“I came to my senses when I heard him slurp his spaghetti. That moment of truth saved everything.”
That’s what the elderly Betsy tells her friend Alicia Drummond about why she decided not to pursue a particular relationship shortly after her husband died.
If Long Road Through the Forest by Jo Barney has one overriding theme, it’s to teach us the precariousness and power of relationships — how and why they develop, how they grow, how they falter, and how fate and fortitude can lead to love.
The elderly Alicia has settled into a simple and lonely life since the death of her husband Fred. That all changes with a knock at her door and a whisper from the voice on the other side: “Hello, Grandma.”
There stands 15-year-old Gerald, filthy and desolate, who has been living in a homeless camp in a tent under a bridge in Portland, OR. He is led to Alicia by a note found in his long-departed mother’s diary, bearing Alicia’s name and identifying her as his grandmother.
ACTING ON COMPASSION FOR THOSE IN NEED
While Alicia tells the vagrant she has no children, she is struck by her first visitor in ages and, motivated to do what’s right, decides to help a person in need. She brings him in and provides food and shelter until she can get him to a hospital, which turns out to save his life. Not wanting to send him back to the streets, she gives him a temporary room in her house. For the first time that Gerald can remember, someone shows him compassion.
Meanwhile, Jake, a bully from the homeless camp who had taken Gerald under his tent but not without a detestable price to pay, finds Gerald in his new setup and demands that Gerald take part in a plan to rob Alicia of her remaining life possessions. Unbeknownst to Gerald, Alicia is planning to sell her valuables and help pay to get Gerald back on his feet and matriculate in a good school.
Again, relationships are at the core of this tale, and none so intriguing as the one between Gerald and Alicia. In fact, at one point they are relaxing at home watching the movie Harold and Maude in which, coincidentally, a young man develops a strong relationship with a 79-year-old woman.
DISCOVERING A NEW KIND OF LOVE AND PURPOSE
Now, there is nothing sexual between Gerald and Alicia, although sex works its way into the storyline in many ways. Perhaps in no greater form than the unusual marriage of Alicia and Fred, who has long since past, has secrets of his own, and stays in the story as Alicia’s conscience, guiding her with specific thoughts (what would Fred say about this) as she does her best to navigate the situation.
Does Alicia follow Fred’s warnings? As she offers later on, “I apparently was thrown off track when Gerald appeared at my doorstep and started moving me in a direction that took me into places where I began to feel another kind of love, if I can call it that, for a child, an almost-grandson, a young boy who wanted to love me too. Unknown territory. And ultimately, dangerous territory. A person could get hurt wandering here.”
Long Through the Forest is a moving, exciting story that gets readers deeply into the heads of its characters, their stations in life, and their healthy and/or doomed relationships. And author Barney knows a thing or two about the troubled side of life, having worked as a counselor for homeless teenagers.
While the author takes us to a land of the homeless that no one would want to enter, she manages to share with us the beauty of life and love, and how it’s never too late to find new purpose and meaning when it seems almost impossible to imagine.