Jane Saginaw’s memoir Because the World is Round examines her relationship with her mother, who uses a wheelchair, through the lens of a once-in-a lifetime trip.
Saginaw saw herself as inextricable from her mother, Rose, who became disabled after she was paralyzed by polio at age 20 — a newlywed and pregnant with Saginaw’s older brother, Harry. At fifteen, Saginaw’s identity began and ended with the awe she found in her mother’s strength and the servitude she performed at her mother’s side: “Our mother and daughter hearts beat together, trusting in the strength of the wheel that bound us.”
Their complicated mother-daughter bond is laid bare through the course of the family’s travels, exposing vulnerabilities and insecurities as teenage Jane grows up.
In 1969, Saginaw’s parents sold their lucrative automobile brake-repair business and started thinking about their “next chapter” and what to do with the kind of money a typical middle class American family only dreamed about, and the freedom that new reality afforded them. Jane or, affectionately, “Janie” suggested they get out of Dallas and see the world: “I mean, isn’t that freedom? Getting out of here?”
Saginaw muses about the planning and mechanics that went into an almost year-long trip spanning nine countries: Portugal, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, and England. The family chose countries where they already knew people who were living there and made careful accommodations for Rose in a pre-ADA world. They also had to negotiate with Janie’s school; this trip would mean missing most of her sophomore year.
Memoirs are always, in my opinion, impressive — especially, when they are written years, and in Saginaw’s case, decades, later. How does she remember the details of a trip she took fifty years ago? How did she evoke the feelings she had at a time when she was just a teenager? Saginaw explains her process as shards of memory coming together to make a narrative. She started writing these vignettes of childhood and travel down while her mother was in hospice, and then intertwined them to create a poignant coming-of-age story.
Saginaw ascribes special attention to physical items that act like landmarks or placeholders for her memory, almost like a way to organize her “shards.” In Lisbon, her psychedelic Peter Max scarf marks her first time venturing out without her parents and also going to watch The Graduate with Harry, a small act of rebellion against her parents’ wishes. En route to New Delhi, a maharaja doll sits on a travel agent’s counter and talks around Rose, directing questions to Jane’s father instead: “Can she walk, sir?” to which Rose injects, “I can talk. You understand, don’t you, sir? I talk.” Rose often encounters this obstacle where people treat her like she’s invisible. It’s an idea Saginaw revisits again while the family is in Kabul and young Jane observes the women wearing Burkas are invisible in many ways as her mother is and it scares her, remarking that its, “Like they really don’t exist. But they do. And they sort of don’t.” Rose responds with worry for Jane — worried that she may be the one that is in danger of becoming invisible.
It’s in memories like these that we benefit from Saginaw’s distance from the moment. She can look back and offer crucial analyses and subtleties that could have easily been buried in a less examined perspective. In this manner, Saginaw is also able to impressively parallel the story’s arc with Janie’s growing independence.
But in each new destination, we see Jane grow in the way she sees herself and her mother; her mother will always remain a figure of strength and beauty, but she’ll come to appreciate her vulnerabilities and her contradictions — the things that make her human and just like everybody else. By the end of the trip, after she returns to high school and as the changes brought on by the trip start to sink in, adolescent Jane’s view of the world settles as being rather nuanced, a mature kind of “let go and let be” ethos purposefully emphasized in the book’s title.
Because the World is Round refers to Jane and her mother’s relationship being consumed by the wheelchair. But it also calls to this idea that they’re aren’t always good reasons for things to be the way they are, they just are sometimes. Saginaw talks about this towards the end of the novel, conflating it with a rare conversation she has with her mother where they address the hard stuff: polio, sickness, sacrifice — subjects they usually spend avoiding.
It’s through this catch-all saying that fifteen year old Janie is finally able to separate her experiences and identity from her mother’s: “The world is round. It does spin. Seasons shift and so do people’s understanding of things. Mom’s polio experience was hers, not mine.” And in a truly poetic ending and a parting gift for herself, Saginaw releases her narrative, urging the reader to see her story through their own lens while also freeing herself from worrying about it: “Go ahead. You take the next step. You try now. Tell me, if you are able, what is it that you see?”
Because the World is Round
By Jane Saginaw
Deep Vellum Publishing
Published November 29, 2022