The Camino Club by Kevin Craig (Duet Books, 2020), 280 pages.
This novel is utterly charming.
And in writing that sentence, I’ve now fully claimed my position as a Batty Elder. (I’ve recently turned 50, so I’m feeling sensitive, but I’ve been like this since I was about seventeen.) Excuse me while I remove my lace gloves and pour myself a cup of tea.
Despite my feelings about saying it, I’m going to say it again: this novel is charming. The story centers around the experience of six “bad kids” from Canada who, instead of being sent to juvie, are taken on a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain as an alternative penance for their teenage crimes (setting a small fire, stealing a car and the like). The group is a collection of boys and girls, queer and straight, privileged and not, all of whom have back stories to which the rest of the group—and the reader—are not immediately privy.
It’s a kind of Outward Bound experience, but with a path and little towns and hostels to stay in at night, a couple adult counselors and no ropes course. The walk is hard, sometimes uphill, be-blistering and tiring. By walking together, the theory goes, the kids will find themselves and form bonds of understanding and care with each other, and hopefully they’ll stop being such bad kids.
It seems to work. I mean, I’m not sure about the last part, but the bonding and understanding and caring happens. As the kids walk, their stories begin to take shape for each other (and the reader). Guards get dropped. Characters who first seem irredeemable become something new. Friendships and loyalties form. Kids figure themselves out. A few of them even fall in love. Along the way, the group picks up a lovely old fellow called Bastien who becomes for them some combination of tour guide, sage, friend and mascot.
This is something of a group bildungsroman, since it traces a coming-of-age for the six through a literal journey.
To help the story along, one gets occasional (required) journal entries, and each chapter is narrated by one of the kids (alternating between several of the voices). This affords the opportunity for quite a few points of view, both public and private, on the same situation. It’s quite a generous story in this way.
This novel did exactly what a good YA novel should do: it traced the coming-of-age from callow youth across difficulty and into a deepened perspective of one’s world and one’s place in it.
Perhaps one of the strongest points of this novel is how authentic and distinct the voices feel, even though there are several to juggle and the speakers are young. (As an aside, this is in large part why I’m cautious about the YA I read—too often, young adult characters’ voices aren’t quite right, being written, as these novels almost always are, by an adult remembering/imagining such a point of view. Not so here—the voices feel genuine.) Traumas feel neither overblown in that teenaged Everything Is Awful way nor diminished by an ironic adult perspective. Wonderment and happiness, the same. It all feels, in a word, authentic.
I realize now that I’ve actually given two one-word sums. So let me get back to my original word: charming. The novel made me want to go to see the Camino de Santiago and all the little towns and people on the way. It all seemed so charming. The novel also made me want to hang out with Bastien, who seems unavoidably charming. Though difficulties are real here, nothing gets too hot to touch, and everything gets worked through in the end. One is left feeling delighted, feeling entranced, feeling lured in and well pleased by the experience of the story. A little sobby inside, a little in love. Charmed.