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May 8, 2012

Almost There by Curtis Gillespie

“Happy families are not the most fertile writerly soil, for as Tolstoy so famously wrote in Anna Karenina, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ But if I can be so presumptuous as to reframe Tolstoy’s words, I would say that every happy family will vacation in its own unique way, whereas unhappy families are all alike on vacation.” –Curtis Gillespie

There was the trip to the east coast when I was ten, when the floor of the backseat was so packed with toys that we could only sit cross-legged. Memories include the jellyfish sting in New Brunswick, being buried in the sand in Ingonish, lobster dinners, the Sandspit Amusement Park in Cavendish, too much mini-golf, and winning a free supper someplace with my rendition of “Free to be you and me.” The west coast was six years later, and I remember less because by then I was a sullen teen scouring small towns for payphones from which I could call my boyfriend, but I remember Banff with my sister (who would, a decade later, decide to call the place home), disgusting roadside bathrooms, swimming in the freezing cold Alice Lake, how beautiful was Victoria, and goats on a rooftop on Nanaimo. And before and after and in between, there were summers at the cottage, drives to Florida, boat rides through the Thousand Islands, road trips all over Ontario, and unfortunate March Break when money was a bit short and we resorted to making Kitchener our destination.

So yes, I agreed with Gillespie’s thesis entirely in Almost There: The Family Vacation Then and Now that our family vacations are the means by we get a sense of who we are as a family, of what “family” is. He writes, “The family vacation is a way to bank family memories, to colour in what might otherwise be broad outlines.” His book is a mix of those memories, of his childhood family vacations and vacations now with a family of his own, with broader historical and sociological research in regards to the family vacation. Which, academically speaking, remains an unexamined field of study– the family vacation itself is a very modern institution.

It begins, Gillespie tells us, with the advent of leisure time, to paid holidays and weekends. And, he notes in his first chapter, with the widespread use of the automobile that suddenly made “getting there” not only an attainable goal, but also part of the adventure. From the history of the road trip, he moves on to camping and cottaging: “Returning to a favoured place, owned or not, is a key and appealing aspect of the cottage ritual, and therefore becomes a central part of our memory making… The ritualized and repetitive nature of such holidays becomes a measuring tool…” His observations regarding camping– that we’re looking for a manufactured form of adventure– become even more pertinent in his chapter on cruises, then Disney destinations, and RVs. (Gillespie writes, “But it seems to me that if the point of having a luxury RV is to take your home with you, then why don’t you just stay home?”). And what is the future of the vacation? Gillespie fears that our children are being entertained to death, losing the vital skill of being able to pass hours on a car journey whilst staring at the window, which is the kind of experience that opens the mind up so wide (and what vacations are about in the first place).

Gillespie’s anecdotes throughout the book are funny, the first and final ones horrifyingly so. His parents and five siblings took advantage of their station wagon’s jump-seats and partook in an epic drive from Alberta to Mexico City whose highlights are the highlight of this book also. Later on, the family got serious and bought themselves a converted bus, which they eventually decided to sell due to its dubious propane stove. He recounts also a harrowing trip down a hill in Australia behind the wheel of an RV, his terrified family behind him, also how they all barely survived a hot air balloon ride, and the time his daughter tried to take off his pants at a public reading during the summer they spent in France.

It must have broken Gillespie’s heart to discover that the very best title ever for a book like this was already taken– Are We There Yet? was published in 2008. And though he demonstrates that he’s familiar with that book and others in the same field, even though his research in general was impressively extensive, I came away with a sense that his material was still unprocessed. The anecdotes were hilarious, the trivia was fascinating, but what it culminated in failed to leave a great impression. At times, even Gillespie seemed aware of the lack of momentum in his narrative, as ideas kept being rephrased and re-framed, as he would backtrack to undermine his own points or ideas, many instances or “as I’ve already said” or “…but we’ll get to that in a moment.”

Though in a way it’s a fitting structure for a book about the vacation, the journey being the point after all, and the diversions, the surprises. For a book that calls itself Almost There, and so it is, but the trip is still memorable.

One thought on “Almost There by Curtis Gillespie”

  1. Nathalie says:

    Thank you for doing my Mother’s Day shopping for me, Kerry. This is perfect for my MIL.

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