This sweet comic story by first-time novelist Brooke Davis sends 7-year-old Millie Bird on a road trip through rural Australia.
Obsessed by the death of her dog, Millie keeps track of losses in a notebook titled The Book Of Dead Things. “She soon noticed that everything was dying around her. Bugs and oranges and Christmas trees. …. She wasn’t to know that after she had recorded twenty-seven assorted creatures in her Book Of Dead Things … her dad would be a Dead Thing too.”
Millie’s story opens in the women’s wear section of a department store (more about that later). She’s stuck in Lingerie, waiting for her mother to come back. By the time she meets Karl the Touch Typist, everybody but Millie knows that she’ll be waiting for a long, long time.
Cue the road trip. Millie’s unlikely traveling companions are two cranky geriatric loners. A nursing home escapee, Karl is still mourning his dead wife, whom he met in the pre-electric typewriter/electronic keyboard era. His hands play over an imaginary keyboard, on which he types as he speaks.
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The third traveler is Agatha Pantha, an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe who marches through the days on a rigidly set schedule. Agatha is, incidentally, happy to see the end of her husband, whose philandering disrupted her orderly life. She notes down to the second the assorted activities of her day. Same food, same clothes, same chores daily, everything by the clock. This is a character just waiting for the writer to deal her a narrative wild card so she can show us her chops.
Now, about the child abandoned in the department store. We’ve all read that scene more than once. I slipped an abandoned kid scene into a middle-grade novel, but he only waited for a page. Switching between central characters as she establishes their backstories, Davis keeps Millie there for days.
But with her sharp eye, her love for her characters and some great comic timing, Davis takes this old idea and makes it work. Witness Agatha: “8:06. Arrives at bus station. What’s masturbating? The little girl asks. It’s what boys do to keep busy! Agatha says. What about girls? The little girl says. What about girls! Boys touch themselves, girls get themselves ready to be touched by boys. That’s it, that’s life! You should be writing this down!”
Determined to help Millie find her mother, who dumped her without explanation, the three are on a days-long road trip to Adelaide, with department store dummy Manny riding along. An aunt has told Millie that unless she gets to Adelaide in time, her mother will be leaving for a new life in the United States.
Ever hopeful, Millie puts up hastily lettered signs at every stop, printing BE RIGHT BACK MUM or I’M HERE MUM, in hopes. But optimistic as she is, Millie can’t forget her father’s death: “When she finds the cemetery, it’s lit up like the streetlights, and it’s not like the one back home … Her dad was always so high …
“The thought occurs to her like a kick in the stomach: Will I go to the same heaven?”
Mixing sober and funny, sad and preposterous, Davis pulls all these strands together and makes this story a delight.
Novelist Kit Reed is Resident Writer at Wesleyan University.