Friday, May 11, 2007

Book review - Running Toward Home

Publisher: Newest Publishers

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

ISBN: 1897126018

Wilma, the foster mom in Betty Jane Hegerat’s first novel Running Toward Home, has a bad feeling about this day, the day of her 12-year-old foster son Corey’s biannual visit with his mom Tina at the Calgary zoo. Especially when she notices he has a fever. But he wants to go and it’s too late to cancel. She consoles herself with the fact that it’s only a day and overnight stay until the social worker delivers Corey back to her and her husband Ben.

Tina has her own problems. One main problem, really. Simon, her jealous, drinks-too-much boyfriend, who she thought was still safely in the clink, has chosen this exact time to resurface. That’s bad news because as social worker Kristel has made crystal clear, if Simon is found anywhere around Corey, her access to him will be cut.

Corey, the kid in the middle, has been thinking about this visit for a while now:

Every six months right before his visit with his mom, Corey was afraid that he wouldn’t know her. That she’d dye her hair blonde, cut it short, and start to dress like a woman instead of a girl.

That’s the opening of this less than 24-hour tale of tug-of-war between foster parents, birth parent, grandparent and government for one loveable and vulnerable 12-year-old kid. Despite the short time span, we read about far more though, as from the opening chapter Hegerat pulls us into this story with exterior specifics and interior revelations. We discover the back story of Ben and Wilma and why they are foster parents. We see Tina’s dysfunctional past and complicated present. We come to understand Corey’s grandfather Opi’s part and non-part in Corey’s life. And we find out what it feels like to be a really fine 12-year-old kid who is also a liar and a runaway.

Characters play a major part in Running Toward Home. Hegerat reveals each to us in puzzle fashion within the 55 short (one- to five-page) chapters of the book. Each chapter presents more pieces of that puzzle from the viewpoint of one of the five main characters (Corey, Wilma, Tina, Ben, Opi). In this Hegerat shows herself a master at getting inside the heads of a variety of players. Corey, a mixture of guardedness, yearning, vulnerability and cynicism is a believable shunted-around 12-year-old boy. Wilma and Ben, who at first come off as having it together, reveal their own insecurities as the story unfolds. Opi is very much the authentic European immigrant with his Dutch sayings, his out-of-sync old world sensibilities, and stubbornness. Tina is colorfully portrayed, both by the language used in her chapters and the specific detail with which her chaotic life is described:

With one sweep of his arm, he sent the cardboard containers flying onto the beige carpet. "You know what I’m tired of, Tina? I’m tired of you looking at me and my friends like we’re six kinds of crap."

She reached down to pick up the carton of noodles, sliding her fingers under the wormy strands. Wiping her hand in the hem of her skirt, she leaned back. "Do you ever wonder if there’s a classier way, Simon?...”

Especially effective in character exposé is the part where rivals Tina and Wilma meet. By the book’s end, all the main characters have changed in some way, providing us with a sense that the grueling hours they’ve just come through were indeed worthwhile.

The Calgary zoo setting is also huge in this story. It worked for me almost like another character, or a great big symbol illustrating how things are never quite as they seem. The zoo is near Opi’s house and the place where Corey and his mom always meet. For him a visit there is rich with memories and good feelings. However, there are animals he doesn’t like to visit. And at night the place changes from familiar and friendly to strange and threatening, thus morphing into the perfect place for Corey to face deep fears, confront his runaway self with questions about what he really wants, and even master a personal challenge.

The story deals with easy-to-relate-to themes like parenting, the government’s role in child care, the need of us all for unconditional love, and a mother’s love. Personally, the book grabbed me by the scruff of my mother-neck from the beginning and kept me on emotional tenterhooks throughout as I lived the situation of a missing kid through Wilma and Tina.

The plot was the only part of the book that, frankly, wearied me from the time Corey was left at the zoo, until the end. The jacket notes alerted me to the fact that this would happen and so when, by Chapter 13 (of 55) , he was fending for himself, I wondered how I would stick with the long ordeal I knew was ahead. It was a long ordeal. But Hegerat, using her considerable skill as a storyteller, does keep the reader with her. To create suspense, she pits the information we have against what the characters have. Her writing remains vivid throughout, with lots of concrete detail and believable character thoughts. The story rewards with a satisfying and somewhat surprise ending.

I found the book a worthwhile read for several reasons, not the least of which was how it made me value my own kids. It also gave insight into the lives of children and parents who, for one reason or another, don’t have each other to closely hold. Those outcomes aren’t surprising, as the author is herself a mother as well as a social worker. Combine that experience with her skill with words, and you have a book I recommend, both as a beautifully written story and a segue to the world of fostering and kids-in-care.

Listen to the author read from the book.


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