Journey by Patricia MacLachlan (1991)

Journey by Patricia MacLachlan

Journey is a middle grade novel by American author Patricia MacLachlan (1938-2022). MacLachlan was a prolific author and published over 60 novels, eventually collaborating with her daughter. People may know her best for Sarah, Plain and Tall which won the 1986 Newbery Medal.

She won it again for Journey, a slim paperback of just 80 pages which again covers the difficulty of dealing with the loss of a mother.

Patricia MacLachlan’s final book was Snow Horses: A First Night Story, published in 2022, the year she died.

Journey was very popular for a time and in 1995 was adapted by Hallmark into a made-for-TV movie. Confusingly, the director is Tom McLoughlin, obviously no relation!

Journey and his grandfather Marcus have to come to terms with each other’s reactions to the loss when Journey’s mother, Min, decides to leave Journey and his sister Cat to be looked after by their grandparents.

 The author’s clipped dialogue and meticulously pared-down descriptions convey a deceptive simplicity—there are deep, intricate rumblings beneath the surface calm of MacLachlan’s words. 

Publisher’s Weekly

The wise older man assures Journey that he is not to blame for his mama’s departure, and shares a truth that is at the heart of the novel: although everything in life—from photographs to families–is not perfect, “things can be good enough.” 

Publisher’s Weekly

Journey searches photographs for answers. He hunts family resemblances in Grandma’s albums. Looking for happier times, he tries to put together the torn pieces of the pictures his mother shredded before her departure. And he also searches the photographs his grandfather takes as the older man attempts to provide Journey with a past. In the process, the boy learns to look and finds that, for him, the camera is a means of finding things his naked eye has missed—things like inevitability of his mother’s departure and the love that still binds his family.

Barnes and Noble marketing copy



Journey recalls the last time he saw his mother. She said goodbye in the barn, promising to be back, leaving Journey and his older sister Cat in the care of their grandparents. But Journey’s grandfather knew his daughter would be gone forever, and expressed this to his grandson.


This prologue opens the first person narrative, and lets us know that some time has elapsed between the events of the story—when Journey was just 11 years old —and his retelling of it. We can see from the cover art that the car is from the first half of the 20th century.

When Journey hits his grandfather for telling him the truth (we assume), we know we’re dealing with an imperfect, flawed character. Flawed characters are always more relatable and interesting.

The prologue also lets us know what season it is. Set on a rural farm, seasons are important to the cycle of harvest, but also symbolically significant in a human life. It is the end of summer, ‘before spring crashed into our hillside with explosions of mountain laurel, before summer came with the soft slap of the screen door, breathless nights and mildew on the books’. Note the violence contained in that description.

Deep down, Journey already knows he won’t be seeing his mother again, and compares her to an angel, with the way light falls on her hair. At this point in the ‘journey’, he idolises his mother, doesn’t see her as a flawed human being.


Journey is quietly looking at some family photos while his big sister decides she’s had enough of everything—she isn’t good at photography and she’s going to give it up! Also become vegetarian! So Grandpa gives the camera to Journey instead, who isn’t sure what to do with it.

Cat and Journey’s father took off when they were very young. The siblings have a single photograph of him, but a photograph is a poor stand-in for a real human.

When Grandma puts on the mother’s left-behind sweater, Grandpa takes a photo of Grandma, Cat and Journey together. When Journey sees the photograph later he is startled to see how angry he looks even as the other two look fine.


Grandpa Grumps re-establishes himself in the reader’s mind as a man who speaks his truth, or The Truth, when he tells his own grand-daughter that her photos are “boring”. When Journey describes him as ‘tall and blunt’, the bluntness may refer to his physique, but definitely refers to his manner.

But instead of dividing the siblings, the grandfather’s bluntness towards Cat brings them closer together. Journey is angry on Cat’s behalf that she was insulted by their grandfather.

What about the grandmother? Typically when we think of a grandmother we think of elderly women with white hair and walking sticks, but this grandmother is young enough to remind Journey of his mother, to wear her daughter’s sweater, to have long-enough hair to fall a certain way. It’s likely this grandmother is in her forties or perhaps her early fifties. In the film adaptation she was played by Brenda Blethyn, who was in her late forties during filming.

