Reviewed by Tess Hensley
A Pontiac in the Woods is the fourth in author Fred Misurella’s cycle of novels about the modern American family. Jamie Sasso’s family history is quite complicated, with multiple sets of absent parents and foster homes that never quite seem to feel like home – far from our vision of the American dream. The only place that seems to feel like a home to her is a 1960 Pontiac Bonneville in the woods that Jamie desperately clings to the face of every hardship she faces, and believe me, there’s plenty of those.
Her trials and tribulations are narrated by both fourteen-year-old Jamie and a slightly older, more mature Jamie at 19, and the happenings of those years are compelling enough to keep the reader hanging on despite the bumpy parts.
One of the more ironic layers within the pages is that Jamie’s car is right across the road from the town’s police station, almost as if the system is watching her every struggle and allowing it to happen anyway despite its obligation to care for children like Jamie. Her answer to how they are allowed to stand by is that “They just did. I mean, they just do. As long as I don’t have trouble and tell them I don’t want to be with anybody, they leave me alone. Good or fucking bad.” When given the choice, she would rather be left alone on her own luck than to be hurt again by society, like in Walden.
Misurella’s voice somehow perfectly captures the tone of a high-school girl despite his age and gender, even one with Jamie’s spunk. As a reader, we urge Jamie for the love of God to make better choices, but that’s through our adult point of view. If you were a teenager and had a place to pretend you were Henry David Thoreau with all the freedom of the world, wouldn’t you want to live there too?
In the author’s note, Misurella reveals that Jamie Sasso (not her real name) is a true story of just one of the 550,000 people in the United States who regularly experienced homelessness on any given night (as of the year 2016, so possibly even more today). Of those, more than a third lived in a place not meant for human habitation (a street, a car, or an abandoned building), and about 41,000 were unaccompanied children or young adults. This story is powerful enough to remind us of how much of this problem we don’t see because we’re often too busy to look. The novel isn’t preachy but doesn’t hold anything back about the reality of this issue.
Living in a car is dangerous for anyone, but Jamie also faces special battles as a woman growing up on her own. She faces sexual harassment and abuse from her school’s cross-country team, a place where she can never seem to outrun her problems, as she finds friendships and relationships difficult to maintain. Throughout the story, she processes her abandonment issues and the losses of her parents, all while working to form crucial bonds with people in her town despite their negative reactions. This character is well rounded and has parts to her beyond her trauma, and readers can find her growth and development throughout its pages; she’s not perfect by any means, making her all the more real.
Luckily for Jamie, she has a few people who do bother to look out for her despite her protests that they don’t need to. Every other week, she goes to talk to her social worker, Dominic Santa, who does what he can give her life a semblance of normalcy as part of their agreement for her to stay in her home on wheels. When she meets high school junior Misha Alto, Jamie begins to spend a lot of time at Misha’s house, where his parents give them the freedom to act like normal teens.
The juxtaposition of Misha’s character to Jamie’s is interesting because he should be someone who wouldn’t get along with her because of his status; he’s wealthy and has a family filled with culture and academia. The rest of the community doesn’t approve of her, but he does against the odds. The two share a connection that’s sweet and offers a sense of trust and stability for both characters who have dealt with loneliness. He comes across as the safe place character for Jamie, mostly there for emotional support and a great dancing partner when he’s needed.
Misurella’s prose is raw, brutal at times, but with glimpses of elegance and vulnerability. The story is certainly a complex one, but one that needs to be told with only the blunt honesty and dark humor of a teenage girl. Jamie’s future battles against herself and the rest of the world for a chance, in a car going nowhere in A Pontiac in the Woods.