I've made my share of long road trips with dogs, yet it seems all of mine were tied to moving. There was Seattle to Missoula, which barely classifies as "long," but I remember it fondly: Pepper, my black lab, seated beside me in my Mazda pickup, me trying not to laugh out loud so as not to spoil his repeated near tip-overs as he dozed upright in the sun. Then there was my big, goofy shepherd-retriever cross, Bernard, who helped me make the move to Ohio, then back again to Missoula. Finally, Darla, Orly and Velcro—three Jack Russells—accompanied me and my wife-to-be from Tucson to Missoula, with Darla and Orly spending most of that trip sleeping on the dashboard of our Budget rental truck.
All of those dogs but Darla are gone now, and I have to admit I faced cracking open Annick Smith's new memoir, Crossing the Plains with Bruno, with some trepidation. Bruno is the anvil-headed chocolate lab who serves as sidekick to Smith, and I feared, as in so many such books, he wouldn't survive the trip for whatever reason. Thankfully, in her preface, Smith tells us Bruno is gone now but lived a number of years beyond the two weeks described in this heartfelt book. It is still sad to hear of his passing, but knowing made it easier to turn the pages.
The trip—a drive from Montana to Chicago to visit her 97-year-old mother—is the framework Smith uses to tell a moving story of her past. Bruno is the thread that grounds her to the present, his needs keeping her from living the entire journey in her head.
Smith has lived an interesting life. She's been in western Montana since 1964. Widowed early, she struggled to raise four boys alone. She did so without ever getting a "real" job, though not without regrets. She's known for her filmmaking, as the producer of Heartland and co-producer of A River Runs Through It, as well as a founding member of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. She's also recognized for writing projects, most notably as a co-editor of The Last Best Place anthology but also for her essays and travel pieces in journals like Audubon and Outside. Her skillful writing keeps this book compelling—her calm tone describes a personal history that has been anything but uncomplicated. We learn that her history, and that of her family, has been rife with its share of tragedies, betrayals and redemptions of varying degrees.
On the way to Chicago, Smith uses her proximity to De Smet, S.D., the site of the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, to offer historical trivia about immigration as it relates to her own family's Hungarian Jewish roots. Once she reaches the Windy City, though, it is her description of The Breakers, a skyscraper off the shore of Lake Michigan where Smith's mother lives, that particularly struck me. Smith describes it as "an apartment residence for old people who are able to care for themselves or hire their own help." She later refers to it as a "warehouse for the elderly" as she reflects on why it disturbs her so much to visit there. The idea of such a facility disturbed me too. "Care for themselves" or not, it remains essentially an assisted-living home for the wealthy. What would happen if some kind of disaster struck these people, moneyed or not, stacked up 34-stories high? I was happy for the trip to leave the place behind. Yet here I am, still thinking about it, unnerved.
It's important to note that Crossing the Plains with Bruno isn't any sort of "woman and her dog" adventure story. Bruno is one character in the narrative, but the book is pure memoir with a larger scope. If, as a reader, you aren't inclined to know about the inner failings and hidden dramas of someone else's family life, this probably isn't for you. I'm a private person, and sometimes memoir can make me a little uncomfortable. Smith's certainly did. But it also made me reflect on my own life and consider potential pitfalls that may loom in the future. That is when memoir is at its best. To read and wonder, "What would I have done? What would I do?" is better than asking, "Who the hell would do that?!"
Ultimately, Crossing the Plains succeeds because of Smith's storytelling expertise. Painful anecdotes or not, she does a fantastic job of weaving all the elements together so the moments pulled from memory don't distract from the events happening with Bruno beside her. As for Bruno, we should all be so lucky to have such a worthy travel companion accompany us as we go down the road.
Annick Smith reads from Crossing the Plains with Bruno at Fact & Fiction Wed., Oct. 21, at 7 PM.