“The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles

I had really liked one of Amor Towles earlier books, The Rules of Civility, so, of course, I had to check out his latest book, The Lincoln Highway, which has just been published. At close to 600 pages, the length of it is somewhat daunting, but of course, if a book is good, the length of the book is hardly an issue. (In fact, if I love a book, I wish it would go on forever!). While The Lincoln Highway did not fall in the “I wish it would go on forever” category for me, I found it a good read once I was a few chapters into it.

The story takes place in 1954 during the course of exactly 10 days with the setting being the Lincoln Highway, one of the earliest transcontinental highway routes in the US that runs coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The story centers around four main characters, three of whom were inmates together at a “work farm” – a juvenile detention facility of sorts – for various transgressions such as theft, arson, and involuntary manslaughter. There is Emmett, who has just been released after serving his sentence; and Woolly and Duchess, who still have some months left to serve on the work farm but have escaped by hiding in the trunk of the car that was being used to bring Emmett back to his home in Nebraska. The fourth main character in the novel is Emmett’s precocious younger brother, Billy. The original plan was for Emmett and Billy to drive to San Francisco via the Lincoln Highway – which runs quite close to their town in Nebraska – but thanks to Woolly and Duchess, they are forced to go to New York, which is at the other end of the Lincoln Highway.

Each of the ten days over the course of which the story unfolds is filled with lots of action and adventure happening to each of these four main characters, and it is told from their individual points of view. Some of these events include an impromptu visit to an orphanage, hitching a ride in a freight car, being almost robbed by a pastor, being rescued by a black man named Ulysses, who — reminiscent of the legendary Greek God, Ulysses – throws said pastor out of the train, spending some time at a homeless encampment in New York, going to the 44th floor of the Empire State building to find a famous author and actually meeting him there, an eventful visit to the circus, a paint job on Emmett’s car to prevent it from being detected by the police, breaking open a safe, and many, many more.  

In addition to the four main characters, there are some other folks who make a sporadic appearance in the book, and one of these secondary characters is Sally, who is the daughter of Emmett’s neighbor and is almost like a mother figure to Billy. (His own mother left home when he was little more than a baby, and his father has just died.) Not only does she cook and clean and keep house for her father, she also does the same for Billy and Emmett as often as she can, and I found the chapters told from her point of view – capturing her thoughts — the most poignant in the book. In particular, the section quoted below was so profound, I wanted to write this review mostly so that I could capture it. It is about why she still continues to make strawberry preserves from scratch when one can just go to the store and buy a bottle of jam:

So yes, the making of strawberry preserves is time-consuming, old-fashioned, and unnecessary.

Then, why, you might ask, do I bother to do it?

I do it because it’s time-consuming.

… 

I do it because it’s old-fashioned.

… 

I do it because it’s unnecessary.

For what is kindness but the performance of an act that is both beneficial to another and unrequired? There is no kindness in paying a bill. There is no kindness in getting up at dawn to slop the pigs, or milk the cows, or gather the eggs from the henhouse. For that matter, there is no kindness in making dinner, or in cleaning the kitchen after your father heads upstairs without so much as a word of thanks.

There is no kindness in latching the doors and turning out the lights, or in picking up the clothes from the bathroom floor in order to put them in the hamper. There is no kindness in taking care of a household because your older sister had the good sense to get herself married and move to Pensacola.

Nope, I said to myself while climbing into bed and switching off the light, there is no kindness in any of that.

For kindness begins where necessity ends.

I had never thought of this connection between kindness and unnecessariness before, but it is so true.

To me, the book was worth the read for this insight alone.

The Lincoln Highway
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: ‎ Viking
Publication Date: October 2021

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

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