John Grogan's second memoir shows that he can write a moving and often hilarious memoir that doesn't involve a dog. Of course, you didn't have to be a dog person to love Marley & Me...but it didn't hurt. At the same time, you don't have to have grown up Catholic to appreciate The Longest Trip Home...but again, it probably wouldn't hurt. I'm sure it contributed to my own appreciation of this book.
The memoir is divided into three sections. "Growing Up" covers Grogan's childhood and high-school years. The youngest of four children, his family lived in a lakeside suburb near Pontiac, Michigan, in a house that his very devout Irish-Catholic parents chose for its proximity to the church. John and his siblings all attended the parish school, he and his brothers served as altar boys, and he even had an after-school job in the office of the church rectory. His parents were active in parish life, and the priests were frequent mealtime guests at the Grogan table. Aside from the church involvement, though, John's childhood stories will probably ring bells with anyone who grew up in the suburbs during the 1960's and '70's. The tone Grogan takes in sharing stories of boyhood adventures and stunts reminded me a bit of Jean Shepherd's in the tales that became A Christmas Story, and that's not a bad thing at all.
John succeeded in convincing his parents to let him transfer to public school in the tenth grade. High school was where the seeds of his eventual career in journalism were planted, but it was also the time when he found himself beginning to shift away from his parents' church. As he moves into young adulthood in the second section of the book, "Breaking Away," he grows more comfortable with being less Catholic, except where his parents are concerned; he's unable to be honest with them about his doubts, even as they become even more fiercely Catholic with age. The strain becomes impossible to ignore once John and his future (non-Catholic) wife, Jenny, move in together before they're even engaged, and he can't keep that fact from his father and mother. As John and Jenny eventually marry and start a family of their own, he and his parents start realizing that their relationship is defined by certain "safe" topics and others that they have an unspoken agreement to avoid. The last portion of the book, "Coming Home," finds some of those walls breaking down again as the senior Grogans become incapacitated with age, and there are things that have to be talked about before time runs out - and those things include faith and prayer.
John Grogan is a born storyteller with a conversational writing style, and I found myself laughing out loud in numerous places while reading The Longest Trip Home, particularly during the first two sections. The last section of the book is more reflective and emotional, and readers with aging parents may feel it keenly.
Grogan's issues with the Catholic Church particularly resonated with me, because I have similar ones of my own (which I think will be the topic of a follow-up post). He seems to have made some peace with being a "nonpracticing Catholic," one who doesn't participate at all because there are aspects of the faith that he can't believe in, and yet continuing to identify himself as "Catholic" because of his upbringing. (I definitely relate to that - the stuff sticks.) He and his wife believe they can raise ethical, moral children outside of a religious framework, and are making their best effort to do so; I agree that it's possible. He comes to respect what his parents' faith, and their practice of it, means to them, even if he can't embrace it the way they do. I think anyone who questions the religion they grew up with can relate to this - Catholics in particular, but the generalities may strike a chord for those of other faiths as well. Grogan doesn't take on big philosophical questions here; he's strictly recounting his personal experiences, but sometimes that can be equally thought-provoking.