and the two bond in a secrecy pact as if to assert: we don’t belong here. We belong to one another. Love for her family gives her the stability she otherwise lacks. Belonging to her own involves a code of silence and loyalty which comes across as a tender, protective strategy.
To this point, “Motel Childhood” describes a poignant scene with her brother in a Los Angeles Denny’s during a family separation. Harlan lives with her brother and mother in a dreary motel while awaiting instructions on when to join her father in the Middle East. She worries over her brother “like he is a squirrelly blond pet.” He likes syrup on his silver dollar pancakes. She likes powdered sugar and wants him to eat his pancakes her way. “But you know this is the high point of his day, and yours, and so you stop forcing him to eat powdered sugar and let him get syrup all over himself.” Harlan, six years old at the time, indulges her brother. Her protectiveness shows solidarity with him and helps ground her during an unstable time when a Denny’s waitress is the only person “outside” her family she speaks to during the six-week stay.
The essay “Mobile Home” describes her memories of life in trailer homes (in a jungle in South America, a tundra in Alaska and on the coast of Saudi Arabia) and points to these questions: “How much do we belong to our settings? What part of home is mobile?” Throughout the book, she poses thought-provoking questions: Why are nomads “called to the next mountain?” What are they trying to find? “What do we create from mobility?” Her questions hang in the air.
Perhaps Harlan wants us to puzzle things out for ourselves, but I think the reader—or at least, this reader—would enjoy and benefit from a deeper exploration of her family’s need for constant moves and from more intimate, relatable details about these intriguing people. She tells us her mother created beautiful homes, but we don’t get to see a close-up of the mother herself. Harlan often chooses privacy over disclosure (she elects not to name her brother and son), but we do learn in a brush stroke how mobility came to impact her parents. Their lives “hollowed into vacancy, into loss.”
Harlan’s cerebral voice may hold us at arm’s length in one respect, but even so, she draws us back in with her charm and skillful writing. Wit sparkles in unexpected places. She blends wry humor with dry facts when describing cultures, people, and histories belonging to the places she has visited (Bedouins in “A History of Nomadism,” Stonehenge’s architectural layout in “Setting Stonehenge,” and Sarah Winchester’s haunted mansion in “Mystery House”).
She shares her personal insights about uprootedness and how lessons learned guide her parenting. Kids do better in “one good, solid place,” she concludes. Stability doesn’t prevent her from getting restless, though. She yearns, as her parents did, for mobility.
If it weren’t for her son, she writes, she’d be rootless, but “children need to learn how to belong somewhere or they may never figure it out.” What Harlan—a nomad by nature and nurture—figures out is simple and yet profound: “A home that doesn’t weigh or stifle but allows you to move through your life as you desire, as you’re capable of, is the only one worth living in.”
About the Reviewer
Beverly Blasingame’s essays have appeared in Southern Humanities Review and New Letters. “Separate Vacations” has been published as part of the Modern Love column in the New York Times and in the book collection, tiny love stories. Her literary prizes include a Creative Nonfiction Fellowship from Mississippi Arts Commission; New Letters Literary Award for essay; and William Wisdom-William Faulkner award for essay. She has served as a writer-in-residence in Mississippi and now lives with her husband in Iowa City, Iowa.