When I first heard about Carrying Albert Home, I was intrigued. A story of a married couple setting off on a car journey with an alligator on the back seat caught my eye, and with the realisation that it is based on the true story of Hickam’s parents, my interest peaked. With that I settled down to read and embarked on an incredible journey with some unlikely passengers…
‘Then he said it again, this time low and slow. “Me…or…that…alligator.”
The novel begins by introducing Elsie Hickam and her unusual pet – a two-year old alligator by the name of Albert. It is clear from the start that Elsie is besotted with Albert. Referring to him as ‘her little boy’ she dotes on him, scratching his belly and allowing him to crawl onto her lap like a dog or cat whilst he grins and makes his ‘yeah-yeah-yeah happy sound’. However, whilst Elsie enjoys the company of Albert his presence causes Elsie’s husband Homer (senior) much irritation. The main factor in this is that Albert was an unusual wedding gift to Elsie from Buddy Ebsen, a former love interest of Elsie’s. As he was an aspiring actor and dancer, Elsie was captivated by him but eventually chose to settle in West Virginia with Homer rather than travelling with Buddy as he pursued his dreams. The fact that Albert is a constant reminder of Buddy – Homer’s nemesis – results in Homer issuing his wife with an ultimatum. Elsie was forced to choose between husband and alligator, and so Albert has to go.
“I’m just a common fellow trying to drive to Florida with a wife and an alligator and, temporarily, a writer. That’s all I am”
With the decision made for Albert to leave the couple embark on a journey to Florida to find a suitable place for Albert to live, to return him to his ‘home’ With this their remarkable journey begins and they encounter an interesting cast of characters along the way, some more dangerous than others. They meet authors Steinbeck and Hemingway, bank robbers and actors amongst many others, including a rooster who appears and re-appears whilst no-one seems to know why. Elsie and Homer’s seemingly straightforward mission to return an alligator to its natural habitat is broken up by their involvement in a series of bizarre – and often dangerous – scenarios. This made the story more exciting and also provided a lot of humour. These extreme scenarios that a married couple had unwittingly become embroiled in, all with Albert in tow in his bathtub with a rooster perched upon his head. I couldn’t help but smile!
“You think you know yourself completely. Yet, the paradox is that you are on this journey to discover who you really are.”
Carrying Albert Home is as the title proclaims a journey for Albert but it becomes so much more than that. This is also the story of a marriage and of a couple trying to discover what they want in life. There is a sense of resentment simmering beneath the surface. Homer and Elsie seem like very different people. Whilst Homer appears to long for a more simple life as a coal miner in a fixed abode, Elsie’s mind seems to stray elsewhere. This is perhaps a thought of what might have been had she chosen to follow Buddy all those years ago. This difference in personality is also evident throughout the journey as they meet new people and stumble across new challenges. With every new opportunity that arises Elsie declares it is what she has always wanted to do. Whether this is a nurse, a maid or an actress amongst others she throws herself into the task at hand. Ultimately, she must decide what she wants to do, and whether the love she has for Homer can stand the test of time.
“We did them all,” she said in a voice I had to strain to hear, “even when we didn’t.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Carrying Albert Home. It is a fantastical adventure of a story that whilst tinged with sadness is for the most part a charming, humorous tale. It is not clear how true the story is and which people we meet along the way were part of Homer, Elsie and Albert’s real life story but this doesn’t take away any of its magic. I love the idea that growing up Homer Junior and his brother would hear stories of Albert and his remarkable journey, and the fact that today a whole generation of readers can share that story. I feel a little sad to be leaving Albert behind, but reading about him made me happy, and as I was left picturing him – lying in the sun making his ‘yeah-yeah-yeah happy sound’ I smiled!
Carrying Albert Home is to be published on 19th November 2015 by Harper Collins. Many thanks to the team at Harper Collins for providing a copy for review.