Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Ben Rehder Hits a Home Run With "The Driving Lesson"

Fourteen-year-old Charlie Dunbar adores his grandfather, Opa, and the feeling is mutual. When classes are dismissed on the last day of school for summer vacation, Charlie is surprised to find Opa outside waiting for him. The old  man wants Charlie to drive him to a doctor’s appointment. After expressing his reluctance because he didn’t have his learner’s permit yet, Charlie finally agrees to drive him. Before he realizes it, Opa has directed him to the interstate. With each mile travelled, Charlie becomes a little bit more nervous. Finally, after an eighteen wheeler rumbles up beside Opa’s car, Charlie asks how much further to the doctor’s office. That’s when Opa tells him that they were headed for Seattle.

Just a few days earlier, Charlie had overheard his parents talking about Opa. They mentioned hospice, an unfamiliar word to him. During a driving lesson with his father the following day, Charlie learns that Opa is terminally ill with cancer. Charlie knows instinctively that the doctor’s appointment in Seattle has something to do with Opa’s condition.

By the time Charlie and Opa reach Lubbock, Charlie is feeling comfortable behind the wheel. His mom has been leaving numerous, frantic voicemail messages on his phone, but Opa isn’t particularly concerned. When they get to Amarillo, Opa asks Charlie to stop at a motel. Once inside, Charlie confronts his grandfather and demands to know what is going on. Opa explains his choices in facing terminal cancer: do nothing, follow the doctor’s treatment plan, or take control of the situation and deal with his impending death on his own terms.

“All I wanted to do was spend some time with my favorite person in the world. That’s you,” Opa tells him. “The truth is sometimes none of your choices in life are good. Sometimes you’re faced with a terrible problem, and the only thing you can do is pick the least objectionable solution. Sucks, Huh? Believe me, I wish I had a fourth option, or ten more options, but I don’t.”

Before they leave Amarillo, Charlie and Opa visit Cadillac Ranch, a sprawling auto museum/junk yard for deceased cars. In Tucumcari, New Mexico, they stop at a local café for a bite of lunch and when Charlie glances at the television he does a double-take.

“It was so totally unexpected, like when you suddenly catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror, except you didn’t know there was a mirror there. . .that’s what was happening now, because there, on the TV screen, was a photo of me in my football uniform.”

By the time Opa and Charlie get to the west coast, they’ve ditched their credit cards and cell phones, disguised their appearances, visited the Grand Canyon, driven through the breathtakingly beautiful Kaibab National Forest, and had their car burgled. They have observed their own faces in every corner they’ve traversed—television news in motel rooms, cafes, and restaurants and splashed across newspapers at every convenience store.

Ben Rehder’s new young adult novella, The Driving Lesson, chronicles the cross-country journey of a young man and his grandfather. Like Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, it’s the road trip and the companion that elevate the story. While Rehder is best known for his Blanco County mystery series, The Driving Lesson shows his depth and breadth as a writer. He skillfully and with great sensitivity weaves a difficult subject—mortality and loss—into a heartwarming, poignant story filled with humor, hope, and love. This is a story that will have you shedding tears and cracking smiles at the same time. Although it is marketed as a young adult novel, The Driving Lesson is a compelling read that adults will also enjoy.

The Driving Lesson is available through Amazon in print, e-book, and audio editions. All of Rehder’s books, including his latest novel, The Chicken Hanger, are available on his web site at http://benrehder.wordpress.com/.

Appeared in the Boerne Star, January 1, 2010

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