In Hit the Ground Running, the latest YA novel from Alberta author Alison Hughes, protagonist Dee is told by her aunt that “every family needs an anchor.” At 16, Dee doesn’t expect to be that anchor, but when her father goes AWOL for six weeks, it seems she has no choice. Then Children’s Services comes knocking, and Dee decides to take her seven-year-old brother Eddie and get out of Arizona as fast as she can.
Hughes takes Dee and Eddie on a long, sometimes white-knuckle road trip north, travelling through Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Montana before reaching the Canadian border. Canada, where Dee and Eddie were born, is home to an aunt and uncle, and it becomes the overriding symbol of security and happier times. By comparison, Arizona is unbearably hot, bleak, and forlorn. In between, there are few memorable sights, apart from a quick side trip to the Grand Canyon. These are secondary, as are the various characters encountered on the way. This is Dee’s story, and Hughes supplies a well-paced narrative, honest dialogue, and evocative, descriptive passages to tell it.
Dee has a few more challenges than the average teen and is thus more mature. But there are moments when Hughes lets Dee’s true age come through (and renders her more relatable) by giving readers a glimpse into the teen’s mind. Her thoughts betray feelings of fear, self-doubt, sadness, and anger – all understandable under the circumstances. Dee’s fierce, protective love for her younger brother is also a forceful presence. The warm, sometimes comic dynamic between the two is the heart of the story.
Dee has had to parent her younger brother so much that it’s strange Eddie is the one to recognize the evil, lecherous intentions of a passing motorist. That said, the episode is genuinely tense; together with car breakdowns and other problems, Hughes does not make this story an encouragement to possible runaways, or romanticize the reality of being responsible for someone else’s welfare at a young age. Instead, she creates characters to root for. When they’re finally safe in Canada, it is a welcome relief. Then, Hughes makes a risky choice by leaving a few unanswered questions. This open ending will frustrate some, but it makes for a more interesting, realistic conclusion to the story.