Fifteen, almost sixteen, and on the road- to where?
Oh, the contradiction of the “Based on a True Story!” story.
This book opens with the standard “The characters and situations in this book are wholly fictional… and are not intended to portray any actual persons or events”, which is immediately followed by a Note From The Author in which she describes the True Story this is totally based on, in which she witnesses a teenage hitchhiker struck by a car on the McDonald-Cartier highway in Ontario. When an ambulance is summoned to the scene, the paramedics inform her that the girl’s injuries do not appear to be serious, and the author collects the teenager’s belongings:
…a back-pack, one shoe, a small silver crucifix, a paperback book and a well-worn notebook.
It was not my intention to intrude into the privacy of a personal diary. I opened the book in search of identification, perhaps an address. What I found instead was such an honesty of response and wholeness of vision that I could not stop myself from reading. I read through the night and finished the diary at dawn.
Now I offer to the reader the following remarkable document.
The Plot: In the first entry of the diary, 16 year old Cat Toven introduces herself and spells out her intentions to run away from home, manifesto-style:
1 That I shall leave here in the morning before the sun comes up;
2 That I shall not discuss with anyone my reasons for leaving here;
3 That I shall write in this diary every day;
4 That I shall not hate anyone or be disgusted or pass judgment;
The reasons that emerge as the entry continues include inspiration from Bennett, the local grocery store heir/marijuana enthusiast; being down about the bombing of Cambodia, Kent State shootings and Nixon administration (heavy); and first and foremost, bickering parents who won’t just shut up and get a divorce already.
Cat leaves Harrisburg, Pennsylvania before sunup on June 4, 1970 with the intention to hitchhike to Corning, New York, following in the footsteps of a generation who sought to start a new life in the wide-open spaces of Steuben County, or as they called it back then, FREEDOM VILLAGE USA.
Actually, Cat quickly discovers (as many of us have) that there is not much going on in Corning. She meets a hippie couple on their way to Provincetown, but they part ways over whether The Who, Simon & Garfunkel or Donovan is the best, and also because the other girl thinks she trying to move in on her man.
Cat philosophizes mightily over observing a child eating an ice cream at a Dairy Queen overlooking a graveyard (SYMBOLIC!) and also acquires a German Shepherd, which she considers naming Bennett, Ringo (“he’s cuter than Ringo”) Paul Newman (“Stupid”) or Abbie Hoffman(“Sounds like a girl’s name”) before settling on “Mike”.
She also meets up with an aging, turned-on, tuned-in, dropped-out Temple University PolySci professor and his Old Lady, who got it into their heads to borrow a colleague’s boat and float across the St. Lawrence river into Canada (or FREEDOM VILLAGE PART 2: CAJUN JUSTICE). Robbie and Ruthie Robber (!!!) are also hauling around a teenage boy who is on seriously bad trip:
He was sprawled over in one corner and he looked like he was about my age, maybe older. He looked dead, except now and then he’d open his eyes and mumble a few dirty words about President Nixon. Old Robber really got a bang out of that…
The kid looked like he could understand everything that was going on but couldn’t answer. And he had wet himself. Ugh.
After spending the night sleeping in the front seat of the van, Ruthie and Robbie Robber boning away in the back, Cat is eager to get to Canada and away from them. The border crossing in the rickety motorboat passes uneventfully, and she passes a few days living in the 1000 Islands Skydeck. Eventually she catches a ride with a tomato farmer to the Farmer’s Market in Montreal.
But FREEDOM VILLAGE PART 2 isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Lack of a shower and change of clothes has made her too smelly even for the other hippies, and everyone is all talking French and stuff. She eventually befriends Thersea, an older woman with a trailer full of Jesus knick-knacks behind her fruit stand. She stays awhile (we’re up to June 10), despite the fact that Theresa’s goiter seriously creeps her out. Jeez, remember Point #4 on your manifesto, Cat!
