On the surface, Sara Taylor’s radiant new novel, “The Lauras,” is an exhilarating mother-child version of a “Thelma and Louise” road trip awash with hitchhiking, greasy truck stop meals and nail-biting escapes from authorities in hot pursuit.
At its heart, it’s a story about the search for home, not the address or coordinates of a physical place, but a psychic space that provides resolution and the seemingly elusive answers to the what-if questions that pave a road not taken.
In the middle of the night, after a particularly harsh argument between Alex’s parents, 13-year-old Alex, who doesn’t conform to a gender, is roused by Ma and told to get into the car. Sleepy and still wearing pajamas, Alex scrambles into the backseat of the Civic and hides under a comforter. “I knew better than to ask questions, or to say anything – give her the slightest reason and all that cracking anger I’d heard her unleashing at Dad would be turned to me.”
By sunrise the next day, they are far from home. Alex senses they won’t be heading back or seeing Alex’s dad anytime soon. Years into the future, an adult Alex reflects upon this turning point. “The tipping feeling, of everything I knew and thought and trusted being pulled out from under me, has stayed with me for 30-odd years, as if she branded it into my skin with her fingertips when she dragged me out of the house.”
Alex’s mother is a woman with a secret past, a past that Alex, until the night they abscond, knows little about. But their days on the open road under the vast expanse of the sky unlock the stories Ma has buried deep within her. In the 1970s, Ma emigrated “messily” from Sicily at age 6 with her parents and siblings. “She wedged herself into an in-between space: not American, despite the social security number they gave her in her late teens; not Sicilian, despite her green card; but eventually other, so that she could only be comfortable when no one expected her to belong.”
Ma’s fraught assimilation is made even more difficult by her parents’ inability to provide for her and her siblings. Child Protective Services seizes custody of Ma and shuttles her between foster homes and group homes. In between stays at temporary abodes, Ma meets several women named Laura who influence crucial junctures in her life.
Ma’s multiple childhood domiciles plot her and Alex’s cross-country expedition in what Ma characterizes as “The Quest.” With each mile gained, Ma reveals more about her experiences as an independent and wandering adolescent.
Each chapter of Ma’s oral history, each stop on their journey, brings closure to her rudderless, unpredictable youth. And during their travels, Alex begins to understand the degree to which the traumas Ma endured affected her, and how, in some sense, their adventure together grants Ma a much-needed opportunity to heal. “I could see the happy on her face and the weight was rolling off her shoulders like stones, a destination at a time, and it looked like she might start singing at any moment.”
Alex is mature, sensitive and generous, and seems at home with an ambulatory life. With few exceptions, Alex makes for an unusually compliant and accommodating teenager, only mildly challenging Ma’s authority and rash decision-making. This, despite the fact that as soon as the duo puts down roots in one town, Ma unequivocally announces it’s time to move on to another. Says Alex, “She gave me a flat, dead-eyed look that was the equivalent of a bucket of ice water in the face, and I dropped it.” Alex’s pushback is so minimal, one wishes for a more dramatic confrontation between the two regarding their itinerant lifestyle.
Throughout their travels, Alex is forced to contend with ignorant remarks and abuse by those who take issue with Alex’s nonconforming identity. “Why did it matter whether I was evolving into man, woman or an entirely different species? Knowing someone’s sex doesn’t tell you anything.” It’s a wise-beyond-years observation that speaks volumes about the kind of relationship Alex shares with Ma, one built on love and unconditional acceptance.
In “The Lauras,” Taylor, a native of Virginia, paints landscapes like the lush forests of Appalachia and the dry desert of Texas with vivid strokes. She sublimely captures the essence of travel, of both the freedom and security that comes from impermanence, and the serenity that comes with beginning anew, with a clean slate. “Here and there the bones of the earth poked through, jagged-edged boulders and looming cliffs that begged to be climbed and which I did climb, not through any desire for conquest, but for the deeper stillness I found while perched on a crag, looking out over the rippling cloud shadows on budding treetops, not thinking of anything until suddenly I realized that eventually I would have to get down, and I wasn’t sure how I had gotten up in the first place.”
Taylor’s resplendent prose evoke the emotional journey of making peace with the past, the sanctuary that is driving in a car with the windows down, radio at full blast and the sense of timelessness inherent in days measured only by fuel and miles. “Maybe it was like being in a rocket, aging at a different rate to everyone on earth,” says Alex. “The blacktop rolled away under us and I felt time rolling away with it, diffusing into nothing.”
304 pages, $26