“Book Review: Runaway Blues”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A feel-good story of a plucky grandson and his adventure with his blues-loving, memory-fleeting grandpa
Pete Fanning’s second novel for middle-grade readers, Runaway Blues, features a boy who is about to end his summer vacation with a bang. The endearing twelve-year-old narrator (Caleb) describes himself as “buck-toothed and ugly as a water bug” and “working so hard just to be average.” He has no friends, and he lives alone with his mother, who is often busy working. But his paternal grandfather, his only other family member, has a big adventure in store for him.
“Papa” has early-onset dementia and has moved to a residential facility. Caleb recognizes that “his brain was sick, not so much his body,” yet he can’t help but be taken aback again and again by his grandfather’s seesawing inability to recognize him. Still, he adores and clings to his grandfather, and he even copies Papa’s interest in guitar, specifically in the blues player Robert Johnson.
Though Caleb has never been outside Virginia, one day he indulges Papa’s whim to travel to Arkansas in search of a blues treasure left behind by a long-lost “Uncle Clyde.” He knows that his grandfather’s Uncle Clyde must be long gone, but the intrigue is too tempting to pass up. The two of them hop on a bus for a spontaneous journey. Caleb doesn’t tell his mother. Papa brings his guitar and entertains people along the way. For Caleb, this is an adventure full of emotion: he loves his grandfather’s exuberant music that textures their world and yields a nearly magical joy, but he realizes that they could easily become lost or stranded and that he will be in big trouble when they get home.
Caleb’s language is endlessly colorful with a down-home country feel. He’s a confident narrator, wise beyond his years with expansive skills of social observation of adults. It’s simple to follow the story, insofar as there aren’t any subplots or simultaneous actions of which to keep track. The reference to Robert Johnson inspired me to look up his tunes so I could play a soundtrack to the book, and in the end, I believe the tale could inspire a child to find passion in music like Caleb and Papa.
One difficulty is that Caleb’s appearance is not identified until we are two-thirds of the way through the story, at which point race becomes a relevant and important part of the narrative. Since readers will need to quickly recognize this not-yet developed theme, this could prove to be a potential stumbling block for the ending to feel completely satisfying.
Overall, this is a feel-good story that acknowledges the confusion and grief of confronting a grandparent’s worsening dementia while also celebrating the possibility of still enjoying their company. More broadly, it delivers a lesson to kids about being accountable to their parents for their whereabouts while it lets them explore the fantasy of an unplanned journey. It features a lovable, good-hearted child of unflagging spirit whom young readers can admire and with whom they can empathize.
Publisher: Immortal Works
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