All in a Good Day’s Bicycling
March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments
My daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road.
Recently, The New Yorker ran a piece by Jess Row, titled “How to Grant Your Child an Inner Life,” in which Row proposes that anxious parenting, coupled with the ease of tracking technologies and the transparency of social media, has “commoditized” our children’s inner lives. Reflecting on his own childhood in the eighties and early nineties—when “get good grades and don’t act like a delinquent…and you can do what you want the rest of the time”—he asks: “What does it mean for a child today to be alone, to have an independent inner life?” Perhaps because I myself was a Rilke disciple in high school, I especially connected with this next passage:
When I was eighteen, I read Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” with a sense of relief—here, finally, was someone not shy about giving direct advice on how to live![…] His message is quite simple, and universally applicable: You matter. Your feelings matter, even if (in fact, because) they’re not visible to others. Your inner life is real and important. Don’t be afraid to be alone[…]There aren’t many places where children and teenagers can go today to escape the noise of others—especially us, their (usually) benevolent overlords, who trade passwords, touch I.D.s, and credit-card numbers for 24/7, immersive, surround-sound access.
In many ways, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle is a celebration of the inner life to which Row alludes—one harnessed, in this case, on long, lonely stretches of quiet roads, away from the benevolent hovering of parents or guardians.
Bicycle, the story’s protagonist, is named for the toddler t-shirt she is wearing the day she is discovered, penniless and parentless, on the front steps of the Mostly Silent Monastery. Bicycle is taken in, raised, and homeschooled by the formidable Sister Wanda Magdalena, whose bark is bigger than her bite, and who comes to love Bicycle as her own.
A curious, quick-witted soul, Bicycle is also unusually quiet for a girl approaching adolescence, owing largely to the fact that her only companions have been the Mostly Silent Monks. The monks might model for Bicycle the valuable art of listening, but their conversational skills are limited to the Sacred Eight Words: “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “help,” “now,” “later,” “sleep,” and “sandwich.” While Bicycle is so attuned to the nuances of human expression that she can read any number of meanings into the word “sandwich,” depending on how it is delivered, she is less versed at initiating friendships with children her own age. At least, in Sister Wanda’s estimation.
When Brother Otto helps Bicycle purchase her namesake—a “glaringly, screamingly, almost unbearably orange” second-hand bicycle, which Bicycle affectionately names Clunk—Sister Wanda is optimistic that Bicycle’s newfound independence will encourage assimilation into the surrounding neighborhood, with its bounty of happily-playing children. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the girl needs to make friends.”
Instead, while Bicycle is on her two-wheeler, she rarely engages with other children. Even when children attempt to talk to her, even when Sister Wanda sets up formal playdates, Bicycle “started pedaling hard and left them in her dust.” Bicycle seems always to prefer the entertainment of her own mind, and this only perturbs Sister Wanda further.
As parents, how often do our protective instincts hijack us, such that we begin to see our job as warding off imaginary dangers in our children’s futures? How tempting is it to scrutinize our children, locking eyes on some atypical attribute or behavior, and then fly the plane into the trees? What begins as vigilance turns into well-disposed worrying, turns into obsessive meddling, until we can no longer see the child in front of us.
Sister Wanda informs Bicycle she is enrolling her in The Friendship Factory, a sleep-away camp outside D.C., which promises to teach children social skills (“Three Guaranteed Friendships or Your Money Back!”). To Bicycle, the premise sounds like “a guaranteed nightmare.” After repeatedly trying (and failing) to plead her case, arguing that she be allowed to make friendships in her own way, Bicycle decides drastic times call for drastic measures. When the camp bus bound for The Friendship Factory makes a pit-stop, Bicycle unhitches Clunk and rides west as fast as she can, armed with a stack of paper maps.
