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On the Road—Again and Again and Again

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book Same Ground: Chasing Family Down the California Gold Rush Trail.

Book Cover Same Ground

I take the idea of a travel memoir quite loosely: if you’ve injected yourself and your life into someone else’s place, I feel that qualifies. I once wrote a travel piece that was simply a detailed circumnavigation of my back yard, from moss to sow beetle, so my standards are clearly flexible. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s one cohesive memoir, a mix of essays, or even a mixture of essay, poetry and raw imagination.


Book Cover The Grey Job

And if I were looking for a place to start—a book that hit all those bases—I’d start with one of the first books I read that captured a place I’d not only not never been in, but am unlikely to ever reach. The place is the Grey Islands, a pair of small, empty islands off Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, and they are captured completely in one of the first books that I both read and said to myself, “I want to be able to do this.” It spoke to me so clearly that I felt I could see the seams, and perhaps someday learn to sew them. John Steffler’s The Grey Islands: A Journey was written in 1985, but it’s timeless; a mixture of observation, poetry and mystery, its unadorned language dealt to you like cards with a simplicity that’s downright distilled. “The water, the trees and hills rise up. They roam and assume what shapes they wish.”

Book Cover Brealfast at the Exit Cafe


Next up is a delightful romp along smaller U.S. highways by a tag-team of writers, Merilyn Simonds and Wayne Grady— Breakfast at the Exit Café: Travels through America is a tale of a 15,000 kilometre car trip across 22 states and seen through two different sets of Canadian eyes. Which viewpoint—and which set of eyes and ears — are doing writing at any given time in the book is revealed at the beginning of every section in the shortest of shorthand. If the first word of the section starts with the letter “M”, it’s Merilyn. If it’s “W”—well, you get the picture. It’s an excellent trip and an excellent book showcasing competing viewpoints, two very different sets of interests and along the way, a window on two very different personalities and partners inhabiting a space that’s often only the size of a car. An intriguing voyage in more ways than one.


Book Cover Pay No Heed to the Rockets

Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense, by Marcello Di Cinto is an intriguing take on a travel memoir. Di Cinto makes his way through Palestine in a very different way: “I decided to seek out the brokers of grace itself: the poets and writers of Palestine.” Instead of travelling from waypoint to waypoint, from significant site to significant site, Pay No Heed to the Rockets travels from writer to writer, examining the place through sets of eyes that are well familiar with it, with tight-knit prose that overflows with Di Cinto’s love of the place.


Book Cover Apocrypha

One of my favourite travel memoirs is devilishly hard to pin down: is it travel? Is it memoir? Is it gentle, helpful literary criticism? A small lecture, perhaps. Is it words both so careful and so smoothly put that you can hear the author’s particular voice ringing in your head? Stan Dragland’s Apocrypha: Further Journeys is all of that, and much, much more. It moves from place to place with the ease of someone comfortable with where their life is, and is able to draw a picture of a man, over and over again. “We stood in the Ganges, posing like the tourists we were. The picture was the only one on the roll that didn’t turn out.” Simple, unadorned—the next minute, intrinsically wound around a simple pun. Magic writing that takes you places you didn’t know you were going.


Book Cover Gulf

Sometimes your travel/memoir bookshelf has a conflict of interest or two: that’s the case for the poetry collection Gulf. Full disclosure, I’m married to the author, Leslie Vryenhoek, who also travelled with me across the western United States on a series of research trips for my latest book Same Ground: Chasing Family Down the California Gold Rush Trail. But if you want to know what it is like to pick up and move from one place to another, and in the process, find yourself caught in both places—and paradoxically, also in neither—this is the book for you. “This false-fronted game of going home, this / backwards shuffle, worn shoes shined up to perform / the expected dances—old partners, same shoes.” It will bring the sound of keening inside you, and may leave you among the uprooted—of which, in this world, there are now many.


Book Cover Touch Anywhere to Begin

It seems strange to be adding a travel memoir to the shelf that I haven’t even read yet, but I’m guessing that, if it’s up to his usual standard, New Brunswick writer Mark Anthony Jarman’s Touch Anywhere to Begin will be well worth the price of admission. I say that because of his other travel book—the 2003 Ireland’s Eye: Travels. Sometimes, you just have to trust a voice you already know. It’s a book based on a topic I’m well familiar with—hunting for family by tracing it back into history. (Spoiler alert: that sort of hunt is central in my latest book.) If you don’t know Jarman’s work, fiction or nonfiction, I can tell you that it’s immersive—his use of language is playful, expansive and occasionally so rich that you feel the need to set the book down and just ruminate on what you’ve taken in.


Book Cover Adventures in Solitude

And last but far from least, Adventures in Solitude: What Not to Wear to a Nude Potluck, by Grant Lawrence. Lawrence’s travels to a plot of land purchased by his father in British Columbia’s Desolation Sound are just plain fun, told in a clear, sometimes self-deprecating prose that reads almost as if Lawrence were telling the stories around a campfire after the first case of beer had already been finished.


Book Cover Same Ground

Learn more about Same Ground:

An award-winning author goes looking for the meaning of family and belonging on a glorious wild-goose-chase road trip across middle America

Wangersky’s great-great-grandfather crossed the continent in search of gold in 1849. William Castle Dodge was his name, and he was 22 years old. He wrote a diary of that eventful journey that comes into the author’s hands 160 years later. And typically, quixotically, Wangersky decides to follow Dodge’s westward trail across the great bulging middle of America, not in search of gold but something even less likely: that elusive thing called family.

What ensues becomes this story, by turns hilarious and profound, about a very long trip—by car, in Wangersky’s case, and on mule and foot in Dodge’s. Interweaving his experiences on the road with Dodge’s diary, the author contemplates the human need to hunt for roots and meaning as he—and Dodge—encounter immigrants who risk everything to be somewhere else, while only glimpsing those who are there already and who want to hold onto their claim in the stream of human migration.

Same Ground is a story about what time washes away and what persists—and what we might find, unexpectedly, if we go looking.

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