The Great American Road Trip
They were three miles west of town when the sun broke through. The wind tore the clouds to rags, the sun lit the rags on fire and in fiery trails they streamed across the sky that opened like a bruised and tender heart. [Opening sentences of Come Again No More]
In that opening, Jack Todd paints a beautiful picture of the open skies of Wyoming, but I like this passage a few sentences later, where the author gives us a capsule of the time when people are taking road trips, as well as the setting.
Now and again they caught up to battered jalopies tiptoeing along the road on tires that were tall and thin and bald as a buzzard, the drivers gritting their teeth as they held on to the wide steering wheels, fighting to keep an ancient Model T or a battered Studebaker form skidding into the barrow pit.
Now I know that the times are tough, and since the Model T is already ancient, I assume the 1930′s have arrived with the Great Depression. By the colloquialism ‘bald as a buzzard,’ I’m tipped off that this is the Western United States. Automobiles and road trips are important in this book, particularly since people wandered from state to state seeking relief from unrelenting hardship.
Todd portrays two worlds–ranching and gangster-ridden boxing–and there is no doubt when you leave one for the other. Not only the character’s speech, but the narrative reflects the rhythm and usage of its world. On the ranch:
“ Ezra Paint crawled out of his bunk while it was still darker than a stack of black cats.”
In Jake, the prize fighter’s world:
“..his knuckles had been broken so often that his hands looked like a bowl full of walnuts.”
The use of “telling details” eludes lesser writers (I will admit that it is the bane of my existence), and sets Jack Todd apart as a masterful teller of tales.
Come Again No More is the second in a trilogy about the ranching family, the Paints. Since I missed the first one, and devoured this one, I yearn to read the entire set, starting with Sun Going Down, and the third when it appears. On his website, Todd explains that while he based the tales on stories from his parents‘ and grandparents’ experience, he fictionalized the events in order to reflect a broader view of the experience of those years. He tips his hat to the master, John Steinbeck, whose The Grapes of Wrath (link to Penguin Classics edition) is the go-to novel for understanding life during the hard years of the depression.
Jack Todd doesn’t live in the American West, because he left the United States to avoid being drafted for the war in Vietnam. He is now a sportswriter in Canada. I am glad that I didn’t read the fine print about his personal choices before I read the novel. Whatever you think of his iconoclastic journalism or his surrender of his American passport, his writing about the West shines.
Take a look at Music Road for suggestions of music to accompany your road trip to the Western United States, including Wyoming.
Touchstone, an imprint of Simon and Schuster provided a review copy of this book to me. The photograph of the Bitterroot Mountains shows a Wyoming location, but the view from the Paint Ranch in Montana would have been similar. This photo comes from Flickr with a Creative Commons license. Please click on the photo for more information about the photographer.
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