Virginia Barton

Family values pull the cast through

Catholic Herald, 3 May 1991

 

Review: Road Song by Natalie Kusz (Macmillan, £14.99)

 

The beginning of this book is deceptive. One fears that a variation on the “greenpeace” theme is about to unfold, a Swiss Family Robinson saga updated with guitars and camping gaz.

Yes, the immigrant family flees the suburban wastes of sixties LA for the literal wastes of Alaska. But there is not an oil slick in sight, nor feathered friend, nor cuddly polar bear.

9780374528270Instead we find a likeable family, outsiders by race and lifestyle, that pits its wits and skills against a savage climate, harsh living conditions, and events that would floor a less tightly bonded unit. This young American writer (who has already won awards for her writing) was a scrap of six years old when her parents packed essential belongings and their four children into a camper van and headed north.

America was waking up to the effects of pollution, both physical and moral. The struggle for survival in hostile circumstances is the background against which each family member is brought to life by the author, with a perceptive and sure touch.

When she was seven, Natalie was attacked by a dog. This horrific accident led to years in and out of hospital, and permanent disfigurement. Her reactions to this terrible experience are described with painful honesty; a description that extends beyond her own pain to examine the reactions of the rest of the family.

Their strengths and weaknesses combine to reveal as fine an illustration of Kipling’s “family square” as you will find anywhere: arms linked, backs to the centre, facing outwards to all comers.

Mercifully, there are shafts of humour to leaven what would otherwise be a dark tale. The accident with the dog is not the only body blow the family must absorb. Heroic qualities and a solid belief in what one can only call old-fashioned values pull the family through adversity and the reader rejoices with them.

These are painful confessions as raw as the climate they are set in, but heartening withal. (And not too many Americanisms to puzzle the English reader, though what, I wonder, is a pinochle?).

 

 

 

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