Zoe Bird’s world is cracking apart. The teenaged narrator of Allan Stratton’s latest YA novel lives in a small Ontario town where she struggles against the oppressive influence of her narrow-minded parents at home and the nastiness of her cousin Madi at school. Madi ridicules Zoe and spreads lies about her, which Zoe’s parents are quick to believe. Zoe’s life is miserable and she’s angry all the time. Nobody listens to her or understands – except her grandmother. Granny Bird has always been Zoe’s refuge. She lives in the Bird House, a big, ramshackle place full of garbage-picking treasures and memorabilia. When Zoe is with Granny, she feels safe and loved. The pair sees the world the same way and shares a warped and wacky sense of humour.
Lately, however, even the Bird House has become an uncomfortable place for Zoe, because Granny is slipping into dementia and can’t really take care of herself. Her driving is erratic and alarming and there’s rotting food in the kitchen. At one point, Granny even collapses from dehydration. Overruling Zoe’s objections, her parents put Granny into a nursing home. Away from everything familiar, Granny becomes more disoriented and distressed. Zoe’s angry outbursts against her parents make them come down on her even harder. When Madi’s bullying escalates, Zoe has nowhere to turn.
The Way Back Home is about what tears families apart and brings them together again. Zoe and Granny feel trapped by circumstances over which they have little control. Both feel unloved and unwanted by Zoe’s parents, and neither can accept the inevitability of Granny’s aging. They resist it by fighting against the other adults around them, whom they see as brutal and uncaring. And they are right. Zoe understands what her grandmother needs, but her blinkered parents dismiss her opinions the same way they dismiss Granny.
With everything and everyone seemingly against her, Zoe decides to help Granny escape from the nursing home and run away to Toronto in search of Granny’s long-lost son, Teddy. Mother and son have been estranged for years, but adrift in her memories, Granny believes Teddy loves her and will help her. Two harrowing days and nights spent wandering the streets of Toronto leave Zoe and Granny vulnerable and scared. Zoe uses all her resources to keep them safe, and when she finally finds Teddy, she begins to understand what has caused the deep rifts in her family.
Stratton – a successful playwright as well as a lauded Printz Honor–winning novelist – has a deft touch with dialogue and humour. His characters are realistic and lively, their voices distinct. The story is both heartbreaking and funny. Zoe carries on a rude running commentary about her parents’ inadequacies, and Granny tells crude jokes to strangers and holds a social worker at bay with a butcher knife. From the beginning, the reader is pulled into Zoe’s painful experiences, from her humiliation and helpless rage to her aching tenderness for her grandmother as she witnesses the elderly woman’s growing bewilderment and sense of loss.
Zoe comes up against difficult issues – bullying, prejudice against transgender people, and the disenfranchisement of the elderly – but these are not what the book is about. The centre of the story is the love between Zoe and her grandmother, which holds the power of transformation their family needs. By the end of the book, everyone – not just Zoe – grows up a bit. The Way Back Home is a heartfelt, riveting novel from a master of his craft.