This is not a book review. This is a book chat. What’s the difference? I am not a critic of anyone’s writing unless I am admiring it. Improving my own craft is a big enough job I can tell you. But a book chat? Well, that’s a whole other matter. I love those. So let’s chat about books. Books about travel with a difference.
I have just finished a library book. Bringing Albert Home. I almost never read it. After taking it out on a whim, it sat on my table untouched. Each time I took it back to the library to hand it back, a little voice in my head said “read it first”. I learned to never ignore that voice especially when it comes to books. It has led me down some unlikely choices yet totally spot on for where I was in my life journey at the time.
So, I would renew the book and it would sit on my table until the next renewal date. Some months later I decided to read a few pages before returning it back for the last time. I was hooked and finished it within 3 days. Not one to like alligators, I fell in love with Albert the alligator who ‘smiled’ at those he liked, turned over for belly tickles and made a ‘yeah yeah yeah’ sound when happy. But it wasn’t Albert who kept me reading, or the random rooster that turned up uninvited and accompanied the couple on their adventure.
It was Elsie the young wife of Homer Hickam senior, the father of the author. Elsie is feisty, matter-of-fact, a dreamer. “I always wanted to be a …. insert whatever comes to mind”.
Set in 1930’s America, during the Great Depression, we relish in this story of a most incredible journey. And it starts with an argument between two newlyweds, in a West Virginia coal mining town.
Elsie is made to choose between her husband and her pet alligator since the two of them don’t get on very well. Albert the alligator has just eaten Homer’s trousers, while he was trying to do his business on the toilet. Homer can’t take it anymore, the jealousy between him and Albert has reached crisis point. Albert is coming between Homer and his beautiful new wife.
After three days of pondering her dilemma, much to Homer’s relief, Elsie chooses to keep her husband but on the condition that Albert is returned home to Orlando where he originally came from.
Thus begins the 2 week impeccably planned journey, that turns into a one year adventure filled with robberies, criminals, pirates, ghosts, hurricanes, fighting bad ju-ju, and two young people who are searching for the purpose of life.
In the first chapters, I wondered about the future in their marriage. This couple were so ill matched – Homer , a serious, honest, hard working man, happy with his lot and Elsie a feisty, adventurous romantic daydreamer – trying to do life in a coal mining town, with it’s relentless black dust everywhere, the noise of the coal train and the constant danger of losing a loved one in the mines. As I read on, I started to understand something quite profound. Through the unlikely happenings, Elsie and Homer, began to see that true love and adventure existed within them. They already had everything they needed right there in a small, smelly, dusty coal mining town. They may have disagreed about almost everything but eventually they saw that those differences where what made it work in its own quirky way. They also acknowledged inwardly (according to my own opinion), that they shared the same values. And I believe this is a key aspect for all relationships. Not our differences, not our disagreeing viewpoints, but sharing the same values and principles by which we live.
Some of my favourite quotes / extracts from the book.
Elsie: “It’s hard to fight a dream.” Homer answered, “and maybe harder to lose one.”
“Elsie always felt her life was like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box to show her how the puzzle pieces should fit together.”
“They also didn’t have any food. There was even the possibility that they were being hunted by the police for being (a) witnesses to a bank robbery (during which he’d stolen a penny, (b) accomplices to the destruction of a sock mill, (c) knowledgeable of the possible murders of more than several unknown persons on a poet’s farm and (d) transporting illegal liquor along the thunder road. The end of his thoughtful sequence arrived at a singular conclusion:they were in a bad fix.”
For me an even deeper message hit home. Adventure awaits at every turn. We fantasize about crossing great oceans, wrestling pirates (or maybe not), tasting ethnic street food in exotic locations, experiencing thrills in high places and rafting down raging rivers. We can spend a lifetime looking for true love and be discontent with our ‘boring’ lives at home. Multi million pound businesses have been sustained on making peoples’ dreams come true whether through vision board workshops or life coaching sessions. We can seek and search for the thrills, the excitement, the adrenaline rush, the spiritual revelation, the meaning of life when all along it could be right there back where we started, in the place we least expected to find it. In the mundane, the daily grind, the emotional peaks and troughs. Adventure can become a form of escapism. The tougher deal is to find contentment in the small, ordinary things. Those we miss if we blink.
Our ‘perfect’ life can be staring us in the face right there at home. What we think will make us happy, can be the opposite of where we find contentment. Elsie set off to carry Albert home, but really she was finding herself. Determined that once in Florida she would never return to Coalville, she discovered that her happiness was in the person she was, and that she had a good man by her side even if he wasn’t the Hollywood movie star she daydreamed after. The things that vexed her about him, became the things she appreciated. This incredible, amazing journey, was to be the journey of finding themselves, what they wanted out of life and where that would be. Carrying Albert Home was in fact the journey of finding love in the unlikely places and contentment where they never expected.
There is one more notable point that struck me. As I reached the end of the book, I started to really wonder if any of the stories were true. Indeed, the author hints that even he can’t be certain. He began to write the book after his parents passed away and during their lives, they never admitted or denied the validity of the stories.
And yet it didn’t matter. In fact, I marveled while chuckling at their genius way of guiding their children through life. Each of the stories in the book, came out during challenging times for the author. Each time, during a conversation with one of his parents, he would hear “did I tell you when we….while carrying Albert home?” Each story would give him courage, hope, determination whether to push through a competitive sports game in school or while on his way to fight in the Vietnam war.
Did Homer and Elsie devise a plan to use throughout their child rearing years while having a lot of fun along the way? Was this their ingenious idea of making their ordinary life a little more extraordinary, exciting, mysterious? I guess we’ll never know but I know that I am exceedingly glad I have read this book. It has certainly brought to focus some of my own meanderings, conviction of my fault finding tendencies and appreciation of all that i have in my every day at times tiresome days. I absolutely recommend it.