________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 14 . . . . December 4, 2009


Road to Bliss.

Joan Clark.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2009.
271 pp., pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 978-0-385-66687-9.

Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Pam Klassen-Dueck.

**** /4


For a long time Jim stood wondering if he had really seen a beautiful girl and a little boy vanish into the woods. Had he really spoken to someone named Miriam, or had he imagined their conversation? Was the abandoned schoolhouse inhabited by lonely ghosts? "No way," said Jim. "They were as real as me." Here he was, talking to himself again.


A massive power failure leaves a metropolis at a standstill, and 15-year-old Jim Hobbs is stranded underground on a crashed subway, dealing with a concussion. A nurse's stern warning not to fall asleep leads him to walk out of the immobile city …… and to keep walking. Eventually, after days of hitchhiking, he ends up on the prairies, and holes up in an abandoned house named Bliss, where he meets -- and falls for -- the exotic-looking Miriam, a cult member from nearby Majestic Farm. Eager to be near Miriam, Jim finds work at Majestic, though he isn't permitted to look at the girl, let alone speak to her. Miriam divulges to Jim, however, that she is desperate to leave the farm, and Jim tries to help her escape, but at what risk?

     A story that explores ideas of independence and community, Road to Bliss is written by Joan Clark, an award-winning author of books for young adults and adults.

     Believing that on the open prairie he'll find the space he needs to live his life, Jim heads west -- away from the boredom of school and the indifference he feels from his family -- but instead he encounters the members of a religious cult who are trained by their leader to believe in absolute uniformity that they are the one true religion. As Jim explores his newfound independence, particularly in contrast to the mind control he sees at Majestic, the former school-hater learns a great deal about the world and about himself. For instance, while looking into the expansive prairie nighttime sky, he philosophizes about time and light, and it occurs to him that his wristwatch "wasn't much more than a stone-age tool." This is a topic he would never have considered if he'd stayed in the metropolis, away from open skies! He also begins to read voluntarily -- the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Treasure Island, much to his enjoyment -- and perceives the narrative of his life at Bliss within the context of the adventure story. In general, looking at Majestic changes the way he perceives himself, his family, and his friends.

     Most interestingly, Road to Bliss raises interesting questions about religion. The novel asks: What is a cult? Who has the right to decide if a religion is a cult? Are issues surrounding cults always black and white? Jim spends most of the narrative thinking about such things, and he comes to see that the issues aren't always defined clearly. For instance, he learns that the pastor, Miriam's father, went out of his way to be kind and supportive to fellow cult member Asa, who was a down-and-out heroin addict. Though Jim sees that the pastor is rigid and extreme, he can't be labelled simply as ‘the bad guy.' Jim understands, as well, that the type of mind control practised at Majestic is not unique to the farm or even to cults in general, as this kind of manipulation happens "big time in other places, and in that respect, Majestic Farm was no different from the big, bad world." Who, in the end, lives with a truly free mind?

     For Jim, the determining issue that helps him decide on Majestic as a hazard is the way in which the cult treats its women and girls, all of whom are largely unacknowledged: they are expected to tend quietly to domestic affairs, including the breeding of numerous children, and to starve themselves of intellectual life. Female opposition to the pastor's rules results in swift punishment: shunning, shearing of hair, and near-starvation. When Miriam experiences these very things (as retribution for standing up to her father's edict against a young mother for bottle-feeding her infant), Jim -- his sister's rants against anti-feminist behaviour still buzzing in his ear -- realizes that such dogma can be nothing but harmful, and he knows that he can't just walk away from the doomed girl.

     I recommend Road to Bliss for a broad audience, including adults, because of its interesting themes, as well as its compelling narrative which hooks the reader right down to the lovely and wistful last sentence.

Highly Recommended.

Pam Klassen-Dueck teaches high school English in Altona, MB, and is a graduate student in the M. Ed. program at Brock University.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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