“Mosquitoland” by David Arnold
2015 Penguin Books, 342 pages
Mary Iris Malone’s life has been turned upside down. Her family has fallen apart, and her father has, in a very short amount of time, remarried and relocated Mim and her new stepmother from northern Ohio to Jacksonville, Mississippi.
When Mim inadvertently learns that her mother is sick back in Ohio, approximately 947 miles away, she springs into action. Determined to get to Cleveland by any means necessary, Mim ditches school, packs a bag with essentials, “borrows” her stepmother’s coffee can money and buys a Greyhound bus ticket.
Just like that, Mim is on her way. The northbound bus is filled with colorful characters such as the bus driver, Carl and the super-cute guy in seat 17C. The miles pass quickly until a blown tire causes a devastating accident.
Arlene, Mim’s favorite Greyhound seatmate, dies in the accident, leaving behind a wooden box she was delivering to her nephew, Ahab, in Independence, Kentucky. Mim is unable to leave the box in the wreckage, but unsure what she will do with it or how she will ever find Ahab. Nonetheless, Mim resolves to finish Arlene’s unfinished business if at all possible.
A frightening encounter with another of her fellow Greyhound travelers, Poncho Man, leaves Mim reevaluating the wisdom of continuing her journey on the bus, and she decides that hitchhiking might be a safer option. When she realizes that the bus has stopped in Independence, Mim takes it as a sign that she is meant to get off the bus.
Mim’s luck turns in Independence. It is in Independence that she meets Walt, a heartbreakingly sweet, developmentally disabled, homeless teenager. In an ironic twist, Walt leads her to Ahab, and the encounter with Ahab results in an unexpected reunion with Beck, the cute guy from seat 17C.
The trio sets off for Cleveland in a questionable old truck they purchase with Mim’s coffee can money and christen, “Uncle Phil.” Uncle Phil proves to be reliable transportation, and the miles roll by as the travelers get to know each other.
Throughout her journey, Mim writes letters to someone named Isabel in her journal, narrating the trip for Isabel and explaining the reasons behind her actions. The reasons, of course, are never as simple as they first appear.
The story kept me guessing, but it was the characters that really drew me in. Mim is both convincingly wise beyond her years and frustratingly naïve. I alternated between wanting to give her a high-five and shake some sense into her.
There is much more than meets the eye to both Mim and Beck, and author David Arnold reveals their truths gradually. Even Walt’s contented demeanor hides a yearning for something just out of reach. All three are trying to restore their broken families, to fill holes left gaping by the absence of a loved one.
Most of all, Mosquitoland is a great road-trip novel, filled with heart and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny moments. It’s author David Arnold’s first book, and I think we can expect great things from him in the future.
Heather Holley-Hall is the Associate Director of Operations with Alamance County Public Libraries. She may be reached at 336-570-6730 or firstname.lastname@example.org.