There are some books that you finish and think, well, that’s it—I can’t pick up another book today. Gotta let this one sit. Bill Konigsberg’s The Porcupine of Truth is one of those books. In fact, I suspect I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come. This was the 65th book I read this year, and it stands out as easily being in my top ten so far.
Carson and his mom relocate from New York to Billings, Montana for the summer. Carson hasn’t seen his dad for 14 years—not since he was 3—and now his dad, a longtime alcoholic, is dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Caron’s mother, a therapist/school counselor, dumps him at the zoo when they first arrive in town, where he runs into Aisha, an intriguingly funny girl around his own age. It turns out Aisha isn’t just hanging out at the zoo—she’s been sleeping there since her dad kicked her out of their house for being a lesbian. Her dad wanted to send her away to a religious program to “make” her straight, but Aisha would rather live on the streets than suffer through that. Carson and Aisha instantly bond and he invites her to stay with his family. When they start to clean out flood-damaged boxes in the basement storage, they uncover some interesting details about Carson’s father’s family that don’t exactly match up with the story he’s been told. Carson knows his grandpa (also an alcoholic) took off when his dad was just a kid, but doesn’t know much beyond that. He and Aisha start to put some pieces together and decide to embark on a road trip to see if they can uncover the truth… and maybe meet his grandpa.
On their road trip they follow in grandpa Russ’s footsteps, tracking down the same people he stayed with as he went west. Throughout Wyoming, Utah, and California, Carson and Aisha have many deep and profound (as well as silly) conversations about family, faith, and choices. Early on Carson notes that he doesn’t believe in God. Aisha isn’t a fan of the things people do in the name of Jesus—she bonds with Carson’s dad over this, too. They decide they believe in plenty of things other than God—waffles, strawberries, and The Porcupine of Truth, their made-up deity. On their journey, they meet and have intense conversations with a spiritual couple, a narrow-minded Christian, a Mormon couple, and a man raised Jewish but who has lots of questions and sees lots of options for faith and belief.
Here is the part where I talk about some spoilers, okay? Because this book is so important and I want to tell you why. So if you intend to read it—and you should—and don’t want to know what happens near the end, just stop reading this review now. Know that the book is wonderful—I laughed and cried in equal parts. The writing is brilliant and the story will stick with you.
Are you sticking with me? Ready for the spoilers? Okay.
When Carson and Aisha get to San Francisco, they track down a man named Turk who may have known Russ. When Carson finds this now elderly man, he is in for a big surprise: Turk was his grandpa’s lover. Another shock? His grandpa died in the early 80s from AIDS. When he finds this out, standing in front of an AIDS quilt, he loses it. Everything that follows is profoundly moving. What was a good book became a great book in the last 100 or so pages. For those of us who were adults or even children in the 80s, we remember seeing the initial stories about AIDS, reading about the panic and fear, understanding that, generally speaking, it was a death sentence. And it never becomes less powerful or upsetting to see a personal story of life in the shadow of AIDS. Many teen readers might not fully understand the history behind AIDS (going back to it being called GRID and understanding how severely it ravaged the gay community) or have seen or read some of the documentaries or stories adults are more familiar with. This look at what it meant to be a gay man at this period of time will be deeply moving for readers of all ages. For Carson, he came to Billings with only a rather icy mother who talked to him like he was one of her patients. Weeks later, his father is back in his life, his mother understands now what he needs from her, and he has a new grandpa (Turk) and sister (Aisha).
This story of family—both the one we are born into and the one we can choose to make—is not to be missed. Konigsberg packs so much into this story, and his characters, all damaged and flawed, struggle with HUGE questions. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It left me wanting to know more about all of the characters pasts and their futures. Masterfully written and intensely moving, this is a road trip book unlike any other. Be ready to laugh, groan, and cry as you follow Carson and Aisha on their (literal and metaphorical) journey.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 5/26/2015