In this debut autobiographical novel, King chronicles her father’s early Depression-era life while he completes a 900-mile road trip to attend the funeral of his estranged wife and reunite with his 3-year-old daughter, LaReta.
The eponymous road Webb Bateman takes throughout the book literally runs from Nebraska, through Wyoming and Montana, and ends in his home state of North Dakota. As he travels in March 1939, the landscape is cold and bleak, his car is far from reliable, and, thanks to his loyal but long-suffering family, he has a few dollars for gas plus an inquisitive sister and a bottle of whiskey as companions. By age 28, when Webb embarks on this desolate journey, he is eking out a living as a heavy machinery operator. Reared in a big Midwestern family with no financial security, he has worked at many daunting and backbreaking jobs—on farms, in mines, in a traveling circus—always moving when a new opportunity arises. Webb is also a young charmer who likes to drink, gamble, and romance girls. He marries the pregnant Dorothy in 1935, but his peripatetic life and reluctance to commit to his family cause her great distress. Through her actual letters to Webb, readers learn of her constant money troubles and her fervent wish for him to join in parenting her beloved LaReta, even briefly. He regrets his inadequacies as a father and husband and fears Dorothy’s disapproving family. The book is an amalgam of memoir, family scrapbook, and encyclopedic inclusions of Depression-era culture. Some photos and letters are impelling. With the accompanying photo, the depiction of “Honest Bill’s Motorized Circus” makes an indelible impression, as when Ben, an old-timer, informs Webb and his brother that, “ ‘Jargo’ means, why pay for a real animal, when two guys dressed up like one will do....One of you is the back end and the other is the front end holding up the neck and head.” But exhaustive explanations of the Civilian Conservation Corp., the workings of the 1923 Model T, among many other details, contribute little.
The authenticity of this account of a stark American journey remains undeniable; best enjoyed as a historically rich memoir.