CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 15 . . . . March 31, 2006
Travels with my Family.
Marie-Louise Gay & David Homel.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, 2006.
119 pp., cloth, $18.95.
Grades 2-5 / Ages 7-10.
Review by Vikki VanSickle.
Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.
After we had to swim for our lives that day, we were more careful with the ocean. My mother cut a page out of the newspaper that gave the times for the tides, high tide and low, for the rest of the month. The water wasn't going to sneak up on us again.
Travels with my Family is written by the husband and wife team of David Homel and Marie Louise Gay. Homel is an award-winning novelist as well as a screenwriter and translator. This is Gay's first venture out of the picture book world where she is best known for her award-winning “Stella and Sam” books.
Travels with my Family is a light, quirky travelogue told from the perspective of a boy who would rather go on a "normal" vacation, such as a trip to Disneyland, than the scenic, off-the-beaten-track places to which his parents drag him and his little brother. The book has charming moments, but there is nothing particularly outstanding or fresh about the approach.
The book reads more like a "What I did on my Summer Vacation" essay than an engaging novel. Each chapter covers a different adventure in a different location, including Maine, Mexico, Salt Spring Island, Arizona, New Mexico, and Florida. Gay and Homel do a decent job of flavouring each locale with a unique and authentic quality, but there needs to be more time spent developing these settings. Unfortunately, we don't stay in any one location long enough to get a true feel for the place and what it has to offer. I would have preferred to read about fewer excursions with more depth and substance.
Despite this being an adventure book, the narrator never feels any real excitement or fear. It is the characters around him who seem to be really engaged in the events of the novel. His tone, which is often blasé or sarcastic, deflates any excitement that may have existed. For example, in chapter two, after swimming against the current to return to the safety of the shore, the narrator says, "I wanted to show my father my sand dollar collection. I fished in my bathing suit, but the current had swept them away, bag and all. Oh, well. At least I'd saved my mother and brother." If the narrator is not invested and thoroughly engaged in the action, it is unlikely that the reader will be.
Many of the scenes have too much explanation and not enough action. This may be a side effect of choosing to tell the story in past tense. The narrator ends up describing a scene rather than living in the moment which compromises the action. The pace and action of the adventures are also bogged down by the narrator's constant opinions and observations of his parents which become redundant and irritating. His mother, a thinly disguised Gay, is always commenting on how beautiful everything is and sketching in a notebook. His father, who is described as "not a logical kind of person," avoids popular tourist destinations in favour of undiscovered places and can't figure out how to change a tire, although his young son finds a manual and is able to talk him through it. They become caricatures of parents, which would be fine, but the rest of the novel lacks the energy and zaniness to make it work.
There are hints of Gay's genuine and delightful observations of childhood sprinkled throughout the text. They are most often connected with a child's wonder at the world around him, such as the narrator musing, "I wonder how lily pad sandwiches would taste." This is a line that could come right out of one of her picture books featuring Sam and his big sister, Stella. Sadly, they are few and far between. Travels with my Family is a mildly enjoyable, though mostly forgettable novel.
Recommended with reservations.
Vikki VanSickle is a candidate in the Master of Arts in Children's Literature program at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Woodstock, ON, she is now residing in Vancouver, BC.
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