Review of THIRTY MILES TO ROSEBUD by Barbara Henning

Published by BlazeVOX [books], 2009.
Review by Martine Bellen

In Barbara Henning’s quest narrative THIRTY MILES TO ROSEBUD, Katie, the novel’s humble hero, travels “on the road” toward what starts out as an open future, but which leads directly into her past.

Peggy and Katie were childhood friends, sister-like in their shared intimacy and devotion. Katie’s mom died when Katie was young, and when the girls turned sixteen, Peggy’s mom and stepdad die in a car crash, leaving their daughter with little more than a shoebox filled with odd, random family trinkets that includes her mother’s diary. The skinny “hippy-girl” Peggy escapes from her uncle’s backwoods trailer where she’s forced to live after her parents’ accident and runs away to New York City, forgetting to bring the shoebox. In 1972 Katie is seventeen and, like her friend, is ready to run from her dad and his wife and the Upper Peninsular of Michigan and its small-town shackles to the ever-alluring and way, way more cool New York City. Peggy, who phones her friend regularly, asks Katie to bring the shoebox with her and they’ll meet up in the East Village, and with that simple request and Peggy’s mysterious disappearance, Katie’s life-long quest begins.

It’s thirty years later and Katie—a photographer, now, who is writing a book and is on sabbatical from her teaching job, her daughter Lilly living on her own—is still in the East Village though is tired of feeling chained to her rent-stabilized apartment, sick of the city’s sounds and smells (familiar, no?), so decides it’s time to take off. Her future is open, she thinks—It’s time for her “road story” and for her to address the shadow that has left a disturbing smudge on her life…what happened to Peggy? Where is she? Why did she vanish, and why doesn’t she want to be found?

The novel intersperses Katie’s present journey with her past one. So the reader, for all intents and purposes, experiences two Katies—one is a seventeen year old, frightened of losing her boyfriend Jay, while the other Katie is forty-seven, self-assured, an independent mother, teacher, friend with a commitment to yoga, her spiritual practice.

THIRTY MILES TO ROSEBUD chronicles the journeys of these two Katies. The seventeen-year-old travels through the 1970s East Village, listening to Miles and Coltrane, Joni and Dylan. Her nickname is Jazz—a pet name given to her by Jay, the great love of her life. It is especially pleasurable reading about our neighborhood in the old druggy days, the rent-controlled one-bedroom on Avenue B and Tenth where seven twenty-somethings crash: “Roaches [,] darting up the wall above the sink, into the cupboards and across the ceiling into the light fixture.”

Harmonicas, electric pianos, guitars, everyone plays an instrument. Renee, one of the kids living in the walk-up—very sexy, naturally—flirts with Jay, and Jazz exists in a perpetual state of jealousy and fear that free-love will steal something precious from her. Modeling for five dollars an hour at School of Visual Arts, drug dealers peddling their product in Tompkins Square Park, Henning evokes a past with precision and tenderness.

When Katie meets Marz, the man who will be the father of her daughter, she describes him as “a womanly man in bed, and that was just what I wanted, some gentleness in my life after a year of hanging out and changing partners as frequently as I changed my clothes.” Marz lived in Detroit and after four days of hanging out together, Katie prodded him to move in. He had recently gotten sober in AA and wasn’t sure he would be able to uproot himself and maintain sobriety. You know where this leads. Yes, it might well sound familiar…Henning captures the lives that many of us led, though the familiarity is never trite and always insightful.

The other Katie of the novel is the mature teacher and artist, the one that scours the Internet, phone book, knocks on the door of Peggy’s childhood home, visits the workplaces of Peggy’s old friends and relatives, the one that with persistent effort will find her friend. And, of course, as the older Katie is wading through her past, her past, like a wave, spills over her. Back in Marquette, Michigan, Katie is confronted with memories of her mother, her father, and sentient friends and boyfriends like Jim Gordon who she dated in tenth grade. The past and present intersect before she leaves for her trip west when Katie runs into an old boyfriend, Gary Snow, a musician she knew in the 1980s. They keep up an email correspondence as she travels back in time and looks for Peggy. Gary reminds Katie of Jay— the way the mind can superimpose one face on another—people and places reference each other, transform and blur. Katie’s spiritual teacher Harihara has taught her that what has been lost can be found by remembering it.

THIRTY MILES TO ROSEBUD is a story of remembering, of finding and treasuring the trinkets of our lives without allowing them to weigh us down. Katie, the photographer and writer, guardian of past images, reunites with lost pieces of her life. She does find Peggy, though I won’t give away what happens, just know that Henning’s introspective take on the human odyssey is never timid but is always compassionate and startling.