Poems & Essays

16 Dec

Book Review: The Unaccompanied Tour

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By Book Review Editor, Jennie Robertson

When I was asked to review Laura Monagan’s The Unaccompanied Tour, I first read the excerpt available on Amazon. Those first few pages that described packing tape that “shrieked and shuddered off the roll” found me at a time when I was spending a lot of time packing up my own house. I was hooked. “I’d love to read it,” I replied, “Please send.”

The plot of the book revolves around Evelyn Tucker’s journey to find her daughter, a college student, after a nuclear explosion destroys Washington, DC. A slew of other national tragedies occur throughout the course of the book, but Evelyn’s journey seems singularly blessed as, against the odds, just about everything goes right for her. At first, I enjoyed this serendipity. I’m not really comfortable on the edge of my seat. After awhile, it became so improbable that I was ready to write some pretty critical words about it…but that was just before all these coincidences turned the corner to becoming a little spooky, a little unnerving, in the best way possible! Even a novice writer wouldn’t make everything peaches and cream, and believe me, this story does take an interesting turn. I won’t treat you to all of my theories and unanswered questions, but there were many. (Ok…I’ll tell you just one. Do Evelyn and her daughter actually speak to her presumed dead husband towards the end of the book? I’d like to think so.)

In the meantime, we are introduced to many interesting settings, including my favorite, the container ship that takes Evelyn from Germany to Canada, and a host of colorful characters. Monagan’s strong point is description, with sentences like, “…pleasure craft bubbled along like runaway brides leaving foamy trains in their wake” and “Evelyn swallowed hard at the lean courtesy of the underworld.”

The big achievement in The Unaccompanied Tour is protagonist Evelyn Tucker. Early on when a female crewmember trades places with stowaway Evelyn, their strategy is described this way: “The two women had taken advantage of their greatest asset: the transparency of a woman in her fifties.” It turns out they aren’t the only ones taking advantage of that transparency. The great thing, though, is that Evelyn is the hero of the book not by doing anything out of character but, in fact, by being exactly who she is, a middle aged mother. This isn’t just speculation; in the denouement, another character actually says, “All you had to do was to be reliably yourself.” The book ends just where most action stories would take place, and that is exactly what drives home the point, exactly what prevents Evelyn’s courage and accomplishment from being eclipsed by noisier or showier heroism. As a woman and a mother, I appreciated this so much.

When I say that Evelyn is true to her character, I don’t mean that she is a static character at all. She starts out a by-the-book rule follower, and by the end is a bona fide felon. This is interesting commentary on the nature of law—few readers will disagree with her actions, though I hope they will find them thought provoking—but is even more important in terms of her personal growth.

While I loved most of the book, there were details here and there that I found a little forced. When Evelyn bakes the apple pies on the ship, I wonder what it adds to the story. When a bum asks her for a quarter to make a phone call, I find myself doubting that global catastrophe would bring back payphones. The church family Evelyn encounters seem really odd to me, with their frequent exclamations of “Bless my soul!” Are there people who say that on a regular basis? These details are fairly minor, they just felt a bit out of place.

Laura Monagan, like Evelyn Tucker, is married to a Foreign Service officer. She has written another book, A Strange Place Called Home: My Walk Across America on the Great Peace March. I’d love to know how these experiences informed her writing in The Unaccompanied Tour; I suspect they contributed a great deal. And I’m not saying that this over-the-top tale has any basis at all in reality, but I do find it pleasing that there are just enough details similar to Monagan’s real life to make you say, “I wonder if…nah…”

Laura Monagan Author photo

Laura Monagan is yet another mom who is always writing — song lyrics, professional handbooks, dream journals, instructional materials, and more. When she isn’t working on her own prose, she is often helping students with theirs. She recently facilitated a writing workshop that matched senior citizens with high school students as “Writers and Scribes,” and she is currently working to promote the annual Day of the Book festival in her town of Kensington, Maryland.

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