What results is nearly 300 pages of adventure and challenge, of thrill and despair, of risk and reward, as Bicycle makes her way from D.C. to California, with the goal of arriving in San Francisco by July 8 to see her hero, competitive Polish cyclist “Zbig,” host the “Blessing of the Bicycles.” Bicycle has received fan mail from her biking idol—signed “Your Friend, Zbig”—so she hopes that, when the two meet in person, the world will recognize that she has what it takes to make and keep a friend. At regular turns, Bicycle mails postcards of her progress back to the Monastery.
Of course, as with any lofty goal, the real payoff lies in the journey itself. Against such vivid, memorable backdrops—from the sunflowers of Kansas to the purple mountains of Colorado to the unrelenting desert of Nevada—Bicycle meets a cast of eccentric characters, human and not-so-human. Many of these characters are hinted at on the book’s cover, and my daughter derived great satisfaction from checking off the backstory of each one. There’s Chef Marie Petitchou, who fears her French restaurant chain will lose out to the Americans’ pastime for fast food. There’s an uppity racehorse named The Cannibal, a favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, if only he can battle his homesickness for the French countryside of his youth. There’s a man in a chicken suit, a parade of pigs, a Cookie Lady, a sponge salesman, two feuding business owners, and a Bike Thief.
And there’s my daughter’s favorite: a ghost named Griffin, who has been haunting a Civil War battleground in Virginia for hundreds of years and longs for someone to lead him back to his Missouri hometown, famous for its fried pies. (Oh, I could write an entire blog post about the descriptions of food in this story!)
Long before Bicycle herself realizes it, we readers become keen witnesses of her power to touch the hearts and lives of those whose paths she crosses. She sets out to make a single friendship, but she ends up with friendships in every one of the nine states she traverses. She even, on occasion, comes to prefer the presence of another—even a ghost singing Civil War ballads on repeat—to the company of her own mind. These friends may not resemble the ones Sister Wanda had in mind for Bicycle, but they become critical to Bicycle’s well-being—and she to theirs.
None of these friendships would happen under the watchful eye of Sister Wanda. Neither would the brushes with starvation, physical exhaustion, and loneliness—which often drive Bicycle to venture outside her comfort zone and engage these folks in the first place. Still, it isn’t just Bicycle’s physical distance from the Monastery which enables her growth: it is the freedom she has on the open road in which to turn inward. To ponder. To reflect. To dig deep. To sort out the type of human she wants to be.
Our own tweens aren’t likely to get away with bicycling 4,000 miles largely unsupervised, but this book will nonetheless tempt them with the possibilities for self-discovery inherent in any amount of time spent outside the home, away from technology, social media, and parental watchfulness. If we read it aloud to our children, we might find ourselves nostalgic for the liberties we took in the 1970s and 1980s, often on our bicycles and in our own private worlds.
At the same time it celebrates the power of an inner life, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle also affirms the role of the parent or guardian. As even Sister Wanda comes to see by the end of the story, in a series of delightful surprises, it may be our children’s job to sort out the type of human they want to be, but it’s our equally important job to validate them, to support them, and to help them get there.
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Review copy from Margaret Ferguson Books, Holiday House. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are above, although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
Melissa, I’m so happy to read your review this morning. This book was intriguing to me when it was first released, but somehow I missed it last summer. It especially interests me, because my son once rode his bike from Portland to Chicago by himself. It was before the time of cell phones (so little service in the mountains and out in the country) so his adventure both terrified and fascinated me when he was out of touch. He too, like Bicycle made many friends and found much kindness during his journey. Thank you for reminding me about this special book!
I love this comment so much! And I am blown away that your son rode from Portland to Chicago by himself. You HAVE to read this book! Bicycle, too, has no cell phone…in fact, the story feels at once contemporary and yet old-fashioned in this way. So many possibilities for growth and challenge when we are truly forced to be on our own. 🙂
I just picked this up from the library and will begin to read Bicycle’s story soon. I’m really looking forward to it!
Yay! I can’t wait to hear what you think!