She eventually leaves Theresa and catches a ride to Quebec City, which is full of French-talking Québécois separatists who are not interested in hearing about how her name is an acronym (Catherine Ann Toven) or the fact that her mother totally did not dig her interest in zen koans.
She eventually gets a ride with a Catholic priest to Stoneham, QC where she and Mike take to the mountains.
At this point the narrative becomes progressively weirder, possibly because Cat spends an entire day staring at the sun:
I began to see a kind of electric white-blue light that hurt my eyes and then all of a sudden it changed to a soft white-gold. And I kept staring at it, letting the water run over me and through me and around me and all of a sudden there seemed to be sound coming out of the sun, a high speed sound that sort of whined at first, and then shattered into a series of trumpet hoots that seemed to climb up the circles of white-gold and the white-gold did not remain steady, but even as I was looking at it, it became orange, yellow, blue, green, and beyond that a black mirror-like transparency, always curving and turning back on itself.
Every once in a while she hauls her fried retinas down the mountain to help a kindly shopkeeper, who pays her with bags of groceries. However she is troubled by the appearance of a mysterious man who she suspects has been following her since her departure from Quebec City.
After disregarding the pus oozing from her scraped leg, Cat falls victim to a non-specific illness that leaves her delirious for an unknown length of time, during which the mysterious stranger appears and silently cares for her, bringing her food and clothing, always staying the day and then leaving at dusk. When Cat is finally well enough to write in her diary again, he has vanished.
When she makes her next trek into Stoneham, she is alarmed to see his face on the front page of the local paper: he was an escaped mental patient, who had been holding up local businesses and was subsequently killed in a shoot-out with the police.
The events sent Cat into a depression, as the entries in the diary become erratic, dated as “sometime” “dark” “later”. Four days in a row the only entry that appears is “I don’t understand.”
She does snap out of it, and on August 11, she announces:
This is a fine day!
I have a few things to say to some people. And since they are not here, I must go where they are.
Attention Mom and Dad: THIS MEANS YOU!
The last entry is dated August 15, as Cat prepares to leave Stoneham:
When I say me, I mean you. When I say you, I mean me.
I SWEAR I’M BEGINNING TO MAKE SENSE OUT OF SOME OF THESE THINGS…
The book concludes with another Note from the Author:
We have no way of knowing what she did between August 15 and August 25 when she was struck by a car on the McDonald-Cartier Highway. Obviously she was on her way home. But whatever transpired during those ten days, she chose not to tell her diary, or felt no reason to tell her diary.
I would like to thank Mrs. Marion Toven of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Mr. Archibald Toven of New York City for sharing this diary.
Cat Toven died on August 27, 1970 at 8:09 am in the Brockville Hospital of massive head injuries.
Sorry, distaff Sals and Deans: hitchhiking still = DEATH for you (arm yourself with ceramic clown figurines accordingly). Although I guess Cat’s wish for her parents to get a divorce was granted. Still, bummer.
Sign It Was Written In 1971 Department: “Not a bad idea. Canada. I mean I’m not burning a draft card or anything like that. Don’t know what I’d do if I had one.”
That was SO GREAT. I love these.
Thanks! I’ll be on the lookout for more “based” on a “true” “story” titles! 🙂
I totally remember reading this book when I about ten…though I only really remember Mike the Dog and the fact that she dies at the end. I think the rest of it probably went right over my head.
This book has so much hippie philosophizing in it, I imagine a lot of it went over the target audience’s head- and having her die seemed really tacked-on. It would have been much more interesting if she made it home and got to explain and thing or two to her parents! 🙂
Thanks for commenting!
Go Ask Alice would be a good one! I totally bought that “based on a true story” line hook, line and sinker.
Oh yeah, Go Ask Alice is a “classic” that definitely did the job if you got it at an impressionable age! I’m going to have to go dig up some more Based On A True Story books from the era! 🙂
I have an edition which is probably the first one in spanish, and it doesn’t have the note about the whole story being fictional, so I had always believed that it was actually based on a true story. Knowing the truth makes me very sad since I read this book while struggling with eating disorders and stuff, so it pretty much marked my life.
