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On the Road Again

By Caroline Preston
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

FOLLOW ME

By Joanna Scott

Little, Brown. 420 pp. $24.99

Who of us hasn't indulged in the daydream of running away and reinventing ourselves? Just slam the door on that messy household, wander down the road and start fresh with a new identity in a white-walled studio apartment. Even if we aren't brave enough, or foolish enough, to chuck it all, we're drawn to fictional characters who have -- from Hawthorne's Wakefield to Ann Tyler's fugitive housewife.

In her lyrical new novel, "Follow Me," Joanna Scott traces the meandering path of a runaway girl from place to place, name to name, starting as 16-year-old Sally Werner in 1947 rural Pennsylvania. Her saga begins with an innocent motorcycle ride with an older cousin at a church picnic, which results in a baby son and rejection by her fundamentalist parents. She decides her only option is escape, following the Tuskee River that snakes across the Werners' back fields. "Running, running, running, because that's what a girl does who has left her baby in a basket on top of the kitchen table, like a pile of fresh-baked biscuits. . . . How many lives start over this way, by putting one foot in front of the other?"

Over the next four decades, she washes up in towns farther along the Tuskee, surviving on the kindness of strangers -- a bundle of cash from an elderly farmer, a free bed from a lush, a typist job from a lawyer who has a crush on her. But every time Sally catches a glimpse of security and happiness, tragedy strikes, usually at the hand of a man: A lover is killed in an accident, the father of her second child nearly beats her to death, and Sally is off again. Her many reincarnations are pieced together years later by her granddaughter and a man who believes he is the infant that Sally abandoned.

Scott, whose previous novels have been finalists for both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner awards, excels in her stream-of-consciousness descriptions of the mysterious Tuskee that provides Sally's true north: "a young woman without oars in a boat turning around and around on a warm day sun on your face on the river your river like home if you had a home." Ultimately, though, the metaphor overwhelms the story of the woman herself, Sally Werner Angel Mole Bliss, who had "traveled the length of the Tuskee River and no farther."

Preston's most recent novel is "Gatsby's Girl."

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