On and Off the Road: Barbara Henning's THIRTY MILES TO ROSEBUD

Sarah Kosch

I picked up Barbara Henning's Thirty Miles to Rosebud because it was summer and a blurb on the back cover compared it to Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Perfect, I thought. Some adventures with the car window down and the feel of hot wind blowing the driver's hair is just what I want to read on a day like this. And I wasn't disappointed. Henning's independent and insightful protagonist Katie Anderson does indeed travel across the country from New York to Michigan, and from Michigan to Arizona, narrating along the way with a lyrical quality: "When the wind blows, the leaves turn up and back, dark green, light green. When the wind ripples, it looks like little waves across the fields. Cattle here and there and lots of bales of hay strewn over the hills. Sandy colors." However, besides traveling the country, Katie also travels in her own head, shifting through her past to make sense of her present, and creating a novel that is deep and sweet with nostalgia. 

The novel begins with present-day Katie opening a shoebox of odds and ends she's had since 1972. The then seventeen-year-old had retrieved it as a favor for her childhood friend Peggy on her way out of town with her first love, Jay. Katie is now forty-seven and, while she still has the shoebox, she hasn't seen Peggy for thirty years. She is living in New York City working as a photographer and teacher, listening to the warning in her head that she needs to "get out of here now" before she's "too old to leave." And thus her journey begins. She leaves her apartment and job and returns to her hometown of Marquette, Michigan, to try and find Peggy and return her shoebox, which includes, among other things, Peggy's mother's journal. The narration flits between Katie's return to her hometown and flashbacks to her past. As we relive Katie's memories with her, it becomes clear that her search for Peggy encompasses much more than the return of the shoebox. Katie is searching, and has been searching, for the nurturing of a mother who died when Katie was twelve, closure from the loss of her first real love, and a way to overcome the losses in her life and build a healthy relationship with a man or summon the strength to be alone if that isn't possible.

On the outside, she has moved on from the hurt she endured when Jay left her, but so much of her past is connected to him that it is impossible for her present not to be tainted by his memory. An interesting facet of the novel is the importance yoga has in Katie's search for peace. As Katie meditates, both the past and present threads of the story meet, and we are right with Katie as she reflects on the connections between the two. However, as important as yoga is to Katie's character and as fascinating as it might be to learn what yoga is all about, there are times when the descriptions sound more like a yoga commercial than a story, and I found myself taken out of the narration because of the switch in Katie's voice. For example, Many people all over the world now practice Ramaji's vinyasa yoga sequence, some only to make their bodies beautiful and flexible. Many of those who stay with the practice begin to extend it, adding breathing exercises, meditation, studying Sanskrit, and reading philosophy. Little by little the mind changes, too.

There were other times when the narration sounded inauthentic, like a brochure instead of a living character, but my dislike of this was balanced with my love of Katie's thought process as she drives. An amazing old abandoned house, skeletal, catches my attention. I can see through the bricks. It's so small compared to the landscape, all by itself with miles and miles of yellow fields. I don't know why I didn't go back and photograph that house. So fast, I went past it. The blue sky, yellow fields, and the telephone poles and wire holders cutting across the horizon. It's very true to life, mimicking the jumps of the mind when it is lulled with the steadiness of the road.

Overall, the narration is more personal and poetic than promotional, but there are definitely a few spots that require the reader to plow onward in order to be drawn back into the story. One aspect of the novel that is consistently poetic is the use of photography to reveal the emotions and vulnerability of Katie's character. She photographs simple things in nature ”leaves, flowers, branches”small moments of peace and beauty where the chaos of the everyday is forgotten. At one point, Katie thinks, I'm thinking about the possibility of another relationship. One after another like the telephone poles along the country road. Why can't I find someone and stay with him? The duplication and continuation, on and on and slowly transforming into different styles. Like a row of crosses holding these little wires, holding the electrical energy that is moving between them.

I pull over to the side of the road and photograph them receding into the future, turn around and the future goes both ways. Her choice of subjects creates a sense of nostalgia and uncertainty that aches in its honesty. Photography shows exactly what Katie considers beautiful and the effect that beauty has on her. The reflective quality is especially poignant in relation to the simple beauty of the road. Katie's life mirrors the view from her car as it stretches both forward and back, building on her past and twisting around her present as she searches for meaning both on and off the road.

Sarah Kosch is a junior at the University of Iowa pursuing a bachelor's degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She is an intern at The Iowa Review.

Thirty Miles to Rosebud
Barbara Henning
BlazeVOX Books, 2009
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 1935402250
234 pages