When we’re growing up, time and and distance can seem like the greatest of tyrannies.
Neither seems particularly predisposed to granting us any favours, and any sense that they might eventually give us perspective or understanding can feel as fanciful as the idea that there are problems in life far bigger than our nascent, limited appreciation.
In David Arnold’s remarkable book, Mosquitoland, which is ostensibly a Young Adult novel but is really a book anyone could benefit from reading since emotional growth doesn’t stop at arbitrary genre borders, time and distance move from being the bullies of teenagerhood to allies in a search for a deeper, more pronounced understanding of life.
Of course, when she sets out from her greatly-unwelcome new home in Mississippi where she lives under protest with her dad and stepmom Kathy, to find her mum Eve in Cleveland, Ohio (her hometown and source of many happy memories), Mim aka Mary Iris Malone, is thinking in terms quite so existentially grand.
“Once done, I stare at myself in the fluorescent light and finally feel like the girl I am. The girl who gets called to the principal’s office but hops a bus to Cleveland instead. The girl who survived a catastrophic accident. The girl who took matters into her own hands, figuratively, literally, fucking finally … I feel more Mim than ever before.” (P. 71)
All she wants to do is get to mum, who she believes in is dire trouble, and be there for her in a way that her mother often was for her when they were would enjoy what Mim calls “Young Fun”, or in other words, abandoning yourself to watching your favourite movie or listening to an Elvis album all the way through, without a care in the world.
All that happened before the big split, one precipitated Mim believes by her father’s dalliance with a Denny’s waitress, a flirtation which became an affair which became a marriage-ending relationship.
It’s actually not that simple and in keeping with anyone who’s 16 and trying to figure the hell out of life, nowhere as straightforward or understandable but Mim is convinced she has it all figured out and will get to Cleveland and life will once again make sense.
That’s not to say Mim isn’t self-aware; in many ways, as her letters to the mysterious Isabel that sprinkle the book make clear – Isabel’s identity is only made clear near the end of the book – she gets a lot of things about life that many other adults spend a life missing.
But clever and EQ-rich though she is, Mim is still young and on her road trip to Cleveland, part of which takes places on a series of Greyhound buses, the rest in a pickup truck named Phil that buys with money stolen from Kathy’s secret stash with new friends Beck and Walt, she discovers that there’s quite a bit about life that she’s hasn’t quite understood or fully appreciated.
What is remarkable about Mosquitoland, a pejorative terms for Mississippi and the suffocating feel of her new home state and life, is the way in which Arnold deftly and sensitively portrays Mim’s epiphany-laden awakening.
Sure, she’s clever, witty and possessed of devastating oneliners and humourously-barbed quips, but she’s also lonely, walled-off and alone, a young woman who has yet to appreciate how important it is to connect deeply and without compromise to those around you who love you the most.
Even more importantly, she comes to learn that it’s often the people you least suspect of richly rewarding your life, the ones you might otherwise have ignored, who often end up being pivotal and utterly essential to your wellbeing.
Mim’s near 1000 mile long road to Damascus aka Cleveland epiphany is told with wit, some tension, near-misses and new or revived connections, with every step she takes making sense on some level.
“Around us, the congregation of fans cheer, laugh, point, each of them gleefully oblivious to all but the fireworks. Beck and I are with them, but now with them. It reminds me of Thanksgivings growing up, sitting at the “kids’ table”. The grown-ups are right there, talking about important matters at work, upgrades around the house, goings-on in the neighbourhood. What they don’t realize is that none of that matters. But the kids knows it. God, do they ever. (P. 218)
Primarily the idea that life is never fully knowable and that we often think we have a handle on something, only to find we don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on or what we should do (or that sometimes we do; we just don’t know it yet).
That might seem scary but the way Arnold tells it, alternately laugh out funny and soberingly close to the bone, it’s actually liberating, if like Mim you’re open to the fact that there’s still a lot you don’t know (or that unencumbered by the blinkers of adulthood that there are somethings you understand perfectly well).
Granted Mim is only 16 so it makes sense that she has a lot of learning to do about the mysterious ways in which life twists and turns, but the truths in this cleverly-written, funny, insightful book are universal and lifelong, and something we can all pretty much learn from.
If there’s one thing you walk away from Mosquitoland appreciating, apart from the fact that Mim is a smart, astute young lady who’s going to be just fine all her issues aside, it’s that we often fail to fully grasp the full import of situations and may not always respond in the best way to them.
But hopefully, that doesn’t really matter since even wrong turns or rash ones have a funny way of working out if we’re open to that, and while life won’t suddenly end up perfectly formed and emotionally-satisfying in every way, it may end up being a whole lot better than you first gave it credit for.