Packing his family into two RVs, Mike Leonard, a feature reporter for NBC’s Today Show, went on a cross-country road trip. The trip resulted in a four-part series on the Today Show, this book, and a family reconnecting with its past and with future generations. Starting from Scottsdale, the home of Mike’s retired parents, it ended two weeks later in Chicago. In Chicago Marge and Jack Leonard, Mike’s parents, became great-grandparents.
The book is a combination of nostalgia, oral history, family history, national history, and pop culture history. The combinations and conflicts between the various histories make the book a fascinating artifact. Jack and Marge represent two opposite personalities, Marge’s pessimism and Jack’s optimism. Jack sometimes threatened to derail the entire trip by talking people’s ears off. Mike characterizes the long monologues in defense of the ordinary man “The Bleeding Heart Express.”
Jack’s propensity to leaven the mood with obscure songs interests his grandson, who tells them about Puff Daddy. As is typical when multiple generations clash over their musical tastes, hilarity ensues. Throughout the book, Mike combines the present-day experiences of the road trip with stories of his mother and father.
One of the more intriguing episodes occurred when the family visited the Biltmore Estate, the largest private residence in the United States. Jack’s mother, Annie, had emigrated from Ireland and worked as a domestic for a wealthy New Jersey family. When asked about the Depression and the rash of suicides associated with the period, Jack says, “For them [the rich] it was more about losing face than losing money. … There should be no shame in going broke. The dishonor comes from getting rich … if you do it the wrong way, if you take advantage of other people.” They are words of wisdom from a man who endured more than his fair share of ups and downs.
The greatest irony is that Mike Leonard comes across as the least likable character of the bunch. The fault does not originate in the content so much as the delivery. Leonard excels at capturing the little moments of humor and pathos during the journey. He characterizes himself with a brand of self-deprecatory humor that leavens a book otherwise destined for wooden self-seriousness. The humor lightens the mood, since the literature about the Greatest Generation and the Boomer Generation sometimes devolves into hagiography and misplaced reverence. This reviewer contends that he overdid the self-depreciation shtick. Every so often, a humorous remark aimed at his personal failings would have vastly improved the book, but he laid it on thick. Instead, it came across as a warped vanity.
All in all, The Ride of Our Lives offered a quick look into the interactions of multiple generations. The personal stories fed into the grander narrative of American history.
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Date of Publication: 2006
Price: $24.95 ($34.95 Canada)
ISBN Number: 0-345-48148-8