“Reservation Road” by John Burnham Schwartz

Title: Reservation Road
Author: John Burnham Schwartz
ISBN: 9780375702730
Pages: 304
Release date: October 5, 1999
Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5

In the wake of a horrific accident that claims the life of ten-year-old Josh, the lives of two families begin to disintegrate.

Josh’s parents, Ethan and Grace Learner, and his sister, Emma, become wrapped in impenetrable clouds of grief and guilt. Dwight Arno, the man who hit Josh with his car and sped away, deals with his own intense guilt and sadness at how his life has turned out, while his son, Sam, gradually unravels the truth about what really happened that day.

Though the book is broken into short chapters from the point of view of each character, Ethan and Dwight are the only ones given a first-person narrative. Tragedy binds the two men together; the only salve for Ethan’s intense pain is the knowledge that “there was at least one man outside of the cave we lived in who spent his days with Josh’s name on his lips; who, looking out a car window at the passing roadside on a day leaning toward dusk, perhaps saw my son’s face.”

Dwight, whose life has been characterized by violence, would turn himself in for the crime if not for the relationship with his son that has just begun to heal after a rocky divorce. He comments,

There are heroes, and then there are the rest of us. There comes a time when you just let go of the ghost of the better person you might have been.

But you cannot run from who you are forever, and the two families are set on an inevitable collision course.

I was glad I could read a book about a Josh who was the victim of a fatal hit-and-run without embarrassing myself in public places. However, I found myself straining not to be sucked into the characters’ grief and pain, for fear of unloosing too strong a reaction in myself.

Reservation Road is pretty serious the entire time; it’s a bit of a downer. Even the beginning is weighted by the forthcoming disaster, and memories reflected upon throughout the book are weighted with grief. I understand the need for seriousness, but I also know that hope, humor, and joy can offset sorrow and despair–and even make it richer.

Matthew Norman, author of Domestic Violets, spoke about writing recently at an event at One More Page Books in Arlington. He commented that he strives to incorporate humor into even the most serious scenes, because that is how life really is. I agree, and not just because this book hits close to home. Life is not totally serious; it can’t be. When I’m at my worst is when I most need humor.

The one odd part of the book that was never explained was why the strange clothing choices of Dwight’s ex-wife, Ruth–and those of her new husband, Norris, as well–are described in such detail. Perhaps I’ll find out in Schwartz’s sequel, Northwest Corner. (Update: I didn’t.)

Quote of Note:
“As water rises in a flood, so memory fills in the empty places, covers all that is dead.”

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Reservation Road for yourself from an independent bookstore. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.

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