It is 1994 in Little River, N.Y., when 16-year-old April steals her neighbor's car to drive into the next town for an open mic night. She returns the car when she's done, but the teasing taste of freedom she finds on the road--and the crowd's positive reaction to her songs--set the standard for the rest of this propulsive novel. Allison Larkin's The People We Keep is the story of April's journey away from Little River: escape, both seeking something (home, community) and fleeing from it.
Her mother is long gone and barely remembered; her father alternates between abuse and neglect, but he also gives April her first guitar. It is clear that her music is essentially her only lifeline: "My dad used to say that good folk music is etched with the rhythm of the road. I always listen for it in songs and I find it in the best ones. So when I'm driving, I pay attention to all the noise... and I start my song. It begins like a story in my head...."
April finds her first hope and solace in Ithaca, a town with hippies and colleges and baffling coffee drinks, and where she gets a job and a lover and makes her first true friend. Thanks to her past and trauma, though, she both yearns for and fears attachment; she has to keep moving. The rest of the novel follows April up and down the eastern seaboard, living out of her car, busking and playing bars and coffee shops, finding and losing what she most wants, over and over again.
The People We Keep is intimate, urgent and direct; April's first-person voice is magnetic, compelling. She is damaged and still so young--years go by and she is still in her teens--but extraordinarily resilient, a "miracle girl who is so full of piss and vinegar that she survived it all." Just when it begins to feel like she'll never learn to stop moving, she makes a discovery. "We have people we get to keep, who won't ever let us go. And that's the most important part."
This is a novel of great empathy, about connections and coming of age, built families and self-acceptance. It contains heartbreak and redemption, and a plucky, irresistible protagonist. For any reader who's ever wished they could go, or wished they could stay. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Shelf Talker: In this propulsive, empathetic novel, a teenaged singer-songwriter takes to the road, both hoping for and running from an experience of love and acceptance.