“My brother’s cradle and other baby stuff got us from Mineola to Birthrock. My mother’s necklaces and other dress-up stuff got us from Birthrock to Stringtown. This girl there got my sister’s doll people along with all the other things that went with her practice family. They told my sister she wasn’t going to need her dollhouse and the doll people living in it anymore since we weren’t living in our house anymore. So my sister’s dollhouse and everything in it got us from Stringtown to Albion.” So begins The Way the Family Got Away, a slender first novel that documents a poor family’s journey from Texas to Michigan with their dead baby in the trunk. The boy speaking here is one of two children, neither ever named, who narrate the novel. Almost any other child would lace with accusation the story of a toy being given away; but this passage’s even tone illustrates the boy narrator’s sangfroid in the face of adversity.
This first chapter, “The Whole Way We Got There,” is a brief narrative of how the two children and their parents eke their way from one town to the next by trading their possessions for food or gasoline. At the beginning of the next chapter, the boy goes back to describe his infant brother’s death from yellow fever. Thereafter, the novel flips back and forth between the boy’s chapters, which focus on events and distance traveled, and sections related by his three- or four-year-old sister, who primarily tries to make sense of the difference between life and death and between real and make-believe. Examining the events of their grueling road trip from both a literal and a more ontological perspective, the children recount their journey and the sometimes gruesome indignities they suffer along the way: the barter of their toys, their clothes, and even the backseat of their car; their mother’s miscarriage; and their eventual abandonment when they arrive at their Bompa’s (grandfather’s) home in Michigan.
It is no mean feat to write unsentimentally from the point of view of children, and Kimball should be commended for doing so in a fair portion of this novel. His girl narrator’s voice is sometimes beautiful in its naïveté, as when she relates that “we slept the dolls of us down on the place where your arm is supposed to rest and we woke them up so they would keep living with us.” The boy narrator has a faithful, often amusing eye for detail—about a convenience store he notes, “There were standing racks of license plates but none of them had our names on them,” and he refers to roadkill as “dried animals that were already dead but that hadn’t ever been buried.”
The beauty and truthfulness of such passages are, however, undermined by the slipshod construction of others. Kimball often hyphenates unnecessarily when he writes as the young girl, which can make her sentences foolishly adjectival: “Poppa carried the shirt-baby through the light-fire that was burning up inside the window-doors and Momma followed them inside the clouded-house.” And perhaps in the interest of making her sound more poetic, he allows her to offer roundabout descriptions of ordinary things: a doctor’s coat is “angel-colored,” sponges are “squeeze-clouds,” and scissors are “two knives with holes inside them that were sharp inside to cut with them.” Although this narrator is admittedly supposed to be very young, such diction strains one’s credulity; even the smallest child, after all, will call colors by their names, and sponges and scissors are some of the most basic facts of her physical universe. Though Kimball is no doubt trying to capture the creative spark of childhood vision, the false poetry of such passages comes off sounding like the White Man’s conception of an Injun Chief.
Both narrators furthermore have the tic of stringing sentences together with “and”s, as in “Momma and Poppa rubbed and touched and kicked and hands and arms and legs and feet,” which is surely another attempt at poetic diction, but mostly sounds like tired experimental prose. Certainly the latter interpretation accounts better for the three inexcusably subfusc epigraphs: “The baby lived inside a world that was smaller and older where they still traveled by carriage and spoke a bawling language,” and “The bawling language was small and died inside the baby and inside the bodies of everybody who could hear it,” both attributed to “Bompa,” and “whah whaahh uuhhh dahhh dadadadada mabadaduwigo,” attributed to “My Little Brother.”
Perhaps the gravest error Kimball has committed in The Way the Family Got Away is having written the first chapter, which, for all its succinct beauty, sums up everything to come so perfectly that by the time one gets to the real-time relation of events, they all have the unpleasant tinge of déjà vu. To be sure, parts of this novel are gripping, even harrowing, but much of it is both monotonous and repetitious. If Kimball’s aim was to evoke viscerally in the reader the sensation of being a small child trapped in the backseat for an interminable car trip, he has more or less succeeded, at least with this reader.