The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 26, 2021 1:00 am

Family matters

Teen protagonist takes to road to build surrogate support system

CHRISTY KELLER | The Journal Gazette

To refer to what April has as a “home life” would be stretching every meaning of the word.

Living in a motor home that won't actually motor, with a guitar as her most reliable companion, she waits tables at Margot's diner to make ends meet. Her deadbeat abusive father has quit providing for her in every way possible in exchange for a new family he spends all his time with. After her father proves how truly despicable he is by smashing her guitar, April makes a choice.

Allison Larkin takes readers on an emotional journey when April Sawicki decides to leave her dismal small town life behind and hit the road in “The People We Keep.” Alone with only a “borrowed” car and what possessions would fit in the trunk, 16-year-old April decides to ditch the future she was destined to have as a teen bride with a townie husband and goes in search of something better. If only she knew what that was.

Larkin goes above and beyond the call of character development and not only gives the reader a protagonist to connect and sympathize with, but also reaches inside and wrenches hearts with a depiction of loneliness so real and raw that it's unclear whether there are enough pages in the book to fix such a broken life as April's. Luckily, Larkin writes April with an endless supply of moxie that keeps her going even when the weather is literally freezing her to the bone.

As April arrives at her first stop in Ithaca, New York, she has no idea where to stay, whom to trust, how to make money or whether she'll belong. This situation alone gives readers a desperate feeling of needing and wanting our main character to survive and figure out how to thrive.

The hope builds as April starts to make friends and slowly allows herself to extend trust. Maybe she can actually have a home ... not just a physical place to lay her head, but a pod of people who care about her and give her a piece of them in return.

Not all people are trustworthy or caring, and soon April is yet again packing up and fleeing a place she desperately wanted to belong – leaving behind people she now called friends. The only souvenir she takes is her new guitar.

Larkin serves up hope and yanks it away just as readers start to feel warmth for the new people who have given April pieces of their hearts. The author leaves us mourning those new relationships as much as our main character as she drives down the road sobbing with yet again nowhere to go and nobody to care.

Larkin continues to introduce characters throughout April's time as a traveling guitarist playing gigs where she can get them. Readers start to witness this makeshift family forming around our main character. Each new stop along the way brings new people into April's path and, without even realizing it, she starts finding her people.

Unfortunately, this small-town girl doesn't think she deserves anything beyond what she came from, so she never stays in one place for too long in fear she'll ruin it.

Every time April packs up and leaves another place, little bits of hope chip away for the reader as April writes new lyrics to document her struggles. The devastation April experiences with every departure is so heavy that it becomes a concern whether she will ever find a place she belongs or if she's destined to wander. If she doesn't stay too long, she won't get too connected and therefore won't get hurt. She won't ever have to feel again the way her father made her feel – unwanted, unloved and alone.

By the end, the reader's heart is so torn apart it's hard to fathom it could be mended in an acceptable way after everything this coming-of-age story has put it through. Larkin wraps up the story in a way that is completely unpredictable, answering the question: Is it possible for April to find her home and allow herself to be loved by others or is it her fate to wander through life finding little bits of fleeting happiness as she comes and goes?

“ ... (I)t's amazing how much you can miss people you only got to be with for one tiny little perfect bit of time; how a place where you barely got to live can be the closest thing you've ever had to home.”

Christy Keller is a page designer for The Journal Gazette.

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