CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 11 . . . . February 3, 2006
Polly Horvath’s The Vacation is a book that finds its strength primarily in its main characters. The story is about 12-year-old Henry who suddenly discovers that he must live with his eccentric aunts Magnolia and Pigg after his mother and father go to live in Africa. What follows is a soul-searching journey for all of the characters involved.
The characters in The Vacation are unique and believable, and it is these qualities that make the reader want to follow the grandiose but almost superfluous plot. Aunt Magnolia “Mag”, and Aunt Pigg have a co-dependent and unhealthy relationship which annoys and somewhat scares Henry. Indeed, when the women move in, Henry moves into his closet to get away from them and to have his privacy. Magnolia is an attention-seeking hypochondriac who bullies her sister Pigg with whom she runs a home-decorating business. As soon as the women move in to live with Henry, Magnolia initiates a health crisis by moaning and becoming delirious over a mystifying disease which leaves her gums bleeding, though she is able to find the strength to order people around. Pigg is a weak and nurturing woman who must act as a liaison between Henry, who is angry and pouting because his parents have left him, and Mag, who is self-centred and completely inconsiderate about how her thoughtless comments and actions affect other people. For example, when Henry is shocked to find out that Mag smokes, she announces that she hates “nothing more than some little snot-nosed kid telling a grownup in a sanctimonious voice, when they’ve never experienced the world properly, how they shouldn’t be doing these unhealthy things that are maybe saving their sanity.” Pigg tries to help Magnolia but also interestingly discourages Mag from going to see a doctor until after they have finished redecorating Henry’s parents’ house, without their permission. When Magnolia decides that the three of them will be taking a road trip, the close quarters and long stretches of road bring many tensions to the forefront and force the characters to deal with their problems and to change.
Henry’s parents, Katherine and Norman, are in Africa, where Katherine has gone as a Mormon missionary, even though she has no affiliation with the religious group before the adventure. As Katherine is the youngest sister to Magnolia and to Pigg, the aunts view her trip as proof that their sister is impulsive and silly. However, events in the story, things Henry’s aunts say, as well as his one and only meeting with his grandfather, allow Henry to gradually understand his mother differently despite her absence.
Henry’s father reluctantly has followed his wife to Africa after frequent arguments, and he dedicatedly searches for her when she leaves the missionary group to search for chimpanzees with a primatologist. Despite the stress of living in Africa while searching for his missing wife, Norman calls his son as frequently as he can. A man with a strong sense of right and wrong, Norman is profoundly changed when he returns from Africa, not simply because he has contracted malaria.
Henry is a frustrated and intelligent observer of all this. Forced to accept the will of his parents and of his aunts, he strives to make the best out of every situation. His narration captures the conflicting cynicism and optimism which he experiences during his parents’ absence. A keen reader, he takes every opportunity to exploit his aunts’ feelings of guilt by allowing them to buy him scores of books. Furthermore, he reacts courageously and honestly during and after a misadventure in which he goes missing for several days. Henry is an engaging and entertaining narrator, one who allows the reader to see each character from different perspectives.The Vacation is a smart and realistic portrayal of the ups and downs of family dynamics. It is also a believable and enjoyable sketch of the life of a young boy. As each family member travels during the vacation, s/he develops and changes. Each person contributes to the problems, and each person helps in the resolutions. The ending is satisfying but far from trite, and it leaves the reader with the understanding that despite its flaws, the members of this family will try to work together to support each other.
Dana Eagles-Daley is an occasional teacher and yoga instructor in Ottawa, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.