“Some Kind of Lucky: A Fifty-Year Love Affair with Martha’s Vineyard” by Joan Bowman; hardcover, Vineyard Stories 2014, $19.95 from vineyardstories.com.
“Some Kind of Lucky” sounds like the title of an Elmore Leonard thriller. It isn’t.
While it is often a thrilling read, “Some Kind of Lucky” is a memoir of life seen through the prism of Martha’s Vineyard. Author Joan Cowen Bowman uses the Island, her favorite place, as a measure of constancy of celebration of life’s good times, and a nurturer in the bad times that accompany five decades of life, anyone’s life.
Under the aegis of Jan Pogue, publisher of Vineyard Stories, Ms. Bowman, now 82, has partnered with Alison Shaw, the ultra-photographer of Island mood and magic, to produce an entirely relatable story for any reader with sufficient years of life experience and an understanding of the Island’s effect on the soul.
Visitors, residents, even Islanders often struggle to articulate the grace this place will bestow on anyone open and watchful enough to receive it. Ms. Bowman has been able to offer a clear window to us through which we are able to see 50 years of her life in complete spectrum, ranging from joyous family weddings to the death of a child, perhaps the most wrenching loss that humans are asked to bear.
The reading of a memoir can be a tricky business. Memoir writers are often motivated to set the record straight about their lives, or to write what they wished had happened. Others polish and tidy up real circumstance and life events that are not to their liking and we, poor readers, miss the essence of the life under review.
Not the case here. This is a powerful story of unflinching self-examination delivered with a tone of journalistic objectivity. We get a sense that the writer has been able to stand back from the personal joy and pain of the past 50 years of her life in order to see it as it was.
She lays out her choices and the happenstances of her life clearly, generally without judgment of herself and others, and describes the joy and pain which ensued. Perhaps the work is a commitment to understand, to sum up her life. Perhaps one develops a sense of respect for the courage and the character of this woman, to allow strangers to see her as she was and is.
“Some Kind of Lucky” is not a corny paean to the Island. It is rather an acknowledgment of the restorative power it provides to souls who seek peace in its power and beauty. Ms. Bowman explains also how she came to understand that this place, like all natural places, offers both beauty and danger, using a post-storm riptide at Squibnocket in which she and her 6-year-old daughter nearly perished as the proof.
Her story is compelling because of the circumstances of her life. Ms. Bowman was born to a luxurious life, created by a fortune amassed by her grandfather in the late 19th century and built upon by her father. Born and raised in a wealthy New Jersey enclave in the 1930s, Ms. Bowman speaks passionately of a childhood on “The Place,” a 10-acre estate built by her grandfather on the south Jersey Shore. It may be that the Island became “The Place” for the adult.
She provides details of a life of privilege, and does not recall hearing the words “I love you” from her parents. My belief is that we must all experience unconditional love in our lives or we die by degrees, spiritually and emotionally. That thought came to mind as I witnessed her commitment to finding that haven in her marriages.
Young Ms. Bowman has let us see her insides, and we in turn want to warn this young woman to be careful, to choose well. She marries twice, divorces twice, brings five sons and a daughter into the world, and uses the Island as their “Place” for a month every summer.
There are Island weddings for several children, and Ms. Bowman is on the Island during the summer of 2008 when her son Bo’s partner calls from New York with the news that Bo has been hospitalized with flu symptoms and leg pain. Two days later, Bo is gone, a fit man dead at 39 of a massive invasive virus.
I am reminded by this story that finding our way to personal peace — happiness, really — is not made simpler by wealth or privilege, nor is it made more difficult by a hardscrabble life. Life is an equalizer, and requires us to pursue happiness with tools available to all of us: resilience, courage, honesty, and commitment. Life will give us what we desire, but we have to ask for it.
Ms. Bowman, an interior designer for 35 years, also holds an MFA earned nine years ago from Sarah Lawrence College. She writes for New Jersey newspapers, and is an essayist whose work is published in the Vineyard Gazette. In 2010 she published a family memoir, The Power of The Place, featuring her childhood home.