When Susan Bradford’s mom cleaned out her house, she handed her daughter nearly 40 thin blue aerograms Susan had written during youthful travels from 1966-1968. Decades later, the author plumbed the letters to pen this memoir.
In the book’s first part, Bradford details her privileged upbringing in Minnesota. For her high school graduation trip, she and a friend took the HMS Queen Elizabeth to London. She attended all-women’s Briarcliff College, and describes how “the servants kept us well plied with drinks” at debutante parties.
Bereft after the car accident death of a close friend, she vowed to make her precious life special. She impulsively finished college at UC Berkeley, where she participated in anti-war demonstrations but dreaded the group acid trips.
Lacking direction, and longing to deepen her understanding of herself and her world, Bradford joined the seven-person crew of a 62-foot research sailboat departing Hawaii for the Solomon Islands – the episode that takes up the book’s latter part. Her two-year adventure included extended stays in Papua New Guinea and in India, where she taught family planning.
Bradford beautifully describes the inner calm she experienced on the sea, and the confidence she gained helming the boat on sunrise shifts. Largely, however, her memoir offers well-told but only mildly entertaining stories with no overarching narrative arc or tension to keep the pages turning.
The chatty letters home, quoted throughout, feature stories about remote islands like Guadalcanal and cheerful interactions with other adventurers, but omit mention of Bradford’s struggles and romances, so as not to alarm her supportive, if emotionally detached, parents, she explains. While she offers more truthful context for readers between the letters, it does little to ratchet up the stakes—and likewise, reader interest.
Bradford has potential as a storyteller, but her memoir lacks the narrative drive required to lend it widespread appeal. It might, however, interest readers who undertook similar sojourns during the same era.
Also available as an ebook.