Maybe it is because I’m a high school teacher and spend my days surrounded by actual young adults that my standards for YA literature are so high. My favorite books for readers in their teens are full of characters facing real life problems with no clear solutions. The dialogue needs to sound like something an actual kid would say, or else I’m gone. No messages, please. No lessons to learn that could also be imparted in a thirty minute sitcom. No morals to the story allowed. Ever.
If I’m going to recommend a book to anyone to read it has to, above all else, be honest.
Tawni Waters’ new release The Long Ride Home is one of the best YA novels I’ve read since this same author’s excellent Beauty of the Broken released in 2014. Like that wonderful, award-winning novel, The Long Ride Home centers around a tough and intelligent girl facing difficulties that would throw the strongest adult for a loop. Harley is grieving the death of her mother when she finds out she’s pregnant by her best friend Dean. Together they set out across the country on her motorcycle with the task of scattering her mother’s ashes.
I was riveted by Harley’s painful but also at many times hilarious journey towards healing and finding love for herself, her baby, and Dean. There are no easy answers in Waters’ novels. Harley is a flawed character in many ways, but ultimately so human that it is impossible not to root for her on every page.
A word here about two topics not often treated with dignity in YA: Sex and death. It’s a rare and gifted writer who can respectfully and truthfully address either one of these minefield subjects in a YA story. I don’t think I’ve read a book that so respects the truth of these twin realities of many young readers’ lives since Judy Blume’s awesome Tiger Eyes. I was reminded of that novel’s grace throughout The Long Ride Home as Harley struggles to simultaneously come to terms with her mother’s death, and her out-of-control feelings for Dean. It’s hard to make art that tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth while being respectful to the experience of a young audience. Tawni Waters is a master.
The Long Ride Home is a glorious affirmation that life is messy, painful, dangerous, and beautiful. The ending delivered a surprising, hopeful and ultimately very moving affirmation of the healing and life-giving power of loving someone else more than yourself. I guess I said I don’t like messages in YA books, but Harley earns her insights honestly through no less than hundreds of miles of hard road. I thought the ending was transcendent and I put the book down after the final page feeling uplifted and sad at the same time, that’s how good it was.
The Long Ride Home is a beautiful novel written by a masterful and gifted writer. I highly recommend.