Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Margaret Kellerman has written a novel about a homeless 10-year-old girl who calls herself Annie California. It's a funny, thoughtful, heart-breaking story of a young girl surviving a road trip with her dysfunctional family.
Her father gets Annie and her brother to steal flowers and vegetables at night and then has them sell them by the roadside. The money should go for food (one dinner for Annie is two crackers and most of their food is fished out of garbage cans and dumpsters behind pizza joints) but her father often spends it on beer and cigarettes. Her mother is not all there, sitting in the front seat, "singing in a high cat voice." Her brother is sometimes her ally and at other times just echoes her dad. They are driving in a smelly van from Eureka, Calif. to Rhode Island where her father has a gig lined up in a rock band.
Annie writes in her notebook and tries to cope. Along the way she meets some interesting characters and makes some friends. She gets stuck in a gas station bathroom with a jammed door and it takes days for her father to notice she's not in the van and to finally turn around and come back for her. It's all written in her notebook and in the novel in her unique voice, one that is reminiscent of the classic Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh's much loved novel about an 11-year-old girl who keeps a similar notebook to Annie's.
Kellerman gets Annie pitch perfect. Her character is by turns sad, hilarious, and insightful, but, most of all, appealing. We want to hear her story and we are rooting for her. Most of the other characters in the book are equally well-developed and individual. Annie's brother and the friend he makes when they settle in Rhode Island are less so, not quite caricatures of adolescent boys, but bordering on faceless. We don't see them as vividly as we see the father and mother and characters such as Crow Boy, a young man who befriends Annie in Georgia or even the briefly described gas station attendant who rescues her from the bathroom.
Kellerman does a particularly good job on the character of the mother, bringing past events into the story bit by bit, until we come to understand the mother's pain and history, even coming to forgive her for her inability to care for her children.
Annie, like Harriet, is a truth teller and it often gets her into trouble. She speaks the truth to people she has just met, to the police, and to her Rhode Island relatives and her new teacher there. It rarely does her any good, except when she meets a Navajo weaver who gives her the gift of a chant that Annie calls The Words. These sustain her and sustain the narrative flow of the novel as Kellerman deftly weaves them into the storyline.
Annie's voice compels us to keep reading. Seattle author Janet Lee Carey said, "Reading Annie's tale evoked the same fear, astonished laughter, and exhilaration I felt the first time I rode my bike downhill no-handed."
The novel moves right along, pulling the reader down the road with the family. The end, however, is not as developed as it could be. Surprise endings are good but this one is more abrupt than surprising.
Some pieces of the puzzle are missing and others are pulled into place without having been planted earlier in the story. Annie is a too finely developed character to not have drawn us into her thinking and planning for the ending.
That being said, it is still clear that Kellerman has written a very fine book, her first novel. She is a regular columnist in the Senior News, a monthly newspaper published in Eureka, well worth reading no matter what your age, has written six other books, performs as a singer/songwriter, and paints.
Annie California is available online at bluelakestudio.net or at Northtown Books in Arcata.