Although this story is about the prepubescent brother, and although it is Journey who seems to be having all the main issues with the departure of their mother, Cat is clearly having a hard time of it, too. She realises her life will never be the same again, so she deals with it in the only way she knows how: She decides to roll with it, giving up everything she loves. While vegetarianism is a perfectly fine way to eat under well-researched and considered circumstances, if I were her grandparent I’d worry that Cat is about to set off on a journey of disordered eating. (We are frequently reminded that restrictive eating is a ‘means of taking control’, though in reality, eating disorders are extremely complex and their etiology is complex, too.)

There’s a gendered nature to dealing with hard things. Boys and men are expected to be angry, whereas girls and women are expected to remain polite and friendly and attractive at all times.


A “letter” arrives from Lyddie, the absent mother and sits on the table “like a dropped apple”. Older sister Cat immediately knows that the envelope will contain money, not a letter. She gives her portion to Journey, who plans to put it in the back as a travel fund so they can visit their mother as soon as she “remembers” to include a return address.

Grandpa takes a photo of Journey in his disappointment and this annoys Journey.

Later, on a sunny day, Grandma brings Journey a bowl of soup. She has also brought a photo album. Together they look through it. By the time Journey eats the soup, the soup is cold.


When a character is constantly recording life via camera, TV Tropes calls this the Camera Fiend Trope.

That Cat knows what the envelope contains shows extraordinary understanding on her part. Unlike Journey, Cat has already recalibrated her expectations of Lyddie.

The letter as ‘dropped apple’ simile is perfect because it’s within the realm of the first person speaker, Journey. There’s also something rotten about it, promising good health and deliciousness, but the family is loathe to touch it.

After the kitchen scene with the envelope of money there’s a double carriage return, and the author describes a lily-of-the-valley plant outside an open window, mingling with the smell of lilac. Extending the idea of the dropped apple, a lily-of-the-valley plant looks pretty but if you happen to eat the berries you’re poisoned. (This feature is utilised in AMC’s hit TV series Breaking Bad in the storyline involving Brock.)

So once again we have something which looks promising but has an unpleasant or dangerous reality to it. Journey will learn that promising things have two sides to them, including his own mother. The cultural ideal of the mother promises care and nurturing, but not everyone gets one of those mothers. Some children must somehow learn to deal with the reality that not all women can be motherly.

Sometimes pictures show us what is really there.

Journey by Patricia MacLachlan

As the grandmother shows Journey the family photos, she’s doing more than just showing him family history. “The camera knows.” This is her message. Cameras don’t lie. This book was written before the proliferation of Photoshop, and a long time before the release of Stable Diffusion, so the message of ‘photos don’t lie’ is a feature of the last century.

In the family photos, Lyddie, Journey’s mother, looks as if she’d rather be somewhere else, and now she is. It has been painful to look through the album, and the emotional valence of this scene changes from neutral to negative. Photos can never substitute for a real mother. We have learned via a recollected memory that Journey has always wished for his emotionally unavailable mother. Even when she was physically present, she wasn’t mothering him.


Journey’s friend Cooper appears through the window holding his baby brother, Emmett. Cooper has long been infatuated with Journey’s sister Cat. Together they discuss family similarities, spurred by the resemblance between Cooper and his new little brother. Cat knows she looks like their grandmother. Journey takes an accidental photograph of his grandfather and is startled by the revelation, aided by the photo album, that he resembles their grandfather.


So far this novel has been very ‘ekphrastic’. Ekphrasis is a Greek word which describes when authors describe still images such as paintings. The descriptions become artworks in their own right. Modern audiences have little time for this form of art, but before visual images proliferated, there was a much bigger appetite for hearing a description of a painting you’d never see.

Earlier we heard that ‘sometimes pictures show us what is really there’, but in this chapter Journey has a minor revelation:

Things don’t look the same through the camera. Not the way they are in real life.

Journey, in Journey by Patricia MacLachlan

Regarding the best friend Cooper, it’s great to see an example of a boy who is besotted with his younger sibling and caring for a baby in an unironic way. I feel that writing a boy who loves to take care of a baby is a typically 1980s feminist act, as 1980s boys were not allowed to play with dolls or dollhouses or even tea sets without sexist repercussions. Cooper ‘knows not to ask questions’ about Journey and Cat’s absent mother, which paints him as an empathetic character all round.


It is the hottest day of the year. June. Grandpa requires Journey to drive him and Cat in to town to do errands. Journey protests that he is ‘only a little boy’ but the grandfather reminds him he’ll be dead one day. The grandfather compliments his wife and takes her photo. A plane flies overhead and the camera snaps a group shot of them all looking up at the sky.

