About halfway through John Grogan’s affecting and honest memoir The Longest Trip Home, I could feel a strange tightness in my throat beginning to build. I didn’t need to analyze what it was — I knew what was bound to happen. I knew the story could not have an inherently happy ending. But, like Grogan’s story itself, the goal isn’t necessarily about the happiest of endings — it’s all about the journey.
In a phenomenal example of a memoir reading as quickly, briskly and amusingly as fiction, The Longest Trip Home is Grogan’s story of growing up in a strictly Catholic home in Michigan with his mom and dad and older brothers and sister. If you’ve read Grogan’s stellar Marley & Me, consider this the “prequel” — this is everything leading up to where Marley picks up Grogan’s life as a newlywed. For the last few chapters, Marley and The Longest Trip Home cover the same ground — albeit from very different perspectives. But both explore the ending of a well-lived life.
This is a story of many things — relationships with parents, friends, siblings and lovers; aging, deterioration and changing attitudes that accompany growing older; rebelliousness and the need to sometimes fight against the wishes of our parents; growing up and moving on; forging a new identity that has nothing to do with our upbringing; family constituting more than blood . . . and faith.
Largely, this is a book about faith. Richard and Ruth Grogan are staunch, “old school” Catholics who attend mass daily, lead religious organizations in their communities, take family vacations to religious sites where the Virgin Mary is believed to have been sighted and cry after receiving the Eucharist. Growing up in a Catholic family, I noted wryly many of the traditions I’ve witnessed myself over the years, grimacing at points as Grogan began to slowly slip away from the faith his parents embraced so firmly. John notes, at one point, that his father considered himself a Catholic above all else — a Catholic, then a husband, father, son, etc. Mr. and Mrs. Grogan weren’t necessarily defined by their faith — they were their faith.
As John enters his teenager years, makes friends with a few rebellious but kind-hearted boys in the neighborhood and spends more and more time fantasizing about women (and the nuns of his Catholic school) than praying the rosary, his parents begin to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with their youngest child. John stops attending mass regularly, smokes with his friends and loses his virginity — all “secrets” he guards, keeping them away from his parents’ attention in an effort to protect them. Despite his rebellious attitudes, he still can’t stand to disappoint them. Even as a thirty-year-old living hundreds of miles from home, Grogan can’t bring himself to tell them news they don’t want to hear.
What makes The Longest Trip Home so powerful is Grogan’s frank, honest storytelling — as a reader, I got the sense that there was little he wouldn’t share if asked. Now a father of three (including two teenage boys), Grogan reflects upon his own relationships with his mother and father, examining how and why he began to lose track of the religion that meant so much to them.
But this book isn’t about religion as it is about how religion can alter, change and come to define relationships. Despite the growing rift in their beliefs, John loves his parents fiercely and unconditionally — often choosing to leave out important details of his new life with girlfriend (and later wife) Jenny in order to spare them the heartache of his behavior contradicting their religious convictions. But over the course of his lifetime, all these little omissions and lies begin to pile up until, at one of the most heartbreaking moments of the book, John is forced to acknowledge a truth Mr. and Mrs. Grogan steadfastly refused to see.
By the close of the book, I was gulping for cool night air while trying to steady myself. John may not have lived his life precisely the way his parents would have wanted him to, but there was certainly no doubt how proud they were of him. By the time his father’s death in 2004, Marley & Me had already become a bestselling novel. Thank goodness Mr. Grogan was able to share in his youngest son’s great success.
There’s an indefinable quality that made The Longest Trip Home one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time — something real. I think it has to do with authenticity — about honest and sincere acknowledgement of differences, and the opportunity to see past them. This is a book about family — and this is a book about unconditional love.
And I loved it.
5 out of 5!