On the Primitive Way (★★★★☆)

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Landon Roussel  *  Communitas Press  *  November 29, 2015  *  228 Pages

On the Primitive Way is the true story of two brothers who decide to walk the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), a long and grueling trail that winds through Spain. Author Landon Roussel and his brother, Cory, aren’t on the best terms. In fact, though they have never been close (to say the least), their relationship is especially distant since Cory has just been released from federal prison after a long stint served for attempting to sneak immigrants over the Mexican/US border. Despite their lack of connection, however, the brothers commit to hiking the trail, and, inevitably, the experience brings them closer together.

This book is well-written. Roussel alternates between describing the trail and then describing what it was like growing up with Cory. The memories he shares are unique, interesting, and well-presented. I’ve read several “hiking the trail” memoirs lately, and this one certainly has its own twists and turns that set it apart from the rest. For the most part, I really enjoyed the story. It could get tedious, at times, with the daily-life play-by-play (e.g., here’s how we booked our plane tickets, here’s how we coordinated our travel times, etc.), but it definitely kept my attention.

Still, I do have a minor gripe. The more I read this memoir, the more it became clear to me that a big chunk of this story is missing. Cory exists in this book…but also kind of doesn’t. Even after reading so much about him, I felt like I never KNEW the man, you know? I started this book thinking I’d get to know BOTH brothers as they got to know each other, but I finished the book understanding that this memoir isn’t about a relationship. It’s about Roussel’s fear. On the surface, it’s about his fear of and for his brother, but I can’t help but wonder if there is more to it than that.

I really wish Roussel had talked more about his family life growing up. I could tell right away that there were some unhealthy dynamics there. It seemed like over and over again the family would just shut down and go silent when there was conflict, emotion, or even minor disagreements. Anxiety is a major player in this story, but it’s rarely acknowledged. There’s a lot of tiptoeing around feelings–which means, on some level, everyone knows something is going on–but emotions are never deeply talked about. It all stays weirdly superficial.

Ultimately, I am glad for Roussel that he was able to take this trip before his brother was (SPOILER ALERT) unexpectedly killed. It sounds like the trip was healing in many ways, and that’s always a good thing. But I also still wanted more from this traumatic and complicated story. I wanted Cory’s side. I wanted to understand the genesis of HIS pain–especially since, I suspect, the author may share a bit of that, too. The pain that lies beneath his brother’s addiction–that’s what I’m curious about.

At any rate, this was an engaging read and well worth a few hours of reading time. My fingers are crossed that Roussel will give us a second book that digs a little bit more deeply into his own feelings about his family and past.

2 thoughts

  1. It sounds like the story would have benefited from alternating viewpoints or streams of consciousness between the two. But I guess that call for more fiction than memoir — a gain in narrative texture but at the cost of the writer’s intent.

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  2. I definitely think alternating perspectives would have made the book more interesting. It would have been nice if the author had been capable of knowing his brother’s perspective well enough to provide a fictional-but-still-realistic-ish account. But I don’t think he does understand his brother well enough to pull off something like that. And even if he did, you are right, it would still be fiction. Probably not what Roussel was going for anyway…

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