Author: Lynne Branard

Publisher: Penguin Random House

ISBN: 1101989041

The open heart is not heavy…” the author reminds us before she begins this story of Alissa Kate Wells, thirty-five-year-old journalist-in-chief for the newspaper her father Oscar owns in a small North Carolina town. “Al” is witty and tolerant of her coworkers and family. Underneath it all, she is mourning the loss of her mother who died thirty years earlier. She covers it up by acting to the script she has been handed, the devoted daughter to a bereft father, the eclipsed older sister to a self-absorbed beauty pageant winner, the steady mentor and go-to expert in the newsroom. In an uncharacteristic moment Al bids a month’s salary on the contents of a storage locker, and among the detritus of another person’s life, she finds a sealed and labeled box of human ashes. Compelled to find a caring relative who must be missing the remains of the deceased Roger Hart, she sets out toward Grants, New Mexico, beyond Albuquerque, in the company of a three-legged dog named Casserole, to consult the owner of the crematorium.

Over the Great Smoky Mountains, at a diner in Newport, Tennessee, she is served blueberry cobbler by a 17-year-old waitress named Blossom. This is where the journey actually begins. This is where her life takes a turn. On Interstate 40.

Traveling Light can be appreciated for its tenderness: the thoughtful central character, the way each encounter she has with a stranger opens her mind a bit more. As a journalist, Al Wells is a habitual seeker of other people’s stories. Off-duty, she doesn’t have to worry about deadlines and, by accepting the choices these other people make for her, she discovers what matters to them: Country Music, a still-born child, familiar if imperfect relationships, a sky full of stars. Blossom is unforgettable, and makes one aware of the importance to a floundering child of having at least one loving, guiding relative. Despite tragedy in her early life she remains fresh. She persuades Al to tour Graceland, where she visits the graves of Elvis Presley and his twin brother. “’I wonder what life would have been like for him,’” she wonders. And Al is inspired to answer, “’Maybe they would have been a duet,’” and then thinks how hard it is to imagine “two identical gyrating and singing Elvises.” Al and Blossom are characters necessary to one another, taking turns being the wiser one of them.

Traveling Light does carry considerable emotional weight. Any reader will recognize the burden of adolescent disappointments, and the frustration of having life plans altered by inconvenient detours or unexpected U-turns. In this way it is an old-fashioned coming-of-middle-age book. It is, however, laced with contemporary humor in the dangerous and yet hope-filled use of Facebook that Blossom forces on Al as they travel 2000 miles together. The author also mixes in considerable nonfiction: travelogue, road philosophy, astronomy, and automobile maintenance.

While the plot depends considerably on various means of transportation, it never runs out of gas. Traveling Light is definitely a page-turner, and one that will be popular with book clubs. It is likely already optioned. Lynne Branard won praise for The Art of Arranging Flowers and, as Lynne Hinton, has been successful with a dozen other books, including Pie Town.