When I visit book clubs to talk about Slow Way Home the most commonly asked question is “are you the character Brandon?
It’s a reasonable question. The novel takes place in the early 1970s. Readers often look at me and begin calculating my age, realizing that like Brandon, I too, was a young boy in the early 70s. Their squinting eyes and lingering gaze always give them away.
Slow Way Home is Brandon Willard’s journey through a custody battle between the grandparents who are raising him and the addicted mother who shows up wanting him back. When the grandparents are ordered to return Brandon to their daughter, these God-fearing farm owners in North Carolina risk everything by fleeing with him. They assume different identifies and establish a new life in a fishing village in Florida.
While my mama is relieved to know I didn’t write an autobiography, there are elements of my life in Brandon. I think if novelists are honest, they will admit there are pieces of themselves in the characters they create. But for the record, my mama did not abandon me at a bus station the way Brandon’s does in Slow Way Home.
Instead, my mama fled my abusive father when I was five. We moved into a trailer located in my grandparent’s backyard. I now realize this was for protection as much as convenience. While mama went to vocational school to learn secretarial skills so she could support us, my grandmother went to work on me. Every day right after lunch, we’d lay on the bed for an afternoon nap. As my eyes became heavy, she’d have me list out all the people in my life who love me. If I forgot an aunt or cousin, she’d add them to the list. And with each passing day that list grew longer.
My grandmother, Mother we called her, had an eighth grade education. She remains the wisest person I’ve known. Coming out of a hurricane of abuse, I have no doubt she saved my sanity. Her unconditional love and ability to know just what I needed at that traumatic time gave me stability. Five decades later, I still carry my grandmother’s gift with me. Thanks to her I walk through life knowing who I am and where I come from.
Like Brandon says of his grandmother “she ironed out the nervous places the same way she ironed the collar of my church shirt.” In Slow Way Home, Brandon’s grandmother, Nana, has Brandon recite all the people who love him just as I did as a boy. His grandmother secures his sanity, just as Mother did mine.
When I receive emails or letters about the novel, the scene of Brandon listing out the people who love him is the one most often mentioned. People tell me reading the novel caused them to have their children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews create their own lists of those who love them. And every time I read one of these notes, I whisper, “thank you Mother.”
Grandparents Day is a little known holiday that is celebrated the first Sunday after Labor Day. Hallmark might not promote it the way they do Mother’s Day or Father’s Day but I’m an ambassador. I sing the praises of my grandparents and the 2.5 million grandparents in this country who are raising their grandchildren.
Every reader brings her or his personal perspective to fiction. It’s what makes book club discussions so interesting. But for me Slow Way Home will forever be a love letter to grandparents who are a lifeline for the children who need them.
Slow Way Home was named one of the best novels of the year by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the St. Louis Dispatch. It’s now available for the first time on Audible.
On the surface, Brandon Willard seems like your average eight-year-old boy. He loves his mama, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and G. I. Joe. But Brandon’s life is anything but typical.
Wise beyond his years, Brandon understands he’s the only one in this world he can count on. It’s an outlook that serves him well the day his mama leaves him behind at the Raleigh bus station and sets off to Canada with “her destiny” — the latest man that she hopes will bring her happiness. The day his mother leaves, Brandon takes the first step toward shaping his own destiny. Soon he sends himself spending pleasant days playing with his cousins on his grandparents’ farm and trying to forget the past. In the safety of that place, Brandon finally is able to trust the love of an adult to help iron out the wiry places until his nerves are as steady as any other boy’s.
But when Sophie Willard shows up a year later with a determined look in her eye and a new man in tow, Brandon’s grandparents ignore a judge’s ruling and flee the state with Brandon. Creating a new life and identity in a small Florida town, Brandon meets the people who will fill him with self-worth and self-respect. He slowly becomes involved with “God’s Hospital,” a church run by the gregarious Sister Delores, a woman who is committed to a life of service for all members of the community, black and white, regardless of some townsfolk’s disapproval.