Here’s the truth: right up front I judged Picara by its cover. The cover, a photo of a young girl sitting on a rail guard with a sideways gaze and unreadable emotion on her face, conjured up one word in my mind: Angst. Well, two words: Teenage angst. Having lately been exhausted by over-publicized Twi-hard* Sturm und Drang, I was anticipating a broken, lonely adolescent heart coupled with an empty highway metaphor to round out the cliché. Sans vampires, though.
I was wrong—about the angst part, not the “no vampires” part.
Eli Burnes is not your typical hurting heroine. For one, she was raised by her opera singing step-grandmother, Mattie, and their family maid, Miz Johnny. Her parents are not around; Mattie stole Eli away from her alcoholic mother when Eli was only two, and her father, Willie, has started a life as an anti-war activist in Missouri, light years away from the sheltered life Eli lives in Georgia under the doting care of Mattie and her cadre of opera friends. Many nights, she falls asleep under the piano listening to their voices, singing, and laughter.
However, when Mattie succumbs to cancer, Eli is faced with starting over. Unable to imagine life with her father and his other family, Eli takes off with a draft-dodging friend to try her luck in Canada. When plans go awry, Eli has only her insight and instincts to find herself a home.
MacEnulty does a wonderful job of capturing the dichotomous cultural forces at work in Eli’s travels, which are set mainly in the ’70s. She portrays the warmth and hospitality of the South alongside the escalating tension and violence of race relations there. She captures the hippies’ ideals of love and peace, but doesn’t shy from the bitterness of their resistance against the government and the war. Throughout, Eli provides a wide-eyed yet remarkably sage witness to race riots, Woodstock, and political turmoil.
My main qualm with the book is the fact that Eli is so perceptive and mature that it seems to belie her age (and hormones, in the case with her first boyfriend, Zen). In general, though, I welcomed her insight and, at times, marveled at their beauty. For example, when a friend tried unsuccessfully to kill herself, Eli reflects: “I wondered why she wanted to die. True, life was sad, but there was something nice about its sadness, something good enough to make you want to wake up and be sad for a little more.”
Yes, she is an adolescent, and yes, her life is characterized by loneliness and loss, but Eli’s resilience, levelheadedness, and knack for linking up with quirky, interesting folks helps this road trip novel escape most of the truisms associated with the genre.
Don’t hate, Twilight fans. I’ve got nothing against you. I just feel like there has been pale, undead bathos everywhere I turn as of late.