1995 movie tie-in book cover. The car suggests this is set in the early 20th century but the car is a vintage model within the world of this story. The story is set in the 1980s.

Modern readers may wonder why the grandfather requires his eleven-year-old grandson to learn to drive when Cat is older, and therefore closer to being ready to drive than her younger brother is. Ostensibly Journey feels the grandfather wants him to take the wheel so he is freed up to take photos. But when the grandfather reminded Journey he won’t be around forever, the subtext is that, as ‘man’ of the house, it will be Journey’s job to look after his grandmother and sister. He must hurry up and become a man.

Headship is the historical default, though you’ll still see it upheld by Evangelical Christians today. Men and women are believed ‘complementary’, but because there are only two people in a monogamous Christian marriage, someone has to make the final decision wherever there’s disagreement, and that person must be the man. Evangelical Christians will rarely say this last part out loud, but the arrangement is thought to be divine order. God is very strongly gendered, as a man. Wives, by extension, are to submit to their husbands as they do to the Lord. Unlike in, say, Catholicism, which has a lot to say about mothers (with talk around the Virgin Mary), Evangelical American Christianity says very little about mothers (or Mary). Women and mothers are invisibilised. Only men hold authority in churches, which routinely instruct men not to abuse their domestic power, instructing them on how to be good husbands in the eyes of the male-led church. But of course it is all too easy to use power for evil and there will always be some who do. I would argue that this system of complementarianism is inherently flawed, no matter the good intentions of the husband, because when a woman’s opinion is worth less than her partner’s, this is infantilizing. It is in fact a form of servitude, which is on the slavery continuum.

Alongside any sexist thing which affects women and girls the worst, there are also negative consequences for men and boys. In this case, young Journey does not want that responsibility heaped upon him. He wants to be allowed to remain a child, but because of his gender, he’s having that right stripped away from him. When the grandfather counts down, this is the author drawing our attention to the end of Journey’s childhood. Laughing in the back seat with the escape of story books for comfort, Cat is allowed to remain a child for longer — forever, in fact, if she were to find her adult self living under the ideals of headship as demonstrated by her grandfather.


Seasons change and the rain comes. Grandpa continues to take many candid shots around the house, annoying Grandma. Journey also takes blurry shots and considers them bad, but his grandfather says they’re great. In the barn, Grandpa has a sit down chat with Journey and tells him that his mother leaving is not his fault. He also informs Journey that the few photographs taken of his father were torn up by his mother. None survive.


With emphasis on the seasons at the beginning of every chapter, it’s clear that the changing of the seasons symbolically map onto the character arc of adolescent Journey himself. He is now emerging out of the sunniness of childhood into a more difficult stage of life, but not too difficult yet. Just a light mist of rain. He remains protected by his grandparents.

But he’s had some more hopes dashed. He’d been hoping to find a photograph of his father, but his grandfather tells him he won’t.


Cat rouses Journey from his bed, where he has been introspecting. Grandma appears and talks about how people process hard things differently. “Cat is a woman of action”, and so is Grandma. She has doubled the size of the garden. And Grandpa takes pictures.


Journey’s life lesson in this chapter: He is not alone in his grief about the absent Lyddie. Everyone in the household has lost her. Not just him. He also comes to the realisation that we are sometimes angry at the wrong person.

Alongside the symbolism of the seasons we have Grandma’s garden. Gardens grow in cycles, reminding us that life will go on. A bad crop this year? Next year will likely be better. At least, that’s the story we tell ourselves to keep on going.

Note that Cat has told Journey that he knows the truth, just refuses to see it. This idea undergirds the story: We all half know things, but until we fully know (or accept) a big, difficult thing, we can’t move on with our lives.


A cat appears with an injured foot. Journey immediately wants to keep her. Grandma isn’t so keen. Turns out the cat is pregnant, but she’s a good mouser. Grandma soon falls in love with the cat. Journey takes an excellent candid shot of Grandma and cat (called “Bloom”) together, which brings Grandpa to tears. He points out that Grandma needed the cat.


The cat “in bloom” extends the metaphor of becoming something or someone else. It also connects biological growth to the seasons.

As the cat arrives, Journey recalls the family rule about animals, necessary on a farm where “pets” wind up in the freezer: Once you name an animal it’s yours and you have to take care of it.

