[Book Review] Braver Than You Think

by David M. Olsen


Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime is more than just a travel memoir because at its core, the book is an exploration not just of place, but of the deep emotional bonds between mother and daughter. Maggie Downs chronicles her experiences on a life-altering, yearlong, solo trek around the globe. However, the itinerary for the trip wasn’t one of her own design; it was the trip of her mother’s lifetime. It was a trip her mother would never be able to take because Alzheimer’s took a rapid hold. In Braver Than You Think, Maggie takes us on two journeys, one across land, and one deep into her own soul as she searches for answers she may never find.

After falling in love with and marrying her skydiving instructor, Maggie honeymoons in Peru, hikes Machu Picchu, then says good-bye to her new husband for a year. Both understand the reasoning, though it makes it no less difficult. The trek is hard, and so is the farewell. At one point, after hiking Machu Picchu, Maggie muses, “When I envisioned my trip, I imagined exciting adventures, exotic locales, a jet-set lifestyle. I never thought grief and doubt would climb into my backpack and come with me. I pictured standing at the top of the Sun Gate, looking down at Machu Picchu, without ever thinking about the steps it would take to get there. This is the curse of wanderlust, when the postcard image becomes a brutal reality.”

Downs continues on her quest to see the great sights of the world, ones her mother would have appreciated, while battling the trials of being a woman, alone, traversing unknown and often dangerous terrain. Throughout the book, Maggie poignantly reflects on her mother and her mother’s condition. How her mother’s life was cut short, and how Downs should take nothing for granted in life—like her ability to accomplish dreams at some later date. Maggie muses before signing a waiver to go white water rafting, “The remainder of her life will be spent in one hushed and sterile room, a thought that always leaves me cold and afraid. I know she’d rather be facing rapids than losing more of herself each day. I know she would take chances if she had the opportunity. I have to do this, because she cannot.”

From being bitten by a crazed monkey to nearly drowning in rapid waters to being ushered out of Egypt a day after the Arab Spring, the travels are dangerous, edgy, and the writing infused with literary wit and acuity. Braver Than You Think, in prose manicured to a high shine, takes us on an adventure of a lifetime. Her mother’s lifetime, to be exact. This book is a resounding call to take seriously the things we want in life, because nobody promises you tomorrow. We should heed the call, wherever it takes us, and not let fear prevent us from living our truest lives.


Braver Than You Think is out in Hardcover May 12th, from Counterpoint.



David M. Olsen was born in Riverside, California and grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley. He is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and poet. He is an alumnus of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside.

​He is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a novel, and a chapbook. David is a former fiction editor at The Coachella Review and is currently the Editor-in-Chief at Kelp Journal.  His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Catamaran Literary Reader, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, Close to the Bone, Scheherazade, and elsewhere. He resides on California's central coast where he surfs daily.

Connect: www.DavidMichaelOlsen.com



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