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Stephen Morris
           Her home was a car: A survival story

"Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America: My Story" by Michelle Kennedy, Viking, 212 pp., $23.95.

Life is tenuous, with a fine line to separate love and hate, sickness and health, rich and poor. The stories that captivate are the ones that take us over that fine line.

"Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America: My Story" by Michelle Kennedy is the story of someone who crosses over from "OK" to "not OK." There are no jewel robberies, no alien abductions, no spy/counterspy intrigue, just the naked account of a young woman who lived for a time without the most basic safety net – a home.

The book is a tale of an articulate, college-educated woman who makes a series of unfortunate life decisions and finds herself living in her car in a seaside town in Maine. Pop stars – Jewel comes to mind – point to living out of cars as proof of dedication. No such romantic glamour surrounds this tale, because Ms. Kennedy shared her ordeal with her three small children.

Before I sing the praises of this book, let me voice one objection. The subtitle of a book generally describes what type kind of book it is. The subtitle can be generic (as in "a novel") or specific ("The Collector's Guide to Pricing Nineteenth Century Buttons"). The subtitle of this book, a clunky compilation of five images, is a red herring. This book is not about real homelessness, because the author knowingly and consciously chooses her situation. For her, homelessness was voluntary. The truly homeless have no other option.

This semantic quibble, however, in no way diminishes the legitimacy of the author's story. At the time of her summer of "homelessness" Ms. Kennedy, then in her mid-20s, impetuously left her home (actually more of a shack) and husband (portrayed as kind of a bum). Although she had loving and generous parents less than an hour away, she chose not to inflict her predicament onto them. What follows is the harrowing, often uncomfortable, account of a young woman making amends for her previous ill-advised decisions. She decides to live within her means and save for the future. This takes her into uncharted waters, and yet she rarely laments her fate. She learns from her mistakes; she works hard; she takes care of her kids. If there is any finger of blame to point, she aims it squarely at the mirror. Her absence of self-pity is what gives this book its charm and meaning.

So, "Without a Net" is a story of courage and triumph. It is filled with engaging characters, and it demonstrates an important lesson – that you can control your destiny when you take responsibility for your own actions. It does not need the "hook" of real homelessness to achieve drama.

Her actual account of surviving without a house has an ingenious Swiss Family Robinson quality, not quite romantic but admirable. After scoping out the town of Stone Harbor for parking places, spigots for filling water jugs and showers available to the public (such as at campgrounds), the family settles into a routine. Ms. Kennedy's shift at a restaurant begins at 4 p.m. Usually she hires an off-duty restaurant employee to be with the kids until bedtime. The kids go to sleep in her small station wagon that is parked in an easily monitored place near the restaurant's back door.

When Mom's shift ends around midnight, the car is moved to an overnight parking place. The family possessions, kept in large Rubbermaid tubs that can withstand a downpour, are stacked outside, giving the kids a flat space to sleep in the car. It's far from ideal, but Ms. Kennedy figures out ways to fulfill the parental obligations of feeding, bathing, and even changing diapers from the rolling residence.

Ms. Kennedy's account stops short of being life-threatening. After all, the story takes place in a pleasant small town on the coast during the summer. She sometimes describes the experience as "camping," a homelessness of a sort, but the sort for which tourists pay money. She cuts her expenses to the bone to save money to move into an apartment before the snow flies, a goal that she accomplishes. And by story's end, the narrator finds a home (two, actually), a white-collar job (that she quits because it's not fulfilling) and true love.

According to the front flap "Without A Net" is "about what happens when the American Dream bottoms out." This missed a key point. Things don't always go as we plan in life. If they did, we'd all be married to Julia Roberts (or Brad Pitt) and belaying shortstop for the Red Sox. But this is still America, and if one follows the hard-working, straightforward example of Ms. Kennedy, things can work out. This isn't the American Dream bottoming out, this is finding the American Dream by bottoming out, an important distinction. This story will make you cringe, but, as you see the narrator bringing her life under control, it will also make you glow.

The characters introduced along the way are sharply drawn by a talented writer – the cop who tells the sleeping family they have to move; the sympathetic landlady; the clerk at the thrift shop who fronts the clothes needed for a job interview; Diane, the wife of a doctor on the other side of the economic gulf; the merry cast of characters at O'Hara's, the bar/restaurant where Ms. Kennedy hustles for tips. She has a knack for encountering genuinely good people who reflect her own positive energy.

She also does a great job of describing her children. They mix just enough wisdom and patience with their playfulness to give you the feeling that once the period of homelessness is past, the family will cross back over the thin line to "OK."

The world of reality TV has crept to films and, now, books. Morgan Spurlock survives on McDonald's for a month in "Super-Size Me," while Barbara Ehrenreich shows how (not) to get by on minimum wage in "Nickel and Dimed." Michelle Kennedy's story is not reality-TV, it is reality. There's no stunt. The author does not preach or ask for sympathy, nor does she blame her fate on societal forces. She acknowledges personal responsibility for everything from her daughter being bitten by a dog to her lousy choice of a first husband.

Far from homeless these days, Ms. Kennedy is now ensconced with her new husband and five children on her family farm in Chelsea. "Without a Net" is being pushed as a breakthrough book by its publisher (Viking). Reviews or features are upcoming in Family Circle, Redbook, The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World and Entertainment Weekly. The movie option was recently sold to Lion's Gate for production for a TV movie.

From a writing perspective, Ms. Kennedy appears to be on her way.

Her overnight success is the result of many years of hard work. For five years she worked for a daily newspaper in Green Bay, honing her skills as a writer. When the opportunity arose to buy the family farm in Chelsea, she took it and has supported herself by working full-time as a freelancer and author. She has written nine books on parenting.

The passage of time has given her new perspective on her experience. "My goal was never to portray myself as a victim of circumstance but rather to show one story and how most people are not far from that edge of complete instability," she says.

She has achieved her soft landing and now enjoys life "with a net." For others who find themselves in a similarly precarious situation, she has this advice: "Seek help. It is something I didn't do, and should have. There are so many places to receive help – not all government controlled – and if someone is in a similar situation, they should never have so much pride that they can't admit they need help. It's a tough thing to come to terms with, but at the same time, I think, it is more embarrassing in the end to not seek help than to admit that you need it."

published in The Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus on 13 March 2005

Stephen Morris

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