I do love a good coming-of-age novel and Thompson Road is definitely that. But it’s more – it’s a love story at heart, and also a comment on the prejudices and misconceptions of society, and a reminder of how far we’ve come in our understanding of learning disabilities.
The novel is set just prior to World War II and we find ourselves in small town Washington – centred around Thompson Road, a country road on which our protagonists, Raleigh Starr and Mona Garrison, have grown up. There is a great sense of the depth of the country in which this story begins, and we are instantly thrown into drama via a flashback to when the pair first meet. A barn fire at the Garrison family home is out of control; the men are clearing the horses our of the building to safety. A young Raleigh cannot resist this little girl Mona, when she desperately asks him to save her cat and kittens from the fire. He does as she asks, putting himself in danger for reasons even he cannot fathom.
What also becomes clear in this short prologue is that Mona, who lives with her Aunt and Uncle, has learning disabilities and that, as such, her Aunt cannot understand how to deal with her. It is immediately obvious that there is contention between the pair because Mona is not ‘normal’. However, in spite of this, Mona is a modest, kind and seemingly happy child who wants nothing more than to thank Raleigh and name one of the kittens after him as a token of her appreciation.
Sadly for Mona, her Aunt’s ignorance and narrow-minded ways, whilst mostly employed to protect the child, eventually end up doing the opposite, and put her in a life-altering situation. Thoughout the first part of the novel we see how her Aunt does more damage than good in trying to find ways to ‘cope’ with Mona’s affliction. And while, as a reader you can expect to feel that her Aunt is to blame, in many ways of course she is the product of the lack of understanding at that time, and her actions were not unusual, nor taken with the intention to be cruel.
The same could be said of our male protagonist – Raleigh. While he does have a responsibility in what becomes of Mona, the reader is supposed to empathise with him, in particular because he does realise his mistakes quite early on in the chronological events of the book.
For the first part of the novel, prior to the war, Raleigh is the guy who has a fairly idyllic country-town teenager lifestyle. He is charismatic, great at sports, has a great best friend (Wheels), a group of school mates he goes to parties and hangs out with, he works with his dad in his spare time and drives his truck around with freedom. In fact, the liberty and opportunities he has, in particular, due to being a male in this period in history (when women still had more restrictions on them than men), are polar opposite to the tightly controlled life that Mona leads.
The only thing Raleigh doesn’t have that he desperately wants, is Sally Winters. And she is the girlfriend of Ted. After a humiliating, face-to-face moment in which he declares (unrequited) love for his sweetheart, Raleigh looks to other means to win his girl. And he finds it in Mona’s incomparable dancing talent.
Meanwhile, Mona has many more issues to deal with – subjected to regular bullying on the school bus and with no one willing to really get to know her, she doesn’t much seem to mind. Instead she is happy to observe Raleigh who has clearly been the object of her affection, unknown to him, since he rescued her pets from the barn fire all those years ago. But she is held on tight reins by her Aunt and Uncle who fear she will become wayward because she is ‘feebleminded’. One such example of this that really packed a punch was when, even on a sweltering hot day, when every kid is down at the river cooling off and having fun, she is accompanied by her elderly aunt and uncle, and sports an unflattering, old-fashioned, all-consuming swimsuit, in which she must not only try and swim, but must be made to feel lacking.
However if there is one thing Mona rules above all, it is in her ability to dance.And it is in sneaking her out to practice for the dance competition (that they then go on to win) that Raleigh lands her in the most hot water. And worst, for Raleigh, it begins as an entirely selfish act on his part, to try to win Sally into his arms and away from Ted, by making her jealous. Yet by the time he and Mona win the dance contest, Raleigh has begun to realise all too late how he really feels for Mona. He can no longer ignore the undeniable effect she has on him.
Unfortunately though, their deception in sneaking Mona out is uncovered and everything upends – Mona is sent away to a custodial school, signed over to a guardian, and the war begins. Raleigh goes off to serve his country, and many more obstacles wait in front of them, will they find their way back to one another or will it be too late?
The setting of this novel felt very real and was well portrayed. Wyatt has a natural talent for assuming the essence of a particular scene and delivering that to you in his writing – the era feels mostly authentic, and the setting in the country, in this small town feels very palpable throughout the story. The war scenes are also delivered really well – the reader can feel the fear, the isolation from loved ones, and the hot South Pacific setting.
The same can be said of the characters. Not only are they all well rounded but you are on the journey with them – cursing the baddies and rooting for hero and heroine. The reader can’t help but love Mona, and see her absolute beauty, not only through Raleigh’s eyes but also in the way she presents herself. In the things she endures, our heart breaks for her, she is undoubtedly a quiet heroine. Raleigh meanwhile, is the loveable good guy who stuffed a few things up in his youth but is imperfect just like the rest of us. We love him because of his imperfections and because of his love for Mona.
For my part, I loved that this book had some depth to it with the controversy around what was clearly ‘just dyslexia’ now so well understood and accepted but even thirty years ago this was not the case, let alone in the middle of the last century. There is a definite sense of resolution at the close of the novel, and while you can tell Raleigh is tired by life’s events, Mona is as always his unyielding inspiration and a rock for him.
In fact, the ending was truly well structured. You were left feeling you wanted more, but were satisfied with what you were given, without it being too sentimental and unrealistic. There is understatedness in the style of this book which wins it good credibility. It doesn’t try too hard or get lost in the details. At times I felt this might be where it was lacking – that I needed more depth to the themes of the story and deeper undertones, but in fact, in the end I think it works just fine. It isn’t superficial, but a clean portrayal of falling in love, understanding love, growing up in mid-20th century North America, and an important message about how society sometimes gets it wrong. This is the first of Wyatt’s novels that I’ve picked up but I’d certainly be interested to read another – he has a writing style that captures you straight away and carries you along with his lovable characters.
4 out of 5 Stars.