Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Long Way to Go by Borden Deal

Children abandoned far from home and forced to elude adults who may not have their best interests at heart? Right away this reminded me of Homecoming (1981) by Cynthia Voight, which I believe spawned a whole series. I only read the first one, in which Dicey’s mother abandons her four children, and Dicey leads her siblings on foot, first to a relative in Connecticut and finally to their grandmother in Virginia. I thought that book was pretty dark and gloomy but A Long Way to Go, which predates it by 16 years, is bleaker yet even more compelling. Like the Tillerman children, Ashley (10), Brett (8) and butterfly-like Shane (6) who plans to be a dancer, are abandoned. They are left at a Florida motel where they were staying with their parents. Ashley and Brett are unnerved when they realize their parents haven’t returned from a day out without the children, having left them with a counselor. Shane is mostly annoyed because she had wanted to go swimming before dinner. The children are uncomfortable with the way the hotel staff want to escape from the problem they create and wonder what to do: "'Something must have happened.' They had arrived again at the fateful words." Once they overhear the hotel staff talking about juvenile authorities, they decide not to wait around, but instead sneak away from the motel and begin a journey of 600 miles home where they are hopeful their parents will be waiting.

The personalities of the children are what make this book so interesting on many levels. Author Borden Deal makes the children very distinct: Ashley is the oldest, a worrier, bossy, not always able to control her siblings (we oldest know how frustrating this is); Brett is brilliant but unnerving to adults because of his many inconvenient questions; and Shane is self-centered and spoiled. Ashley is portrayed as heavy-set and asthmatic, and she also has a weak foot, but as the oldest and the best at interacting with grownups she is the leader of the group. Oddly, Deal named the children in the book after his own real-life children – presumably with their physical descriptions and failings (even more oddly, it appears he had four children – so why leave one out? Perhaps born later with his second wife?). And I am quite sure I would never forgive my father for describing my weight in a book, if I had been an overweight child (although days of interminable walking and meager rations work as a miracle diet on Ashley, maybe this was annoying to the real life version).

As they make their way home to Alabama with agonizing slowness, Ashley and Brett learn to consult each other and work as a team, coping with their fear and worries, and even Shane becomes more responsible and loyal. Their progress is slowed down by animals they acquire along the way, somewhat inconveniently, but adding comfort to their lonely trip. Somehow they avoid dangers in their travels – one chapter in particular where they are aided by perverted circus clown is as unnerving as the most gory scene in a serial killer novel – but the real question (which I will not reveal) is what happened to their parents and how parents of such resourceful and appealing children could ever have left them.

Although I used to think I knew every children’s book ever written, I had never encountered this 1965 novel until my friend Lisa told me it was one of her favorites, inspiring me to buy my own copy from Alice Billheimer's magical trove. It was a great read, very hard to put down, and I recommend it. I do wonder if Voigt (born 1942 in Boston and a Smith alumna, which I did not know) ever read it and how she would compare it to her own work.

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