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Why We Took the Car
I initially came across this one on Jen‘s fabulous spreadsheet. Two stars doesn’t make it a must read, but I still haven’t quite recovered from The White Bicycle. It’s one thing to not have read a Printz winner/honoree personally, and a common thing, it seems, for me to disagree with the winner, but for a book to be so far off the radar that I hadn’t heard of it was really surprising and a cause for chagrin. So I try to pay attention to 1 and 2 star titles that are utterly unfamiliar, in hopes of never being that surprised again.
This is one of those unfamiliar 1-2 star books.
Why We Took the Car is weird. It’s wonderful at times and peculiar at times and reads like comedy stretched thinly over an abyss of darkness, which is what comedy does best.
Also it’s translated and sometimes it’s so clear that it’s not a US publication, which made me wonder about all the things I wasn’t getting. I almost put it aside as one not to review here, but then I found myself thinking about it a lot.
Now in all honesty, I don’t think it’s going to place for the Printz, but I’d love to see it pick up a Batchelder.
So. What’s good about it?
First off, the translation is excellent. It was only the cultural elements that reminded me it wasn’t written in English, and the fact that certain words — Herr, for example — are left in the German.
Narrator and main character Mike’s voice works. He’s sharp and has an eye for absurdity and a great sense of the world around him, and you wonder about how he flies so far under the radar, but as more and more of his home life is revealed it becomes clear that he’s immensely unhappy and lonely. The friendship with Tschick (I love that that‘s the pronounceable version of his name. I have no idea. Chick? Tick? Stick?) makes perfect sense: two lost boys searching for connection and finding it in this absurd road trip full of humor and human kindness. It’s also fitting that they would need to run away to find kindness, since neither of them gets it at home.
I did enjoy the episodic road trip — it’s insane and defies belief, but it’s also a perfect teen boy fantasy of escape, and each episode with another character was a perfect little set piece.
The ending is probably the thing that most blew me away. It seems like it’s going to be a bit of a happy ending, and Tschick is relegated to a trope (the savior friend who has no other real role — see also Boris in The Goldfinch for the Russian Savior trope in particular), but then there’s that horribly empty ultimate ending and the realization that Tschick is still the one good thing in Mike’s life, only circumstances mean they don’t even have each other. Instead, Mike and his drunken mother toss furniture and themselves into a pool. Heartbreaking.
Writing about this has me appreciating it way more as a story and in terms of the literary aspects. Hmmm. Maybe it has a chance after all?
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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