Road trips in the U.S. are always more exotic in theory. The real thing generally means bad radio and fake food for three-hundred miles. In my view, any deliberate trip longer than two hours with small children is a concerning sign of masochism.
That’s why the best road trips are in stories. And the best story for kids (but really any age) I found this year is by Darcy Pattison, who gives us a trip that is wild and sweet and strangely haunting.
The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman starts out with young Tameka writing to her favorite uncle, Raymond Johnson, begging him to visit her in California. Ray would love to, but he’s swamped with his carpentry work in South Carolina.
But Ray, it turns out, is no ordinary carpenter: Since he can’t visit in person, he builds a wooden man, Oliver, fits him with a backpack, and sends him off to “hitchhike” out west. Inside the pack he places a note ostensibly written by Oliver, asking whoever finds him on the highway to take him to Tameka’s house and to “drop a note to my friend Raymond Johnson… He wants to keep up with my travels.”
And so begins Oliver’s adventure from Rock Hill to Redcrest. Does he make it in one piece? And will Tameka ever get to see her uncle?
No spoilers here, but while the ending matters, it’s not what really matters in this book. What’s amazing are the people Oliver meets, the letters they write to Ray, and what the journey starts to mean.
Oliver’s rides go from ordinary to the right kind of kooky. We meet Jackson McCavish, a kind farmer who transports Oliver along with a bull named Bert, an amiable trucker headed through Texas, Miss Utah, whose grandfather discovers a lonely Oliver deserted on an Indian reservation, three retired sisters from Kokomo who have decided to blow their inheritance in Reno, and more.
In giving Oliver a lift, they all prove to be good Samaritans, but even better are the ways they adopt the wooden man as their traveling companion. In his note to Ray, trucker Bobbi Jo reports that he likes Oliver because “He never needs bathroom stops. He doesn’t care where we eat. And he stays awake with me all night.”
As the Kokomo sisters cross the Mississippi River for the first time in their lives, they relish their afternoon tea with “Mr. Oliver,” they write, who “has the loveliest manners.”
These characters have imaginations. They don’t just do Ray a favor by transporting a neat gift to his beloved niece; they all need in some way or other to make Oliver a part of their own stories, their own histories, however briefly.
And they all have totally distinct voices. A chaotic, fun brood in Arkansas tells Ray that “Mr. OK is OK.” Oliver “hung out with us for a couple of days, and all the girls liked him better than Quinn. So when Quinn’s cousin’s boyfriend’s aunt was leaving to visit her sick grandfather in Fort Smith, the guys loaded Mr. OK into the aunt’s station wagon and sent him on his way.”
After Oliver’s shadow scares away bears and saves a family camping in the Redwood Forest, the dad reports his discovery of Oliver in lawyerish prose: “Our family, currently on vacation, picked up the above-named person in what I thought was a misguided goodwill gesture. Little did I know how lucky that gesture would be.”
Pattison’s rhetoric is brilliant in another way too: the adventure is so absorbing that we hardly notice she has just slipped an epistolary tale under the noses of her elementary audience; the entire book is a series of letters, many exchanged by people who never meet in person.
The book is great for teaching everything from writing and rhetoric, to character analysis, to geography (there’s a cool map in the back showing Oliver’s cross-country route).
Sure, the book is idealistic and a little naïve. Oliver isn’t real, so we’re not really sending the message that hitchhiking is safe, kids! No worries here about meeting the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer with his freezer and vat of acid along your highway travels.
And the story assumes people are not just good and helpful but blessed with resources. These days, it’s more likely that Oliver would end up as fuel for an out-of-work family whose heat has been cut off.
But somehow the story doesn’t come off as entirely nostalgic or unrealistic, maybe because the characters seem real in other ways. The trucker Bobbi Jo could really use some company on late-night hauls; Miss Utah seems sort of bored smiling in parades; the Kokomo sisters have never traveled beyond the Mississippi River before. Now they get to gamble a little out west and they’re going to have fun, dammit.
These details make this road trip story feel both classic and hopeful, totally American in a way that seems familiar and comforting but – sadly – just out of reach.
This unassuming story, rooted in the sweet bond between a girl and her uncle, reaches far beyond the personal to imagine the whole country as a community. It’s about celebrating the best of who we might be in the U.S., people who make cool things for others and write letters and take brave trips and want to talk to (and even help) strangers. It sparked a little hope in me about a place I sort of recognize but can’t quite find these days.
Sort of like a lost key, inside the house. Maybe it’s here somewhere. It has to be, right? We used it to get in, didn’t we?