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Book review: "Breakfast at the Exit Cafe"

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Though Canadian writers Merilyn Simonds and Wayne Grady live near the border in Kingston, Ontario neither of them had traveled in the United States. A long road trip seemed an excellent way to explore the landscape and attitudes of their southern neighbor. Betsy Kepes has this review of their new book, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

On the way home from a December writing workshop in Vancouver, Simonds and Grady decide to dip south and cross the continent near the Gulf of Mexico, rather than through the windswept Canadian prairies. They’re interested in birds and books and the elusive “typical American.” Their prose is chatty and thoughtful, and often funny. Breakfast at the Exit Cafe includes an engaging travelogue, bits of regional American history and plenty of reflection on how America differs from Canada.

Initially Simonds and Grady aren’t expecting to find a warm welcome. Grady writes that he’s always thought of America as “an annoying and dangerous mixture of arrogance and ignorance.” Simonds remembers the shame of being mistaken for an American when her family lived in Brazil. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said about Americans, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or even-tempered the beast… one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

It is raining at the beginning of their trip when they drive through Washington and Oregon. Big greasy breakfasts at roadside cafés and a couple of good independent bookstores cheer them up. Nothing feels foreign yet, except the proliferation of little roadside shacks that sell coffee.

As refugees from harsh Canadian winter weather, they are completely unprepared when they find themselves caught in a blizzard while driving on a mountain road in Utah. After a deer runs into their car they limp into a motel parking lot, check in, and wait out the storm. They exchange their story with other travelers and Simonds writes, “I feel a strange kind of pride. We’ve become reckless, like Americans.”

They linger in New Mexico, where to them the dry landscape is beautiful and exotic. Grady writes, “It’s the strangeness a traveler yearns for.”  Texas, however, is a place of long empty roads and lots of guns. Simonds writes, “I’m Canadian: guns aren’t part of my conversational repertoire. Even pictures of them make me uneasy.”

In the Deep South Simonds loves the elegance of the old hotels they stay in but Grady can’t feel comfortable. He recently discovered that his father’s parents were listed in the records as “colored” and that his ancestors came north to Canada from the States in the 1880’s. At a parade in honor of Martin Luther King, Junior in Jackson, Mississippi,  Simonds claps and cheers for the bands and dancers. It is only after the event is over that she notices she and Grady are the only light-skinned people there.

As the trip goes on Grady and Simonds make fewer sweeping generalizations about Americans, though Simonds does have a funny line when she is frustrated that Grady won’t help her choose the route on their way back north. She writes: “In Wayne’s world, it’s either his way or my way. I want us to talk about it and make it our way. He just wants to head off into the storm, like Daniel Boone. That’s when it comes to me. Women are from Canada. Men are from the States.”

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