What else might this refer to, more generally? Naming things which become our own. Once we name things they stop being so scary, and become manageable. Journey is in the process of naming his emotions and also of learning the truth. In this story, the truth is revealed via candid snapshots, on faces which are thought to reveal a person’s true inner state of being.


Time passes, the cat gets fat. Bloom also likes to sleep in a precious bowl which Grandma is normally very protective over. Since cats like to sleep in boxes (and in any kind of receptacle), Bloom leads Journey to a box under a bed in a room of the house the children never enter. Inside the box Journey finds the scraps of the photographs which were torn up by his mother but, as they now know, were never thrown away. He sees a baby’s hand on one of the fragments and wonders if it’s his own hand. Cat is upset about all this and considers it murder to tear up family photos. Journey says he’ll tape them back together. The grandparents agree he should be allowed to do this, as the photos are his own story.


The torn-up photographs serve as metaphor: The mother tore up the family by absconding and now it’s up to those left-behind to kintsugi some kind of life back together.

Kintsugi is a Japanese art form in which a broken vase or pottery is patched back together using gold paste. Once reconstructed, the object is worth more than it was before because more time and effort has gone into it, something beautiful has been created, and nothing else in the world like it exists. More broadly, kintsugi refers to the general concept of highlighting or emphasizing imperfections, and finding a way to celebrate them.


This chapter opens with a recurring dream in which Journey can fly. The previous day, Journey insulted his friend Cooper by telling him his cowboy hat looked stupid after Cooper pointed out the impossibility of piecing so many torn photographs back together. Cooper walked home in the dark. Journey rides Cooper’s bicycle to Cooper’s house and apologises. He is forgiven, and stays for breakfast. Cooper dubs Journey back to Cooper’s house. Once home, he finds the rest of the family admiring Bloom’s newborn kittens.


Flight can represent many things in literature. Flying is one of the most common wish fulfilment fantasies in children’s literature. For Journey, the dream of flying is similar to the wish fulfilment fantasy of invisibility (another very common one). He can go where he likes and is bound by no rules. The story has already told us what it is he wants: To go to his mother. No one stops him. In this dream, he is afforded a map. Maps guide the way.

Although Journey had already realised that sometimes we get angry at the wrong people, he’s yet to learn to put that knowledge into practice. He’s angry at his mother but insulted his friend, probably because Cooper has a mother and a big, bustling, joyful and secure family. Envy comes out as anger.

Being emotionally mature, Cooper probably understands this and soon forgives Journey his outburst.

When Journey tells Mrs MacDougal that ‘photographs tell the truth sometimes’, she points out that this isn’t always true, and uses the example of a picture of herself looking happy when in fact she is being pinched by her brother.

Sometimes the truth is somewhere behind the pictures, not in them.


Cooper and Journey arrive back at Journey’s house. Journey discovers that although he’d only been gone for one hour, the cat has had kittens in the photo box. The photos are now definitely gone forever. The grandfather insists they take another few “family” photos. This time Cooper is included, because he is considered family.

Cooper spends the day at Journey’s house. He goes home in the evening. Journey answers the telephone. It’s his mother, who asks him how he’s been. Journey tells her about how there’s now a house cat, who is a very good mother.


Journey is most disappointed about the fragment of hand on one of the photo pieces as he’ll never know if it was his hand. This tiny fragment is a metonym for Journey himself, not just feeling incomplete in his body, but feeling incomplete without his full, extended family around him, which would include his mother.

When the mother calls out of the blue, Journey tells her exactly how disappointed he is without saying it directly. The good mothering of the cat has highlighted for him how very abysmal his other mother is at mothering.

Cooper and Journey have made up, and Cat says she might marry him after all since he’s a nice kid. Cooper’s inclusion shows that when your own family lets you down, you can find your own family further afield.


In the barn, Journey and his grandfather discuss the phone call from Liddie, Journey’s mother.


Readers learn how the rest of the conversation went down. Journey’s mother never apologised for leaving him, which hurts Journey deeply. It is clear to readers that Journey is more emotionally vulnerable and literate than his mother. Journey shows that he has learned a valuable life lesson: That nothing is ever perfect, but sometimes good enough.

It’s also revealed that Journey considers Cooper’s father a sort-of surrogate father of his own when he thinks of a kiss Mr MacDougal planted on his forehead. Now, in the barn, he stands on tiptoe and kisses his own grandfather. Journey’s emotional vulnerability is demonstrated externally via this act. Not all families and not all cultures have this tradition, but clearly this family does.


