To Right, Boy is a classic New Zealand road trip story. Old Harry hasn’t enjoyed the best of reputations; a former foreign correspondent with a love of whisky and gambling, he sets out to redeem himself by taking his grandson, Brad, on a road trip while Brad’s parents are on an enforced leave of absence. He attempts to take good care of the boy, while imparting some much needed character training. Despite Harry’s best intentions, the road trip only confirms the parents’ worst fears. But in the end, a lesson lived is a lesson learned, and the road trip goes a long way to exorcising familiar demons.
SHIH Village Books
Supplied by SHIH Village Books
Reviewed by Lee
Who doesn’t love a road trip? From New Zealand’s iconic 1981 film Goodbye Pork Pie (with its remake due out next month), to this summer’s Air New Zealand safety video, road trips are all about fun, discovery, and that unexpected edge of danger. So, when Too Right, Boy, a book about a man and his grandson taking a road trip through New Zealand came across my desk, I was eager to read it. On that score, Too Right, Boy doesn’t disappoint with Chamberlain capturing the essence of the New Zealand’s landscape, with sharp too-real imagery that every Kiwi can identify: the “woof woof” of the bellbird’s wings as it explodes from high up in a tree, “the mile-long queue of cars” backed up in the Karangahake Gorge, and “plastic bales of hay stacked in the paddocks like lime-green Oddfellows”.
Where else but New Zealand can you see a pig snorting and fuming in the car boot (trunk), while being carried to the butcher on the motorway? Where else can you ride brumbies on the beach, and put up your tent above the dunes?
It’s not all fun and good humour, though. On Harry and Brad’s journey there are corrugated iron projectiles to avoid, flooded rivers to ford, and some tense altercations with roadsters. I loved that the road trip takes the pair to coastal towns like Waihi, Katikati, Tauranga…places I’m familiar with and can readily visualise. Not only that, the book is chock-full of delicious road trip ‘food porn’ with oysters shucked from their shells, fish filets rubbed in butter and flour and sizzled over a fire, fish and chips eaten on the beach, roast dinners enjoyed in roadside pubs, and scones reheated and smeared with cream and jam in a Waihi carpark.
But there is a deeper story to this road trip. Twelve-year-old Brad, molly-coddled to the nth degree by his understandably overprotective mother, is desperate to break out and find a bit of independence, so he stows away on his grandfather’s campervan, strapping his surfboard to the undercarriage of the vehicle. Brad’s mother, Sheryl, will never allow it, but a timely accident means she can’t protest, so Brad and Harry get the go-ahead to carry on with their character-building trip. Author, MO Chamberlain, has nailed the voice of the adolescent, imbuing Brad with all the anxiety and exuberance you would expect in a boy of his age. Brad is smart too, smart enough to know to keep quiet when a question might get him into trouble, and how to secretly download porn to his iPad.
However, the story’s key protagonist, Brad’s grandfather Harry, is somewhat of a paradox and for most of the book, I really had to struggle to like him. At 84, former journalist Harry, is both irreverent and religious. While I loved his Kiwi can-do approach to life, his raw appreciation for New Zealand’s wild places, and his need to right certain wrongs, some of Harry’s attitudes are not only out-dated, they’re strongly bigoted. “What happens if we run into some wild Maori along the coast? How are we gunna make a run for it?” he says, before they pair set out on one excursion, as if the local people are to be feared. His views about women are not any better. Every female Harry encounters is either an aggressive sexual fatale to be avoided ‒ this includes free-spirited 14-year-olds right up to well-meaning 80-year-old Vera, who bakes them cookies and drives all night to rescue them ‒ or, if they’re “good girls” they’re probably nagging and oppressive, like Brad’s mother Sheryl. Even Harry’s beloved wife Mary, three years dead, doesn’t escape his criticism:
“Mary would never have allowed that.”
“Harry could feel Mary was there, sitting across from him, and he knew she didn’t approve.”
“…the woman was still here goading him”.
Ultimately though, where his grandson is concerned, Harry’s heart is in the right place, and the pair establish a deep bond, the quintessential element of any good road trip story. With comradery, hairy moments and some deeper reflection, Chamberlain’s Too Right, Boy is exactly what readers expect from a road trip story. An engaging Kiwi read.
Lee Murray is an award-winning writer and editor. A six time-winner of the Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction, fantasy and horror, she holds an Australian Shadows Award (with Dan Rabarts) for Best Edited Work for the charity flash fiction horror collection, Baby Teeth.