This road trip is a winding, poetic journey through ancestry, trauma and art

Me (Moth), by Amber McBride
Feiwel & Friends

Road trip stories tend to fall into two categories — wild adventures of self-discovery where things turn out okay in the end, or grim, outlaws-on-the run tragedies. You can “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” or you can “Thelma and Louise.” But maybe there's another journey to be had. “Me (Moth)” may feature a list of sightseeing stops and a series of motels, but it defies the road trip genre, carving out a pensive path through ancestry, trauma, and art.

Moth is a shadow of the girl she once was. She was a Julliard-bound dancer with a loving, supportive family — until a terrible car accident took them all away and left her scarred, inside and out. Now she doesn't dance anymore and lives with her grieving aunt, wearing borrowed clothes and living on what feels like borrowed time, because not even the wisdom and Hoodoo passed down to her by her Rootworker grandfather can bring back her family or ease her pain. Her survivor's guilt is so strong that she makes herself almost invisible.

Until the new boy at school, Sani, notices her. He lives with his mom and stepdad, having left his father behind on the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico. He sings when he thinks no one is listening and he sees Moth like no one else does. And she's drawn irresistibly to his flame.

Then when their adults fail them, they decide to leave together on a road trip across the country to see Sani's father, and hope to make some sense of their tangled mass of trauma on the way.

Novels in verse can sometimes feel awkward, but “Me (Moth)” spills effortlessly across the page, becoming the song that Moth and Sani write together on their journey. It's all in Moth's voice, and her words dance, giving the reader a real sense of how she could move her body if she wasn't afraid to. The language is sometimes so beautiful and terrible it catches me off guard, like when Moth describes the accident that took her family:

Two summers ago our car broke in half

like a candy bar on the freeway &we all spilled

onto the pavement as crumbled as sticky caramel-peanut filling.

This wasn't the only time I needed to pause and sit a while with something Moth breathed into my ear.

On the surface, “Me (Moth)” seems like a simple story. Two damaged teens fall for each other as they journey across America. But on every page, Amber McBride builds layer upon layer of meaning, entwining imagery of moths with Navajo creation stories with American history with Hoodoo magic, and it always feels organic and natural — the world as filtered through Moth herself. Sani and Moth understand each other on a deep cultural and artistic level, even as they struggle to communicate and trust once another. For a book that is so spare and careful with words, it is very, very full of meaning.

As Moth and Sani traverse the landscape of the South that was the site of so many atrocities committed against their ancestors, they stop to pay respect to the spirits of those who came before them, and to ponder their strength and resilience as well as the trauma that they've suffered. As they do so, their own strengths and traumas entwine with the ones that came before, and it made me think the idea that the suffering of our grandparents is embedded in our own DNA right alongside their genetic gifts. Moth and Sani both have many gifts, but also a lot of pain.

And then there's the ending. I will only say this: It's very rare that, upon finishing a book, I feel compelled to go back and start again at the beginning, but that's what I did when I finished “Me (Moth).” I feel certain that it will offer something new upon each revisit in the future.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.