The Sealey Challenge: Behind the Wheel

Janet Wong's BEHIND THE WHEEL sits against red brick and fading grout and gray cement by a black wrought iron fence.
Behind the Wheel

Today wasn’t a great day: when my focus is too much on pain, I can’t focus too well on anything else, and I set aside more than one book because this was not the right day. Then I finally picked up Janet Wong’s 1999 Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving, and I guess today was the right day for Behind the Wheel.

I’ve seen Behind the Wheel described as young adult poetry, and I guess I can see that: it’s definitely written with an eye towards folks who are hitting the road from behind the wheel rather than beside it (or in the back seat rather than the driver’s). While I feel that A Suitcase of Seaweed is, beyond a doubt, a book for all ages, I think that Behind the Wheel is much more rooted in a young audience. Which doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it! Just be aware that there are a few times when Wong, usually so deft, veers slightly off into morality play territory. (To be fair, I’m pretty sure all our parents put on a morality play when we first started to drive, so there’s that.)

Parts of Behind the Wheel are laugh out loud funny, which was great for me today: I could definitely concentrate on that. Parts of it almost made me cry. “Grandmother’s Car” can be read a lot of different ways, I think, but as I read it, I thought of all the ways in which women have been locked away and kept hidden, both by patriarchal customs and by the misogyny and racism of our white supremacist culture. “One night, after her bath, she sits me down, / says, I am going to buy you a car. / Buy you a car, tears in her eyes,” Wong writes, and says that she knows her grandmother is saving every penny she can “so I can go places / on my own.”

In the mood for poetry about learning how to drive? About the heady excitement, and the horror, and what happens if you pump anti-lock brakes? (And yeah I totally laughed at that one.) Want to relive your own horrifying ascent to the driver’s side through your parents’ moralizing tales, filtered through someone else’s words? Then you might enjoy Behind the Wheel! I know I’ll think of “Grandmother’s Car” a lot, myself, because I’ve known women like Grandmother, and I know them still.

A car can be scary as hell, and dangerous as only a several-ton machine can be, but it can also mean freedom.

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