In 1954, Emmett Watson returns home from a prison work camp, after serving time for assault. When he returns home to his deceased father’s farm, he finds the property out of shape and creditors at the door. Desperate to make a new life for himself and his little brother, Billy, Emmett decides to leave Nebraska behind. Billy is determined to go to California, after finding postcards from their estranged mother than indicate she has settled there, and he convinces Emmett to drive there by way of The Lincoln Highway, the first cross-country highway in America. But of course, things don’t go as expected and both Emmett and Billy end up having an entirely different adventure than the one they initially planned, with train-jumping transients, a life-changing book, and two waylaid criminals along the way!
The Lincoln Highway is captivating and utterly compelling, telling the story of two brothers, abandoned by their parents, who are determined to start a new life together. Young Billy is an utter gem, with his love for books (one book in particular) and his genuine trust in humanity making him an immediate fan favorite. The characters on Towles’ “Highway” are so desperately flawed, with genuine intentions, that there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. The fact that three of the characters are ex-convicts doesn’t even make a dent in their personalities, as I loved them because of their backgrounds, and in spite of them.
The chapters are labeled backwards, from ten to one, because, as Billy says, “all good stories start in the middle”. The story is told chronologically though, so the story flows easily. Emmett is the primary narrator for the story, although we do hear from Duchess, Woolly and a few other travelers who the brothers meet along their journey. Woolly’s heartbreaking story (and tragic ending) has enough emotional horsepower for its own novel, but his innocent and trusting relationships with the other characters add to his charm. Even with a heartbreaking ending, the humanity within Towles’ pages will leave an indelible mark.
Towles’ novel is a non-stop page turner from the beginning, and it is compulsively readable. Unique and creative with sympathetic, human characters, “Highway” is one of those novels that will stay with you long after the last page.