________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 4 . . . . October 12, 2007


All the Way Home.

Natale Ghent.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2006.
190 pp., pbk., $14.99.
ISBN 978-00-0-200752-8.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Ruth Latta.

*** /4


"I'll take the road to the wood, then follow my compass southwest toward Illinois. Like I said before, I have no idea if Dad is even there, but it's a good starting point. If I cross the border south of Sarnia where the population is small, I'm less likely to get caught."

Mounted on the back of Smokey, Natale Ghent's 14-year-old protagonist, Nat, rides out of Eastview, heading for the border. Any book that involves a horse is bound to be a hit with 10 to 14-year-olds, and Smokey, the pony, is an important character in All the Way Home. Smokey, Nat and the other characters first appeared in Ghent's novel, No Small Thing, to which All the Way Home is the sequel. As this novel begins, Nat, his mother and his two sisters are moving from the family home to an apartment. The house has been sold because their mother, a single parent and secretary, cannot otherwise afford Smokey's keep.

     During this traumatic period in the family's life, Nat and his older sister, Cid, enjoy sneaking out at night to Smokey's temporary pasture and riding him in the dark through the woods, firing the antique Winchester rifle that Nat found among their dad's belongings in the basement. This escapade foreshadows Nat's nights in the woods as he heads for the States to find his father who had left the family five years earlier.

     The action mentioned above stands out in a novel that gets off to a slow start. Not until Page 73, halfway through the book, does the key "problem" of the novel kick in, with the mother’s falling ill with pneumonia. As her condition worsens, the tension picks up. The hospital scenes are gripping and authentic. A well-meaning nurse tells Nat that pneumonia is "usually just like a bad cold, but sometimes it's fatal."

     When a Children's Aid Society worker comes to talk to the children about going into foster care, Nat feels compelled to act on his own and his sisters' behalf, and he sets off to find their father. He travels on country roads, camping in the bush at night. Only at this point, three quarters of the way into the story, does the geographic setting of the novel become clear.

     Why is the novel set in 1978 rather than the present? Perhaps Nat's horseback quest would be less plausible nowadays because of urban sprawl and sophisticated communications technologies. Adult readers will enjoy the references to Charlie Chaplin's life story and to the robbery of his grave, though the significance of this information is unclear. Perhaps the grave robbery reference is there to establish the year. Chaplin's boyhood in a fatherless home headed by a troubled mother parallels Nat's experiences to some extent; however, the comparison will be lost on the intended audience. Another reference (again, better known to adult readers than to the book's intended readers) is to True Grit. Mature readers may see the implied comparison of Nat's quest and the mission of the young narrator of this western novel/movie about fathers and father-figures.

     In many ways, Nat seems wise beyond his years; for instance, in his appreciation of Robert Frost's poetry, particularly "The Death of the Hired Man," a poem most often introduced in university literature courses. In other ways, he seems childlike, as when he rides off to seek his father with no real plan.

     The final quarter of the novel follows the "hero's journey" structure with Nat undergoing a series of trials or tests. He is attacked by a wild dog which later becomes his companion. He is accosted by a hobo, but the dog runs the man off. He stops in a village general store for supplies but ducks out when a newscast on the TV in the store shows his image from a recent school photo and the word "Missing." After hiding in the woods, he returns to the town but is challenged by a gang of teenage boys. He escapes, but when he, pony and dog try to cross a river, they are swept away by the current.

     Rescued by First Nations people, Nat ends up in hospital in Belle River. His father has seen media reports about the boy's disappearance and narrow escape from death, and he comes to find Nat.

"What do you say after five years of silence?" Nat wonders. Then, "He smiles, and I feel the time slip away between us– all the anger and sorrow and emptiness.... I know that we can never be a family again, the way we once were. But things will be better now...."

     This closing leaves the door open for further adventures of Nat and Smokey.


Ruth Latta's most recent novel, Memories Stick (Ottawa, Baico, 2007) is set, in part, on Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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