The world Moira Young creates in The Road to Ever After is a far cry from the desertscape in which she set her highly successful Dustlands trilogy. The small village of Brownvale is also a dry place, but its dust and decay evoke images of Depression-era America rather than a more exotic locale. It reads as sepia-toned, and it’s impossible to imagine the characters in anything other than drab clothes and scuffed boots, shiny patches on the elbows of their jackets and only a sliver of heel on their shoes from long wear. But Young cleverly throws some modernity into the mix, making the setting ambiguous, thereby allowing readers to form their own concept of when and where the story takes place.
In the midst of this place out of time we find 13-year-old Davy David, an orphan who lives by his wits, taking on odd jobs around Brownvale. The downtrodden inhabitants don’t have much to spare, but offer the boy whatever they can. When he’s not scrounging for work or sleeping in the burrow he’s fashioned for himself in the town cemetery, Davy heads to the movie theatre, where he gets his fill of classic films and free popcorn from the proprietress, Miss Shasta. Best, though, is his time in the ill-stocked library, where he spends hours poring over the paintings in a book called Renaissance Angels. Because Davy David has a secret: in the wee small hours of the morning, he sneaks around town “sweeping” elaborate images from the book in the dust, using twigs and brushes to craft his art.
It’s not much, but it brings a modicum of happiness into Davy’s otherwise dreary life. But then he’s caught by the town’s overbearing, putatively teetotalling parson, who threatens to sic the treacherous gangmaster, Mr. Kite, on Davy if he doesn’t clear out of Brownvale immediately. Broke, homeless, and facing a life of forced labour if Mr. Kite catches up with him, Davy reluctantly agrees to act as chauffeur to Miss Elizabeth Flint, the almost-80-year-old former curator of the now-shuttered museum, whom most townsfolk have either forgotten about or believe to be a witch. Before she dies, Miss Flint is determined to return to the seaside cottage where she grew up. She plans to expire (with the help of some pills) in three-day’s time, and enlists Davy to get her to her destination before the, um, deadline.
Davy is an earnest and sensitive young man, but is somewhat flat in comparison to Miss Flint, who bursts from the page like an ornery firecracker. When Davy introduces himself, Miss Flint remarks, “Whoever named you lacked imagination.” Davy’s awed exclamation on encountering a skeletal display in the museum – “You live with dinosaurs” – is met with the droll response, “The poetic irony is not lost on me.”
As the mismatched pair embark on their journey – with George Bailey, the stray dog that adopts Davy, in tow – it quickly becomes clear that the trip will be a life-changing experience for both the young man and Miss Flint, though in very different ways. Without giving too much away, the supernatural comes into play and Miss Flint begins a Benjamin Button-like regression in age. By the time they reach their destination, she is younger than her escort.
Throughout it all, Young incorporates an interesting mix of themes. Davy’s pictures are all of angels, but Young otherwise avoids relying on Christian symbolism, referencing mythology and ancient belief systems. Miss Flint, dour and straight-laced at the beginning, takes increasingly hilarious liberty with the law in pursuit of her quest, as if to say, “what have I got to lose?” But she is also pensive about her past, regretting a love that got away, and ultimately revealing a deeper hurt from her childhood that has haunted her ever since. Davy, on his own for so long, learns not only to accept the company of another person, but also to trust in his own abilities as an artist. These and other elements weave together to form a touching, slightly nostalgic story that avoids sentimentality and provides readers with a sense of having travelled a worthy path with characters they will be sad to leave behind.