THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY. By Michael Kimball. Fourth Estate. pound;10.
A classic scene from all-American family life opens this short but searing novel. Momma, Poppa and their son and daughter load up the car and hit the highway at the height of summer, as if they are going off to camp in the wilderness.
The motley possessions being packed (family photographs, jewellery, toolbox, doll's house, record player) indicate that this is no holiday excursion, but a journey in search of a new beginning with echoes of the exodus from the dustbowl in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. However, these people are not economic migrants (although they are penniless): they are running away from grief.
The parents' third child, a boy, has died in infancy. They decide that the baby must be buried near the family's roots, remove his coffin from a half made grave near their current home in Texas and set off to drive to the children's grandfather's house in Michigan, selling everything they own along the way to fund the expedition.
Their route lies through the America that tourists rarely see; not the typical rite-of-passage coast-to-coast trip, but a diagonal crossing via the one-horse towns where the Greyhound doesn't stop: "places that got their names from people that must have done stuff . . . places that never got big enough to get a name".
In alternate chapters, the surviving children tell the increasingly desperate story of the journey in which they patch together their perception of the agonised adults' concerns with their analysis of their own loss and the fantasies they employ to deal with it. Reflecting the double-edged title, they describe both the sacrifices the family made to leave their sorrow behind, and how the heart of the family got lost along the way; how the chasm that opened with the death of the baby could not be filled. Like the increasingly lighter car and like the spaces on the map, the further they travel the emptier the people become.
Kimball's passionate and occasionally disturbing account is inspired by his own family history.
On a first reading the 143 pages merge into one lament, serial tragedies flashing by as if glimpsed trough the window of a speeding car. The mother miscarries another child and almost dies, the sister and brother snatch a baby who also almost dies, when they reach their destination the parents give up their fragile hold on responsibility for their remaining children.
A second reading might be needed to absorb the child narrators' distinct voices, each heartbreaking in their own way. The boy aspires to grown-up status and traces the route from one Nowheresville to the next. He knows the names of all the towns and exactly what had to be sold or exchanged to pay for each stretch of the road. He makes lists in his head and keeps account as the Texas house is literally taken apart before the journey. As his father swaps the house keys for gas and his mother models her wedding dress for a customer on the road, the boy sees the reduction of their assets in a wider context: if they want to lose some of their past, they have to lose all of it. "We traded for the lives of other people, what might have happened to us for what did."
His younger sister's world is measured in terms of toys: she calls her baby brother's coffin a "toybox" and uses her dolls' house and "doll-family" to replace the home she has lost (her parents' roots are in Michigan, but hers are in Texas). When the dolls and their house have to be sold soon after departure, she suffers another bereavement which the paper dolls her mother offers instead cannot heal.
The dead child's preserved body, the replica baby that the children make from rubbish and the daughter's lost dolls are all players in the family's drama. The girl's language, less moulded by adults than her brother's (although, as the stress of life on the road increases, his language becomes more like hers) expresses the big concepts of life and death ("you can't stop dead people from going away to somewhere dead inside you"). In her mindscape, Heaven is at the top of a bump in the road, but it vanishes as the car eats up the miles.
This is both a profound study of children coping with crisis and a gripping account of a journey which promises much to weary travellers but delivers little. An unmissable read.