"As if simply being fourteen-years-old weren't bad enough -- what with the usual teenage angst and uncertainty, Vicky Austin's always comforting and reliable home life is changing completely. Her brother John is going off to college in the fall. Maggy, an orphan taken in by the Austins two years ago, has gone to live with her legal guardian. And the rest of Vicky's family is moving from their quiet house in the country to the heart of New York City. But before the big move, the entire Austin family is taking a meandering trip across the country in their station wagon, stopping to camp along the way, with no set schedule and not a single night of camping experience among them. Wild animal attacks. Life-threatening natural disasters. Cute boys on the prowl. Anything can happen in the great outdoors"--P.  of cover.
Original publication date
The title is taken from a line in Psalm 121, "I lift my eyes up to the mountains...the sun will not harm you by day, / nor the moon by night." The psalm is referred to often throughout, as Vicky deals with a crisis of faith and identity. She meets a boy and experiences all sorts of new, complicated feelings - along with the disapproval of her family, who don't like Zachary, who is a bit of a spoiled and pessimistic brat, all that much. I enjoyed the descriptions of various places around the country: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, Indian reservations, and more. It's rather episodic as they move around and have adventures in each new place, culminating with a climactic event that was suddenly more than I expected. I had a weird sense of deja vu, too, as if I had read the story once before as a kid. Things would happen and I would think, that's right, that sounds familiar. Anyway, if I had read it when I was younger I'm not sure I had the same compassion for Vicky that I did this time around, trying to come to terms with her own beliefs and growing up. The story was written in the 60s and is in some ways a bit dated ("Daddy doesn't like women in pants"), but in others shows great tolerance and urges people to listen to each other without judgment.
However, I think it is dated, no matter what Wendy says to the contrary. The attitudes of the menfolk, first of all- Daddy makes all the calls, takes the women and children out of danger, and dictates what his wife may not wear (pants, natch). John, the priggish elder brother, follows Daddy's lead here. The overarching worry about nuclear war with the Soviets dates it. The wondering if humans will ever fly to the moon dates it. The painful slang- including "hoods" and "beatniks". Even the logging trucks with one log per load make it read as dated. And who calls their father 'Daddy' un-ironically when they are 14? Or like John, 17?
Why do I find this particular book dated in a fashion I don't notice with, say, the Betsy-Tacy books? Probably because it feels like L'Engle is attempting to comfort the people who were genuinely Vicky's age when this book came out. There's an undercurrent of very pointed reassurance that seems to be grounded in time, and I think that's what makes parts of this book a little stale. I think that had I been reading this as a young teen in 1963 I would have clung to it like grim death. I read it as a young teen in the mid-70's and thought the slang very silly at the time. But it didn't stop me loving the book.
In addition to the things I'm complaining about, there's a timeless story here too, wherein a young girl tries to make sense out of the senseless, to grasp the meaning, if any, of her life at the same time she's beginning to pull away from her family of origin and find her own path. Here is the place in which L'Engle shines like the sun. Her essential, unshakable conviction that there IS a reason for everything, that there IS a hand at the wheel, and that the driving force of that hand is the power of love, infuses every word. And makes all my bitching about beatniks sound as small as it is.
It's a wonderful book. I love that it's anchored at both ends with Grandfather. I'll always love Grandfather for giving me Henry Vaughan, but as Kipling said, that is another story.
Despite all this, it's not a bad read. As always, L'Engle's facility with the language renders even the prosaic details engaging, and it is worth wading through the various bear encounters to get a glimpse of Vicky Austin's teenage angst and first encounters with the opposite sex.
Perhaps it was the fascinating introduction by her grandchildren, but I found myself looking at the text differently. This book is a little odd anyway, as it reads sometimes like a children's geography book dressed up as fiction (a bit like Brent-Dyer tried to do) and at other times reminds me of people who write at too great a length about their holidays "and then we did this. And then we did this. And the next day it rained, so we stayed in bed until..." But I also wasn't quite convinced by Vicky's angst. It felt almost to me as though L'Engle didn't really understand Vicky's problem with God and so was just writing the words that she'd heard "teen-agers" say by way of explanation. But it was a lovely read for all that, and I really loved the fact the modern edition has not tried to modernise the language. It's a long time since I've read "gay" in the context of "happy" and it was fun to go back in time, even if I did get annoyed by some of Vicky's language, such as "Yah". Somehow I'd never thought of her using that kind of slang!
Young Vicky Austin is now 14, and learning just who she is. She discovers, "You have to go off by yourself or you just stop being you, and after all I was just beginning to be me." And that in some ways is the theme of the book. Who are you and how do you know? And what happens when you meet someone different, not the same ethically as you?
I enjoyed the tour across the country, especially the descriptions of the Palo Duro Canyon, not far from where I live now. I also enjoyed the philosophical passages in the book. It was exactly what I needed to take a break from my hectic real-world life.
Thoughtful young teens would enjoy this book. Adults who still remember what it was like to be 14 and who enjoy philosophy would like it, too.
It's a journey of discovery for Vicky, including the introduction of two low-key romantic figures, and it's also something of a natural history and geography lesson. The varied landscapes are described in a tad too much detail for my tastes, and in some places conversations are directly educational, related to wildlife or history.
However there's enough story to make it worth reading, particularly for fans of the series or the author. I think it would make a good read-aloud for children of about eight or nine and up who are interested in learning more about the United States. Although it was intended for teenagers, there's nothing inappropriate for younger children other than one or two tense moments.