In 2003, in a hotel room in Abuja, Nigeria, a 73-year-old Nigerian man and a Scottish woman in her early 40s meet for the first time. Instead of the informative conversation she had hoped for, he prays for her—not a quick eyes closed, hands together affair, but two solid hours of high-energy preaching and beseeching. “Christ Almighty,” the woman tells herself, “my father is barking mad.”
It was bold of Jackie Kay to open Red Dust Road with her first encounter with her birth father. Most accounts of adoptees’ quests to find their biological parents build toward a tearful reunion, and although Kay sacrificed some suspense by introducing Jonathan O on the first page, the dramatic scene, by turns hilarious and horrifying, immediately establishes Jonathan as an obsessive, oddly self-centered man, and our first-person narrator as a patient, down-to-earth type who can find something to smile at in any situation. As she realizes halfway through her book, “Perhaps it is the trail itself that is the interesting part, not the person at the end of it.”
The book’s subtitle, “An autobiographical journey,” is more than just a metaphor—tracing the roots of her various family trees, Kay travels around Nigeria, Scotland, and England; and in recalling the life stories of her adoptive parents, Helen and John, she zips from their first meeting in New Zealand, to their adventures in Europe (as active members of the Communist Party, they qualified for free holidays behind the Iron Curtain), and family vacations driving around the Scottish Highlands. Don’t worry, though: Despite all that movement, the characters are clearly drawn, much more than blurs on a passing landscape. Jackie’s birth mother, Elizabeth, emerges as “a sad and troubled figure,” a woman who has survived breakdowns and disappointment, but barely. Jonathan remains the frustrating figure of the opening scene, selfish and remote. Helen and John are the true heroes, committed, loving, and endlessly supportive.
Kay deserves praise for her dedication to pushing past the romantic hypotheticals that adoption narratives are prone to—it’s tempting to get lost in dreams of how different everyone’s lives would have been if X, Y, and Z hadn’t happened; to imagine a counterfactual childhood lived in a Highland cottage or a Nigerian village—and forcing herself to look for genuine connections. Time and again, she describes coincidences so outrageous that she swears she would never resort to such incredible claims in her own fiction. When researching her family tree, she discovers that her father is a tree specialist. When she met her birth mother in Milton Keynes, England, the older woman arrived carrying her belongings in a plastic bag—just as her birth father had when she met him in Nigeria. “[O]n first sight [they] looked like some homeless people look, who carry important papers in carrier bags.” All her parents are people of faith—Elizabeth is a Mormon, Jonathan a born-again Christian, and Helen and John true believers in Marx and Lenin.
Perhaps the most striking realization of this journey is that there’s much more to a family than one’s parents. Kay should’ve understood that from the start, of course. Growing up, Helen and John’s Communist Party comrades formed an extended family for Jackie and her brother, Maxwell. Jackie’s own life has been a far cry from mum and dad and 2.3 kids—she’s a lesbian, and her son Matthew’s father is a “good friend.” But feisty, whip-smart aunts and responsible, loving half-brothers and -sisters aren’t part of the family reunion fantasy. They are a wonderful, thrilling part of Red Dust Road, however.