3 out of 4 stars
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Michelle Goettemoeller’s book, The Light Was Always Here, is an autobiographical, memoir-style account of her journey on Spain’s Camino de Santiago, and of the personal journey that followed her return. After quitting her job as a clinic nurse, having felt stagnant and boxed in by the daily realities of life, Michelle embarks on a quest to connect with her faith and spirituality. She receives a particularly poignant spiritual reading from the daughter of a friend, and challenges herself to prepare for the walk of a lifetime - a more-than-500-mile-long trek along the historical pilgrim trail. At age 53 she sets off on the journey alone, with nothing more than the pack on her back and the iPhone in her pocket.
As Michelle embarks on the Camino, she seeks to challenge her old patterns, assumptions, and bad habits. Choosing to walk over a dozen miles each day - sometimes as much as 20 miles or more - Michelle is forced almost immediately to confront the realities of physical discomfort, in the form of blisters and aching joints. However, being of a tough mental disposition, Michelle pushes through the pain, using her nursing expertise to tend to her personal injuries along the way. The narrative includes humorous anecdotes about the day-to-day considerations of relieving oneself outdoors, as well as slightly more stomach-turning experiences, like needing to remove her own toenails to relieve pressure and pain in her swollen and puffy feet.
Her account also details each night that she spent in the albergues, the pilgrim hostels dotting the path of the Camino. In fact, the majority of the journaling she did along the way seemed to be focused on these nightly respites. Michelle shares the experiences she has with other travelers who stay in these hostels, including friends she makes along the way, as well as some of the less pleasant interactions. Unfortunately, these sections tended to be somewhat repetitive, as there is only so much you can say about sharing a room full of bunk beds for a night with a group of strangers. Much of her inner work comes from apprehending her assumptions and judgements about people who choose to travel the Camino differently than she does. Upon her return to the United States, Michelle aims to take the personal lessons and renewed faith she discovered along the Camino and apply them to her relationships, perhaps healing some of the wounds that have festered within her family for decades.
Although I found the author’s journey both interesting and relatable, I had a number of issues with the way the narrative was structured. Superficially, I noticed several dozen grammatical errors throughout, though they were generally of a minor nature (things like misplaced commas) and did not greatly impact the message. The main aspect of the writing style that rubbed me the wrong way was the author’s tendency to speak about herself in the passive voice. For example, she would say something like “the audiobook was listened to” when she meant “I listened to the audiobook.” If this had occurred once or twice, I would have probably not even noticed, but this was prevalent throughout, and made for an awkward reading experience. It was almost as if the author was attempting to distance herself from the truth in what she was writing.
Nonetheless, her story was quaint and amusing, despite being a bit repetitive at times. I do wish she had shared more of her personal history. There were some brief stories included about traumatic events in her youth, but the author specifically mentioned having cut out a large portion of this piece of the account, as she did not want to dwell in the negativity of the past. However, her hints at those stories only served to pique my curiosity, and it was disappointing when the two curiosity was not fully satisfied. I struggled between rating this book with 2 or 3 stars, but finally decided on 3 out of 4 stars. My primary reason, despite the number of faults I found, is that by the end of the narrative I came to understand and appreciate Michelle as a person, which in my opinion is the mark of a successful memoir. I came to see each imperfection in the book as part of the larger whole of her nuanced self; her writing style (errors and all) and her incomplete retelling of her family history became just part of her quirks. She wrote this book the way she intended to write it, and her honesty and pretense-free down-to-earth personality remain consistent features of her experience. This may not be the book for those who are interested in a technical and detailed account of the logistics of hiking the Camino. Readers who enjoy accounts of personal growth, perseverance, rebirth, and faith-building, however, are likely to find quite a few gems within these pages.
The Light Was Always Here
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