Crown Publishing, August 1, 2017.
In the middle of the night, Ma pulls thirteen-year-old Alex out of bed after one too many arguments with Alex’s father. Alex is dragged to the car, and the two of them set out on a road trip with no explanations. Alex only ever saw her as Ma, but suddenly she becomes a real, complex person with a rich, dangerous past. Mother and child follow a cryptic map of Ma’s childhood in foster care and as a teenager on the run – they travel across the United States and eventually to Canada, keeping old promises and tying up loose ends from Ma’s tumultuous past.
The story is told from Alex’s perspective, and it is complicated further by Alex’s own coming-of-age story – Alex is gender neutral, identifying as neither male nor female. The novel contains a realistic and sensitive portrayal of Alex’s sexual awakening – Alex is undecided yet unconfused about gender identity, and surprisingly self-assured for such a young person. Alex’s identity develops alongside Ma’s past, highlighting the contrasts between the two stories. The pilgrimage to the past is necessary to move forward and face an uncertain yet hopeful future.
Ma’s past includes several women named Laura, hence the title – the Lauras are friends, mentors and lovers, but all of them are an integral part of the mother’s development. Each location to which she brings Alex requires the telling of stories and secrets that complicate Alex’s view of Ma. However, after years of travel and life on the run, Alex also has unfinished business to attend to, including a reconciliation with the father that was left behind.
Both Alex and Ma have lived hard, heartbreaking lives – but their reactions to life’s struggles showcase strength and resilience. The mother is tough, gritty and often seems insensitive, but she supports Alex completely. Their entire journey is an exploration of identity, and it questions how much of who we are comes from a parent, and how much comes from lived experiences. Alex has always been gender neutral, but Ma’s stories and support allow Alex to be completely secure and comfortable with the decision to not be just a boy or a girl.
There are many complex stories to be told on this journey, and they are sometimes overwhelming or distracting from the main narrative, or seemingly told as a vehicle to interject certain beliefs into the novel – but mostly Ma’s digressions are interesting and worthwhile for Alex’s development. The language is stark yet emotional, with lyrical prose that finds beauty even in the darkest moments. I completely enjoyed this immersive journey with Alex and Ma, both of whom are the kind of characters we need to read about in the world today.
I received this book from Crown Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.