Book Review: Stephanie Land, Maid: hard work, low pay and a mother’s will to survive. Hachette Books, 2019

Everyone has a story to tell and people with few physical possessions often have several. 

Stephanie Land has written her story into a memoir tracing her journey through the poverty that defines too many single mothers. Like all of them, she navigated the limited choices that can overwhelm them. Unlike many others, Land came through it in one piece.

It’s been a tough journey, all about hard work, low pay, and Land’s will to survive with her daughter Mia, a strong little girl who learned to walk in a homeless shelter. On her way through these devastating years, Land took on the most menial work, cleaning toilets and kitchens for people with enough money to avoid doing it themselves. She survived two abusive relationships, one of which brought her daughter into her world. At one point, she received support from an alphabet soup of seven different government agencies.

The events Land chronicles took place in the small town of Port Townsend in the north west corner of Washington State. They could have happened anywhere. Homelessness has no home. Poverty has no borders. The desperation is the same no matter which the country. When Land describes the rules and regulations imposed upon people fortunate enough to get into the Northwest Passage Transitional Family Housing Program, she says “being poor, living in poverty, seemed a lot like probation – the crime being the lack of means to survive.”

The memoir gives us a unique perspective on the dynamic between the wealthy home owners who hire maid services and the working poor who go in to clean up. Each home is given a descriptive name, such as the chef’s house, the sad house, the clown house and others. Each family has its own attitude to the hired help, its own way of relating and interacting with them. Land describes each, sometimes with humour and often with a detached sense of irony. A different choice made earlier in life, a tragic circumstance either suffered or avoided, could have put either of them on the other side of the servant’s entrance.

It would be easy to dismiss Land’s experiences as the nightmare of living south of the border, but the homeless are treated just as shabbily in Canada. It would also be convenient to blame it on the harshness of the Trump administration. Convenient, but inaccurate. Problems of poverty and homelessness were just as bad under Obama, Bush, Clinton and all the others. 

All too often, government programs look at the visible manifestations of poverty but avoid the systemic causes.

The rules imposed on people living in poverty are designed to keep them there. Land talks about the grinding difficulty of pulling ahead. Most programs are means tested and a fifty cent raise in a dead-end job could result in the loss of child care funding, plunging a family further into the nightmare. 

The working poor live their lives under the yoke of contradictory government policies. Politicians promise to end child poverty but do nothing to end parental poverty.

Land suffered all these indignities and more, but she got out. Luckily for her, she had a head start. She was born into a middle class white suburban family. The dysfunctional relationship between her parents put her off the rails in her teenage years. Land went from there into a couple of ill-fated relationships of her own. 

She discovered a talent for writing while in school and never gave up the dream of using it to make a better life for herself and her family. She is now a successful freelance writer published in several national periodicals. She uses her writing to shine a light on issues of poverty, homelessness and what the rightward drift in American society is doing to the people who live on the edge of hope.

Stephanie Land has a web site where she keeps her published essays and magazine articles. She describes it as “unflinching writing about poverty and motherhood.” Her book gives us a rare chance to look at the human face of poverty.

#Maid will be released by Hachette Books in January 2019. Advance review copies are made available through Advance orders are made available through your favourite independent book store.