16-year-old Harper Scott is angry – about the small Michigan town where she lives (‘in a bubble’; ‘stuck in the fifties’), her recently divorced parents, her mother’s drinking, inane TV programmes and her aunt’s religious harangues. Unexpectedly, her older sister, June, ‘the gilded child’, commits suicide. As we discover, June was never comfortable in her own skin, and had been unable to take her place at Berkeley because the family couldn’t afford it. In June’s room, Harper finds a postcard marked, ‘California, I’m coming home’ and a home-recorded CD produced by a friend of June’s, Jake Tolan, an obsessive about classic rock-music whose brother sells vintage vinyl records on the other side of town. Jake offers the use of his van, ‘Joplin’, for a trip to California to sprinkle June’s ashes on the Pacific and, together with Harper’s extrovert friend, Laney, they set off on the 2,345-mile journey across America.
What follows is largely in the style of the classic American ‘road’ story, in which the constant drive westwards is accompanied by a voyage of self-discovery. The book is reminiscent of work from the fifties and sixties by writers such as J D Salinger and Jack Kerouac, while Jake draws a direct parallel between Harper Scott and Harper Lee. On the way, the young travellers come across various aspects of the counter-culture, including a student-protest in Chicago, a modernist sculpture in the desert (Fridgehenge, ‘a comment on consumerism’) and a violent punk concert in Texas, before making a detour to visit the site of James Dean’s fatal accident. The entire experience is filtered through discussions on classic rock, and Harrington demonstrates her own knowledge of the subject by appending three glossaries of recordings cited or included by implication in the text. But the metaphorical implications never impinge too heavily on Harper’s first-person, introspective narrative, which reflects her confusion and anxieties.
Harrington writes about these disaffected young people from the inside, being not much older than them herself. Harper is an engaging and complex character with whom many female readers will empathise. The realism extends to the language used, and there are scenes of teenage drinking and sex – in fact, Laney discovers at one point that she is pregnant, although she then miscarries. It is a tribute to the book’s sincerity and integrity that these elements appear neither prurient nor exploitative. However, the presence of themes that might, in a different context, be regarded as ‘adult’ would best be appreciated by mature readers aged 14 or over.