This thing got me from the very first paragraph – it threw me in the back of its van in Winnipeg, and sped off down a dusty, prairie road with me, across borders temporal, geographical and emotional, and it didn’t let me go until it had wrung me out, surprised me, made me laugh, made me cry, made me FEEL oh so much, and then left me on the tarmac in San Diego heading back home, with a grain of hope that yeah, the kids (will be) alright.
First up: the voice. A kind of early Tom Robbins whimsy describing a similar cast of misfits, but simpler, less metaphor and simile-filled. Straightforward. Full of wacky details, raw and honest, but most of all – spare and direct and rich with poignant, perfect detail in describing the three central characters (aunt and sister, Hattie; her niece Thebes and nephew Logan), what they think feel and have been through, and through them, the one around whom they all revolve: mom, Min.
And second: the characters. A motley crew of wounded, gentle souls – united by blood, family ties braided thick with love and guilt and obligation and understanding and shared pasts and genes and brain chemistry and ways of being in the world that are both the stuff that saves them, and the stuff that destroys them. But they never destroy each other.
They are doing all they can to lean on and help each other just keep it together. Just get through and be okay. Hattie, 28-yrs-old – returning after breaking free from orbiting “Min’s dark planet,” confused, trying to do the best she can, not knowing what that is, operating almost solely by instinct and love tinged with guilt. Feeling responsible for her sister’s decline into mental illness. Feeling the tremendous burden of being the only adult around, feeling barely like an adult herself, feeling as cracked and torn and vulnerable as the rest of them, but doing the right thing.WARNING:
The rest of this review may contain minor spoilers - some I've caught; some I haven't. So read at your own risk.
And it’s the voice of the absolutely wonderful 11-yr-old Thebes, her niece. Full of gangsta-rapping, dictionary-reporting, pearly nuggets of wisdom. Thebes is an old soul sparkling with remnants of glitter and blazing with purple hair, in a ragged, increasingly-dirty blue terry cloth outfit, writing songs and poems and creating enormous publisher’s clearing house-style cheques from the back of the van, to bestow upon the ones she loves what fortunes she can, caring for everyone, holding everything together with her charm, her wit, her love, her crazy-ass chatter, her artsy-crafty creative force, her manic energy and anxiety that propels this book from start to finish. Thebes is the most colourful character – quite literally – that I’ve come across in literature in a long time. She eventually gets herself into a white suit for presentation to her father (the point of the road trip) - but immediately dirties it. Thebes can’t be contained by stark, white, convention. She can’t be cleaned up. She shouldn’t be. Thebes’s kind of crazy is the kind upon which the core of resilience and survival rests.
And finally, it’s Logan – quiet, he sneaks up on you. He’s 15 yrs old, a basketball-playing, sweetly-sensitive poet. He’s acting out, and going deep within – expressing his pain (they all do it slightly differently) by carving non-sequitur couplets into the dashboard with his switchblade and creating paper maché heads of a "dying boy" – representing the “two divergent influences” at work in everyone: “one material, violent and destructive, and the other loving, peaceful and uplifting” (p. 279) – to be propped up at the front of the van like a figurehead on a ship, a guardian to protect them on their journey.
Did I say this book lacked metaphor?
Huh, maybe not.
So much more … so much. The tenderness, the sweetness between Logan and Thebes and where that goes. The finding of Thebes’s half-sister - how freaking beautiful – unexpected, unlikely - was that? (I’ve been raging about coincidences in novels that are too big to be believed; this one wasn’t). Reuniting with dad in the desert and where that
goes for Logan, especially.
The pit bull – The Beef-renamed Lucille-renamed Rajbeer – who needed more love than her mechanic finder-owner could give her. So he gave her to three people in a broken-down van whose journey was fuelled by it. And they gave Rajbeer and the van to … hmmm.
Right, not a metaphor in any of these 274 pages.
Family. Love. Resilience. Hope. Survival. Recovery. Hope. Kindness. Hope. Family. Love. Hope.
I just upped it to five stars. And realize, yep - I need to read it again. Slower, this time.