A Road Trip Read Aloud
September 23, 2021 § 1 Comment
“It’d been a long time since I’d seen [Dad] like this. I wish it hadn’t required an eight-hour road trip, a bird watcher and his dumb son, a bear attack, a nudist French couple, and his now somewhat-but-not-really ex-girlfriend to make him act more like his old self.”
This passage occurs towards the end of Cliff Burke’s An Occasionally Happy Family (Ages 9-13), and I suppose you could fault me for spoiling some plot twists, but doesn’t it also make you want to read it?
My husband and I took turns reading aloud this debut novel last weekend, as we road tripped from Washington DC to Buffalo, NY for my grandmother’s rescheduled memorial service. I had heard it was incredibly funny—indeed, it had all of us in stitches multiple times—and I couldn’t resist the idea of syncing our road trip with a literary one (you know I love a themed reading experience). I figured, if we were going to immerse ourselves in hardcore family togetherness for 72 hours, we might as well learn to laugh at ourselves by watching another family make a total mess of it.
There’s nothing like a vacation gone wrong to make for great storytelling.
What I didn’t expect was to find such tenderness behind the humor. Such authenticity in the narrative voice, such punch in the dialogue, such depth in the relationships. An Occasionally Happy Family may be about camping in 101 degrees, it may be about dorky dads and teenage eye rolls, but it’s also about a family who finds their way back to each other after grief drove them apart.
Theo Ripley is our narrator, fresh off completing seventh grade. When he’s not gaming with his two friends or trying to avoid attention from his teachers, he’s drawing panels for his own graphic novels, including one titled, Bob: The Boy With Perfect Memory. In real life, Theo would rather forget the day his mom died of cancer, two years ago. What he’s terrified he will forget is all the warm memories he has of her—mainly because his father and older sister go to great lengths to keep her out of conversation. Since his mom died, it seems like everyone in the family is some combination of sullen, argumentative, and silent.
Enter July 4th week, when Theo’s dad decides to take the kids on their first real vacation since their mom died. Consistent with Dad’s new nature obsession (Theo himself is more of an indoor animal, thanks much), the destination is Big Bend National Park in southern Texas. Never mind that reasonable people don’t go hiking in Texas in the middle of the summer.
The plan is to do a few nights in a lodge, a few nights in a tent, and then cap off the week with two days in a ghost town with a surprise guest. Spoiler alert: Theo’s dad has been secretly dating a woman named Lucrecia, and he plans to use this vacation to test drive their relationship in front of the kids. In the words of Theo’s sister, it’s all “a bit much”—and that’s putting it mildly.
You’ve already been tipped off to the bears, nudists, and insufferable ornithologists. Add to that a potential stepmother with a career as a life coach, who’s fond of phrases like “radical honesty” and “positive qi,” and you can imagine how the laughs start to stack up.
But author Cliff Burke pulls off something that’s hard to do in a comedy of errors. He infuses his story with tremendous vulnerability. Somewhere along the way, Theo begins to see his teen sister as less of a bossy know-it-all and more of a confidant. (There’s nothing like shared revulsion of kissing adults to bond siblings together.) Somewhere along the way, Theo begins to be honest with himself about how much sadness he carries—and how starved he is to connect with his dad about it. Somewhere along the way, amidst exasperation with their dad’s nature enthusiasm and feelings of betrayal around his dating life, the two siblings begin to see a way they might accept their father for the flawed but loving human he is.
There’s a climactic moment in the novel where Theo says something genuinely unkind to his father. It was a cringe-y moment to read aloud, and all of us let out a gasp-groan. It’s also a moment that took courage to write, because it’s never easy to make your protagonist unlikable…even for a few pages. But that moment—and the fall-out that follows—also struck me as one of the most honest things I have read in middle-grade literature in a long time.
I can personally attest to what it feels like, as a child, to look at the new partner your widowed parent has fallen for and wonder what they could possibly see in them. I can taste the resentfulness like it was yesterday. But I also know that, at the root of these feelings, lies a fear that this newcomer will eclipse the memory of the departed. And when (hopefully not if) that fear is named and assuaged by the surviving parent, a weight begins to lift for everyone.
Road trips and vacations can magnify family dynamics, sometimes in the worst ways and sometimes in the best. With its quirky, lovable cast, An Occasionally Happy Family reminds us of that old saying: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Or, at least, makes us laugh harder.
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