August 02, 2017

Road Signs That Say West

Written by Sylvia Gunnery
Pajama Press
216 pp.
Ages 12+
May 2017

Three sisters. One road trip.  No regrets?

When their parents go off on their European holiday, 19-year-old Hanna convinces her sisters Megan, 17, and Claire, 15, to head west on a summer road trip from Nova Scotia to Vancouver.  But the Three Sisters' Road Trip, with multiple stops at roadside attractions, camping and hostelling and the meeting of new friends, becomes more of an unloading of secret baggage and a clash of personalities than a sisterly bonding experience.

From their photo at the statue of Glooscap, to Montreal where their clubbing leads to Megan's hospital visit and her wrist in a sling, Hanna directs, Claire worries and Megan remonstrates her sisters.  Meeting a group travelling from PEI, Hanna accepts an invitation to a wedding they're attending in North Bay.  Onto Marathon and the Terry Fox memorial, the girls pick up the hitchhiking teen named Bear with his beagle Jake and end up driving them all the way to Pinawa, Manitoba to the home of his aunt and uncle where he intends to help out since his cousin Lenny joined the armed forces.  Bear and Megan make a connection but around that swirls unrest with a man sexually harassing Hanna and the fears Bear's uncle has about his son's safety.

Manitoba leads to Saskatchewan and Alberta where they meet a flutist-busker named Charley who encourages Hanna in her song-writing as healing for Claire's grief before the three head to BC where their road trip takes a sudden turn from which the three sisters may or may not find their way back.

It's evident from the onset that Hanna and Claire have back stories that affect their current interactions with others and between the sisters, though there's a lot more story to how the three became who they are than is ever told.  Hanna had gone to university but had left mid-term to take on an au pair position in Italy from which her parents had to involve lawyers to extricate her safely.  Though involved in scandalous circumstances beyond her control, Hanna parcels out little bits about it to her sisters, and still manages to keep mum about that of which she is most ashamed or embarrassed.  Claire is dealing with the recent suicide of her boyfriend Matt's best friend and still coming to terms with what Caleb had done.  Worried about leaving Matt behind and trying to resolve Caleb's death in her own mind leads Claire to contemplate depression and her own grief.  Megan is given no back story, except for having given up a summer job and anticipating starting university and continuing with her swimming.  Sadly, she is continuously vilified by her bossy and self-centred older sister and complacent younger sister for her cautious, more rational approach.  And, even though Sylvia Gunnery has written Road Signs That Say West from third-person omniscient point of view, critical commentary about Megan, the "grouchy complainer" (pg. 128) skews the narration for me.

The road trip scenario is an irresistible plot line, forcing the three sisters to interact (haven't we all been trapped in cars with those we may or may not like?) while they experience life and meet new people of all backgrounds and take in the diversity of places that make up Canada.  Roads Signs That Say West could be a travel commentary of places east to west (I found myself looking up information about Glooscap, Weyburn, and more) but it's really a story of family, a real family, of siblings with secrets, weaknesses, strengths and ambitions that they may or may not share.  The baggage that the girls take with them is far greater than their back stories and drives them to behave in complex and justifiable ways.  Though I would have preferred if Megan had been developed more as a character and not delivered as a scapegoat, especially since middle children are more often cooperative team players than embittered sulkers, young adult readers will appreciate the three different personalities Sylvia Gunnery has created as well as her story which takes the three to new places in their relationships within a colourful national landscape.

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