The premise for Homer Hickam Jr.’s latest novel is intriguing enough to make you want to read it and hilarious enough that you expect to be entertained. Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator will do both. Hickam, best known for Rocket Boys (a.k.a. October Sky), has pieced together a love story based on stories his parents told him while he was growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia.
Years before Homer Hickam Senior and his wife Elsie raised their boys in a small mining town, they had other dreams, loves, ambitions, and adventures. Homer’s mother Elsie spent some time after graduating high school in what would be my future home town, Orlando, Florida. She lived with a “rich” uncle (who would eventually lose most of his money in the Depression) and fell in love with an up-and-coming actor and dancer named Buddy Ebsen. Yep, that Buddy Ebsen–he of later Jed Clampett/Beverly Hillbillies fame. Ebsen left Orlando for New York and later Hollywood to pursue his acting career. Elsie mooned over him, but eventually went back home to West Virginia to marry a boy she admired, Homer. As a wedding gift, Buddy sent an alligator from Florida, who became the Hickams’ pet, Albert.
If keeping a four-foot alligator in your bathroom and walking it around on a leash seems a tad odd, even dangerous, you probably wouldn’t be far wrong. That seems to be how Elsie Hickam lived her life. Eventually, Homer Sr. lays down the law and says, “It’s the alligator or me!” Elsie seems willing to accept Homer’s ultimatum, but only if he agrees to drive the gator back to Orlando to give him a decent home. What follows is a road trip that feels like a mashup of Forrest Gump, It Happened One Night, and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (more on him in a bit). In the pre-Interstate Highway era, long-distance travel across the U.S. was still a bit of a challenge, even with road maps, and Homer and Elsie get themselves into a series of adventures and predicaments as they make their way gradually southward to give Elsie’s alligator a home.
While the reader knows the eventual ending–the husband and wife will eventually settle in West Virginia and raise Homer Hickam, Jr.–you’re not certain how, and it certainly doesn’t seem like it will end up that way. If this book is a love story, it is also an exploration by Hickam of answering the question of “Who were my parents?” As Hickam put it when I reached out to him on Twitter, “It was a book I needed to write.”
Elsie does not like living in Coalwood and tries to convince Homer to escape with her. Barring that, she hopes to escape the coal-miner’s life with Homer. She’s strong-minded and up for any adventure. Her favorite saying seems to be, when an opportunity is presented to her, “I always wanted to be an X (nurse, pilot, actress, etc.),” and hijinks thereafter ensue. The adventure of Carrying Albert Home, then, is a story of two people struggling in a marriage with vastly different expectations for their lives. Homer, a serious, literal-minded coal miner, is happy to live, raise a family, and die in Coalwood. Elsie, who had spent time in secretarial school in sunny Florida, hopes for a more exciting, adventurous life with someone like the actor Buddy Ebsen.
Along the way from West Virginia to Florida, Homer’s future parents face dangers from bank robbers, moonshiners, labor disputes (with Homer taking one side and Elsie the other), minor-league baseball in the rural south, smugglers, and a few celebrities along the way, including Ernest Hemingway and the aforementioned John Steinbeck. All of this happens, with various twists, turns, and side trips while keeping Albert the alligator in tow and a mysterious rooster who joins them along the way. Elsie’s adventuring spirit and Homer’s diligence and doubt about his wife’s love move the story forward in the way common to many love stories. Instead of two single people seeking love, we experience instead two imperfect people struggling in their marriage.
I did note that this book appears in the fiction section (the subtitle includes, after all, “the mostly true story”), not the nonfiction section. This is a novel based on true-or-not stories Homer’s parents told him over the years. Perhaps they’re tall tales, perhaps they’re the real McCoy, but the individual adventures drive forward a love story that is worth reading because it involves real, married people. It’s a poignant reminder that struggles, challenges, and adventures are not just for courting but can and should continue after a couple becomes man and wife.