FAIRFIELD — For Brooke and Jillian Marshall, exploring the woods at the end of their dirt road as young girls was just the beginning of their travel adventures.
“At home we had only each other, and we played crazy pretend games and ran barefoot through the woods, like a pair of wild wings,” Brooke told the Messenger.
The residents of Fairfield and BFA-St. Albans graduates have since traveled the world, publishing books about their respective adventures.
Brooke, who was two years older, went south, first to Emory University in Atlanta and then to Malawi, a small country in sub-Saharan Africa, where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer. Published in 2021, ‘Lucky’ is the story of the time she rode her bicycle 5,085 miles across the United States to tell university admissions counselors about Malawian students.
Meanwhile, Jillian went to the University of Chicago, then further west to Japan, where she taught English in a small fishing village and studied music in the megacity of Tokyo. Her book ‘Japanthem’, published earlier this year, explores the music of Japan through a series of honest, intelligent and laughably funny vignettes.
“According to the national conversation of the 90s, Jill and I were, you know, daughters of a single mother from a small town: we weren’t going anywhere,” Brooke said. “But look where we’ve gone.”
Finding Vermont in Japan
Jillian’s interest in Asian cultures began at the now-closed China Wok Buffet in St. Albans, where she was fascinated by the photos of the Great Wall restaurant.
“Where we come from, a lot of people are like the eighth, ninth generation Fairfield,” Jillian said. “But then I realized there’s a world beyond this place that I can go and explore.”
At university she took courses in Chinese and studied abroad in Beijing. On the way back to the United States, she had a one night stopover in Tokyo, a city she quickly fell in love with.
After completing her undergraduate studies, Jillian seized the opportunity to return to Japan to teach English in rural communities. The countryside there—with its farmers and heady winters—remind her of home, despite being on the other side of the world.
“I woke up in the morning and someone I’d never met would leave a beautiful cabbage on my doorstep,” she recalls.
Always a musician — playing on the Vermont Maple Festival talent show and at BFA sporting events — Jillian went back to school at Ithaca College to earn her doctorate in ethnomusicology.
Her studies brought her back to Japan and the musical traditions she found there. ‘Japanthem’ started out as her dissertation before evolving into what she calls an ‘experiment in postgraduate writing’.
“I really wanted people to really enjoy this book, so that’s the meta-statement of this project: public intellectualism,” she said. “How do we make ethnomusicology practical? Available?”
“I think it’s a fantastic book,” Brooke said. “I couldn’t put it down. It is a real page turner and yet at the same time I had the feeling that I was learning a lot.”
Discovering yourself in Malawi
When Jillian was first abroad in Japan, Brooke had an office job in Atlanta.
“I was on Facebook a lot, watching my sister live this crazy Japanese life,” Brooke recalls. “I was so miserable, so I quit that job and decided to start over.”
Brooke enlisted in the Peace Corps and was assigned to Malawi, where she taught English to young children. Her students, who studied hard despite the fight against malaria and without electricity, inspired her, she said.
When her time with the Peace Corps was over, Brooke embarked on a cross-country bike ride to educate colleges about the needs of African students.
“If you took those kids and took them to an American university where they didn’t have to worry about hunger… imagine how far they could go, if you took that work ethic and transplanted it into a place where it could grow,” she said.
Her book about the journey, “Lucky,” is dedicated to Emily, the young woman who served her at a breakfast spot in Indiana.
“When I met her, she kept apologizing for things that weren’t her fault,” Brooke recalls. “She seemed very impressed that I was riding my bike across the country. And I was so touched by that because I thought, ‘Well, you remind me so much of me when I was 17.’”
This interaction stayed with Brooke throughout her journey, and when she got home, she found she was still thinking about her. “‘What can I do for this girl?'” Brooke wondered at the time.
She soon realized that she could write a book for all the people who feel stuck in the place where they grew up.
“I just want to let them know that there is a way and you don’t have to be an athlete. You don’t have to be rich. You can just chase your dreams,” Brooke said.
come back together
Even though their travels took them miles and time zones apart, Jillian and Brooke stayed close. And when it came time to begin the writing process, they were there to offer each other advice and help.
“Almost every day around 10 a.m., we have a half-hour to an hour brainstorming session where we talk about our work,” Jillian said. “It’s so amazing and supportive.”
“My relationship with my sister has been very rooted in an otherwise somewhat nomadic existence,” Brooke said.
The Marshall sisters are both back in the States at the moment, and while Jillian is in New York and Brooke in New Jersey, part of their hearts remains in Vermont.
“It’s like looking everywhere for Vermont,” Brooke said.