________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2012


Running on Empty.

Don Aker.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Canada, 2012.
265 pp., trade pbk., $14.99.
ISBN 978-1-55468-754-1.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Karen Boyd.

**½ /4



His father sighed. “There’s no insurance against stupidity Ethan. Next time, maybe you’ll think twice before you pull another stunt like that.”

Ethan had been down this road a few times before. More than a few. He knew where all this was heading. And glancing at the weary expression on Raye’s face, he was pretty sure she knew, too.

“Life seldom allows us the luxury of choosing our consequences,” said his father. “A person is invariably defined by his ability to meet his obligations.” He leaned back against the countertop and crossed his arms, a gesture Ethan recognized from countless confrontations with his old man as Jack Palmer’s Final Word On The Matter.

Ethan glared at him, burning a hole in his father’s forehead for a few seconds before standing up and ramming his chair back so savagely that it toppled onto the porcelain tiles.

“Young man, pick that up,” said his father, but Ethan ignored him as he stormed across the kitchen and out the door, slamming it behind him so hard it rattled on its hinges.


Seventeen-year-old Ethan Palmer is being taught an important lesson by his father. He has finally saved enough money for his dream car by teaching swimming at the local pool when an “accident” with his father’s Volvo and the garage sweeps it away. Desperate to make the money back, Ethan takes a job at a local diner and, in doing so, is introduced to a different method to make some quick cash, online gambling. Ethan quickly becomes caught up in gambling’s vicious cycles. He borrows and steals from friends and family hoping that his luck will change, but eventually he has to agree to do a favour for the lowlife Hornsby to get out of debt. That choice has devastating consequences for his family.

     Reading Aker’s Running on Empty is a stark reminder that things are not always what they seem. Neither the cover nor the title suggests the story within. Ethan Palmer is a 17-year-old who seems to live a privileged life. He lives in an upscale neighbourhood with his successful lawyer father and his younger sister. The opening chapters appear to be about a father teaching responsibility to a rebellious spoiled son, but, as readers learn more about Ethan’s life, they will discover generational layers of secrets and shame. Ethan adds to these secrets with his gambling addiction, but the ensuing crisis forces everything out into the open

     At first, I thought Running on Empty was going to be another “angry teen gets caught in the wrong crowd, learns a lesson” type of novel. I was wrong; Aker and his characters continually surprised me. I did exactly what Aker set me up to do; I made assumptions about Ethan and his life that didn’t play out. In the family home, there is a framed picture of “Ann Almighty”, Ethan’s nickname for his grandmother who Jack Palmer, his father, holds up as the model of virtue and values. When the truth is revealed about Ann, that she was an alcoholic prostitute, Ethan’s whole truth is reframed. Ethan is also forced to confront his memories of his mother and consider that they may be based in sentiment rather than in fact.

     Aker has crafted complex characters who, at times, are highly unlikable and often unpredictable. The issue of teen online gambling is an interesting backdrop to these characters, and Aker shows how Ethan gets easily and quickly caught up in possibility of winning. Running on Empty will also appeal to those readers who have an affinity to cars. The passion with which Ethan describes cars is incredibly accurate and detailed.

     While Running on Empty doesn’t have a clean or happy ending, it does conclude with a feeling of hope and redemption. Ethan ends the novel in a better place of understanding both of himself and his family. This novel is an engaging read that will connect to many different readers.


Karen Boyd is a doctoral candidate in language and literacy and an instructor in the Bachelor of Education program at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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