Two months has passed. Grandma tells Cooper that time can pass quickly or slowly depending on whether you’re dreading something or looking forward to it. Cooper’s baby brother is learning to speak. Cat and Journey pick blackberries together. They agree that it’s okay to eat every second berry rather than dropping it into the pot. They share hard feelings about their mother.


Cat, being a little older, has had more time to process her feelings about their absent mother. She shares with Journey that she doesn’t like what their mother did, distinguishing between actions and essence. Journey digs deeper for Cat’s real feelings, wondering if she feels angry at their mother, directly, not just at what she did. Cat concedes somewhat, but seems to understand that we are supposed to separate the “sinner from the sin”. It’s okay to hate someone’s action, but it’s not okay to hate your own mother.

Of course, this way of thinking can be misused and abused when applied to, say, the queer community. (“Love the sinner, hate the sin” justifies queerphobia.)

Because we never get the story from Cat’s point of view, we don’t really know how she truly feels about her mother, versus how much responsibility she feels for guiding Journey towards culturally acceptable feelings.

In general, there remains much stigma around (adult) children who have chosen to cut off contact with their parents.

[T]hanks to Hollywood, daytime television, holiday marketing, social media, and deeply ingrained cultural norms, we have a very fixed idea of what family should look like. As a result, many “non-traditional”—non-binary, non-nuclear families—have trouble legitimizing themselves on the public stage. … While we expect people to demonstrate care for a stranger fleeing a burning building, the same level of empathy—even for a friend fleeing a traumatic family situation—is not extended in the same way.

Don’t Judge My Estrangement From Family — It Saved My Life by Jennifer Neal

Without question, mothers who leave their own children are judged the most harshly of all. However, via Cat’s acceptance, young readers are also guided towards some empathy for a mother who cares for her children “the only way she can”. This story focuses on the child, and guides young readers, many of whom do not have great parents themselves.

Note that because the mother was always more present than the father, the difficult feelings are reserved for the mother. There remains a huge cultural imbalance between how much hatred is heaped upon inadequate mothers, when the sheer number of inadequate or wholly absent fathers is far greater. As Cat and Journey chat in the blackberry patch, at no point do they lament that they don’t have a good father. Their absent father is more of a general than specifically directed lament. Instead, focus is on the goodness of the grandfather, who is doing a good job of recreating a different family set-up for his two abandoned grandchildren.


It is revealed that Grandfather has turned Liddie’s old bedroom into a darkroom for processing film, and he has kept the old negatives. He is therefore able to develop the old photographs which Liddie ripped to shreds.


By converting Lyddie’s room, Grandpa has made a statement: Lyddie won’t be coming back.

Young contemporary readers won’t necessarily understand this chapter, because digital photography proliferates. Now, once digital photos are gone, they’re really gone. The modern equivalent would be finding a drive with copies.

It is also revealed that the “father” Journey half-remembered from his very early years was in fact his Grandfather all along. For Journey, his grandfather is his father figure, and that’s okay. Some families are like that.



Journey is a middle grade novel, but photography as a trope proliferates in young adult literature:

Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, between acting and being acted upon. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

For more on that, see Cameras in Storytelling.

In young adult literature the person taking the photos is most often the teenage main character. Here it is the grandfather, but the final chapter leads us towards a ‘handing of the baton’ — we can deduce that it will be Journey himself who develops the rest of the negatives in the dark room set up by his grandfather. So this middle grade story is a direct ancestor of the same thread observed by Roberta Seelinger Trites across YAL.

Mothers in Children’s Literature

Children’s books with truly absent mothers are very rare. Journey is one of the very few. Another notable example from ten years earlier (1981) is Homecoming by Cynthia Voight.

When the Grimm Brothers published their collected fairy tales and modified them for children, they frequently toned down the scariness by turning mothers into step-mothers. It is more scary to think that your mother can abandon you in the forest than to think that your father’s second wife, no blood relation, might do that.

Today, we see so many dead mothers across storytelling we think little of it. In a different outworking of the Grimm Brother bowderlization, it is considered more palatable to conceive of a dead mother (who never knew you) than to consider the horrible possibility that a mother could abandon you on purpose.

See: Mothers in Children’s Literature


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




error: Content is protected