True Confession: I know Dave Eggers is some kind of literary hipster guru and all, but I just never got into him. I tried to read a previous novel, And You Shall Know Our Velocity. In fact, I started it twice and just couldn’t finish it. I always meant to try A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but then I would see AYSKOV sitting on my shelf, unfinished, and I would look at my long list of books I wanted to read and it just never made the cut. So, I surprised myself when I plucked Heroes of the Frontier off the new releases shelf at the library. Especially because Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer both have new books out that I need to read. But there it was. I plucked it, I read it, and I really really liked it.
What it’s about (no spoilers): Josie is rootless. She is a single mom in her early 40’s who has closed the books on a long-term relationship with the inconstant and unreliable father of her children, lost her business, and has almost no family. She has no ties to anything and isn’t sure who she is or who she wants to be. She fluctuates almost hourly between contentment and a compulsion to escape herself and her environment. Feeling unmoored, she decides to go off the grid on an Alaskan roadtrip with her kids. In an aging RV, they plummet forth into the wildfire plagued Alaskan wilderness.
Her 5-year-old daughter, Ana, is all id. Too young to feel burdened by consequences, she is free from any guilt or remorse about anything. She embraces life with a joyous ferocity that Josie envies and admires. 8-year-old Paul is the super ego. He is acutely aware of the impact of every decision on those around him. He is painstakingly sensitive to other people’s feelings, especially Ana’s, and Josie often feels that he is judging her for her short-sighted choices while feeling an almost awed respect for him.
Like everything else in her life, Josie is conflicted about parenthood. She loves her children and wants to protect them from all forms of harm. At the same time, she worries constantly that she was wrong to have children, that she is a source of harm for them. And perhaps, peppered in there is a small bit of resentment for the opportunities that are not available to her as a mother. Certainly, there is some resentment toward their father who does not feel the same weight of parenthood.
This trip with no phones, no credit cards, and no itinerary is a desperate grasp for peace of mind and a sense of place.
What I thought: So, here is where I admit that I could easily be just like Josie – conflicted, insecure, and discontented. If it weren’t for prescription meds and a well-grounded husband, it could easily be me hurtling along in a shabby house on wheels while my kids wonder when the hell they are going back to school.
Parenthood is a strange journey and I, like most parents I think, took the first step with no clue what I was getting myself into. I thought I knew. I did know about some of it. The diaper changes and sleepless nights and even the simultaneously crippling and soul-feeding love. All of that I understood before I was ever a parent. What I didn’t understand (foolishly?) is the loss of self. I knew in an abstract sense that my children’s needs would come before mine, but I didn’t know what that would mean in practice. In practice it means that I moved to the suburbs even though I hate the suburbs with the fiery heat of a thousand suns. In practice it means that I keep working at a job that is not fulfilling or even enjoyable. In practice it means that I have to go grocery shopping so the kids will have food to take for lunch instead of ordering Chinese food and reading all day. In practice it means that what I want to do doesn’t matter if it conflicts with what is best for my kids and that things that I would be willing to do without for myself are not optional for my family.
With great clarity Josie realized an undeniable truth: interesting people cannot bear children. The propagation of the species is up to the drones. Once you find you are different, that you have moods, that you have whims, that you get bored, that you want to see Antarctica, you should not have children. What happens to the children of interesting people? They are invariably bent. They are crushed. They do not have the predictable suns and so they are deprived, desperate and unsure – where will the sun be tomorrow?
In this moment, Josie feels faced with the ultimatum of being a parent or being herself. I know I have felt this myself and when I feel it I wonder if there is something broken in me or if this is a reasonable response to parenthood. Through Josie, Eggers declares that I am not alone and also, perhaps, that I am not healthy. This I already suspected. Josie, despite her frequent changes in mood and resolve, is stronger than she knows and a better parent than she gives herself credit for. I hope that I am too.
Heroes of the Frontier is a beautiful character portrait. It is angsty and it lacks resolution. It is pretty much perfect in every way.
You can find a complete list of my 2016 reads with links to reviews here. I’m always looking for recommendations!