‘Life is a journey, not a destination’ is one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s well known remarks and is so true for Mosquitoland by David Arnold because the end is somewhat predictable and anticlimactic (however, there is a small surprise thrown in).
Mary Iris Malone (Mim) is the main character and for a while you are not sure of her age. The book begins with a letter she is writing on September 2 to an unknown Isabel. She explains that a month earlier her father, soon after a divorce from her mother Eve, married Kathy and moved the new family from Ashland, OH to Jackson, MI (Mosquitoland). She further explains that she was called into school principal Schwartz’s office of her new school but before entering she overhears a conversation he is having with Kathy and her father, Barry, in which she hears Kathy say that “We all just want Eve to get better, you know?”
From that small snippet of conversation, Mim deduces that Eve is ill and needs her help. On the spur of the moment she decides to go to her mother in Cleveland, calmly walks out of the school and heads home (hoping she’s got a reasonable head start before Kathy and Barry realize she is not appearing in the principal’s office). She steals a coffee can with money from Kathy’s dresser and heads to the Greyhound bus station, purchasing a ticket to Cleveland.
The remainder of the book is Mim’s accounting of her journey, interspersed with letters to Isabel and reminiscences of how ‘into the moment’ her mother was as contrasted with her father who was more straight-laced. Along the way she meets a variety of people beginning with Arlene, her seatmate on the bus who Mim describes as “…a Grande Dame from the Old School, if ever there was one”, Beckett Van Buren, her heartthrob, Walt a Down’s Syndrome boy she takes a liking to as well as a variety of malevolent creatures.
Of course there are a few epiphanies along the way about family and friends.
What makes this book so enjoyable is Arnold’s unique writing style. He knows how to turn a phrase, such as The Leaning Tower of Tuft, referring to the bus driver whose tuft of hair Mim sees before seeing the man himself. Or here, in the second letter to Isabel, “I am a collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons: my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange.”
Mosquitoland is an enchanting journey with remarkable characters.