One day about seven years ago, I began idly flipping through a new book called Last Man Out, the true account of a 1958 Nova Scotia coal mine disaster. Though it wasn't a subject that naturally appealed to me, within a few pages I was hooked by a propulsive narrative that ingeniously wove together the gritty drama of the trapped Canadian miners with a larger portrait of turbulent race relations. Though I soon learned that the author, Melissa Fay Greene, had written several acclaimed books about the civil rights movement, what fascinated me almost as much as her body of work was this biographical tidbit: Greene had six children. How, I wondered, does a woman with six children find the time and bandwidth to write nonfiction of such scope and ambition?
Greene has since added three more children to her family and in 2006 published There Is No Me Without You, an engrossing portrait of an Ethiopian orphanage that offered some insight into her unusual and abundant family. Four of Greene's children were orphaned by AIDS and adopted from Ethiopia. No Biking in the House Without a Helmet — her joyful and big-hearted new memoir — completes the picture.
And what a delightful picture it is. This funny and frankly personal book is a departure for Greene, whose previous work has been sober and measured. The title sounds like a madcap domestic comedy in the tradition of Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck, which it sometimes is. But Greene's humor is less acerbic, her persona less addled. A large, noisy family was what she and her husband, criminal defense attorney Don Samuel, actively chose and celebrate. "Donny and I feel most richly alive, most thickly in the cumbersome richness of life, with children underfoot," writes Greene.
Their family began with four biological children, and this sometimes seemed like plenty. In early chapters, Greene alludes to the challenges of building a career while raising kids: "One friend assured me that I would certainly publish a book someday, and it would be entitled Melissa Fay Greene, The Collected Thank-You Notes." But when she was in her mid-40s — and had established herself as an author of more than thank-you notes — an unintended pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Greene found herself emotionally devastated and one day typed "adoption" into an internet search. Almost 1,000,00 links popped up. "I stopped grieving," Greene writes, "and leaned forward, beguiled."
Greene and her husband began by adopting a small boy from Bulgaria, an experience she describes in sometimes chilling detail, recounting her profound post-adoption depression. But she rebounded and went on to adopt a daughter and three more sons. She's upfront about the challenges: the epic sibling battles, culture clash, ongoing attempt to keep the household feeling like a family rather than a "group home." But Greene is such an open and self-deprecating narrator she makes every addition to her family seem like the most natural and beautiful move in the world, "each child — whether homemade or foreign born — a revelation, a treasure."
The ability to write brilliant books with a houseful of children is clearly the least of Greene's gifts.