Thanks for your comment! It is really interesting to hear that it got a Spanish translation!
Looking at the reviews on Goodreads it certainly looks like the book had a powerful effect on a lot of young readers, too.
I also have a copy in spanish. With no front cover, I guess it must have gone missing. I got it from an aunt and never returned it because I fell in love with it, with the whole idea of being a true story. Sad for me, too, to find out it wasn’t. Still a good book tho.
I also would like to have a copy of it in english. But there’s not even a pdf file anywhere 😦
Thanks for your comments! I’m loving hearing that the book had such an impact on young readers and is so fondly remembered!
I am hoping that more of these obscure titles will become available electronically- I was going to suggest checking Amazon for a used copy, but it looks like it is commanding a pretty steep price. 😦
Just remembered a book about a rinaway named Cat and appreciate your post. I was probably 12 or 13 when I read it, and often longed for a mountain of my own at the time. Zeitgeist of the age, this story line, much of which i’d forgotten. What I remeber was her quirky and direct way of journaling. I was assigned to keep a journal for a wroting class in ’73 and have kept a journal since then … going on 43 years. I would say this fictional account had an influence.
I’m always so glad to hear when somebody remembers a near-forgotten book! And this has to be the #1 title on my blog that made such a strong connection with as a teenager.
I know what you mean about that one book that plays such a big influence on your life- for me it was Harriet the Spy 😉
Thanks for reading & commenting!
Wow. I have intermediately looked for this book past 38yrs & never had any luck! I was beginning to think I must have been the only girl this book had impactedl in the way it did with me. When I read all the reviews, my heart was touched again. It is wonderful that any book touched so many people but it is just as sad for that same reason. All these years I believed this was a true story or at least based on a runaway girls life. I just couldnt believe a woman could have written this particular story from her mind and didn’t write it from her memory. I wonder if Marilyn Harris knew this story would really touch as many people as it did.
I was a 12 yr old girl when I read this book (the 1st time) and I truly believe it kept from running away. I had been actively thinking about running away from my very dysfunctional unhome when I found this book in my school’s library. I could relate with Cat’s story and felt she was actually talking to me. I decided running away would not help when I realized Cat was just as sad after she left as before.
Thanks for commenting! I love that so many people are rediscovering this book, it seems to have really touched a lot of young readers before disappearing off the radar!
I read this book and Go Ask Alice as a teen, and both had huge impacts on me. I was just thinking about Diary this morning and looked it up online to see if I remembered it correctly. I HAVE a copy of Go Ask Alice (somewhere). Probably at least 30 years old. Thank you for this article!
Thanks for commenting! I am so glad to hear from everyone who remembers this book fondly- Go Ask Alice certainly has remained familiar to readers, but it’s always great to hear about a lesser-known book that had such a big impact 🙂
I read this book when I was 11, I’m not 52. It made such a huge impact on my life. I think it was the only thing that kept me from running away then. I would love to find another copy for a price I could afford. If you have one to spare my email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Hi Connie! Thanks for commenting, I’ve been so glad to hear from everyone that was touched by this book as a teenager. I gave my copy away, but keep an eye out on Ebay and Amazon’s used books, I’m sure you’ll be able to find one at good price!
I had this book when I was about 12yrs old. I must have read it about 100 times, seriously. We were moving around every other day then, it was 1978, and the book was lost. I have searched for it for about 30 yrs and was beginning to think it had just been a dream until the internet was born and I read stories from lots of people who where also greatly affected by the story. I don’t understand why it is so high priced now but, alas, it is and that’s the reality of it. I wish I had the funds to just buy it but, of course, that’s not the case. Is there anyone who is interested in going in on the book with me? The more people the less from any ones pocket. Being adults now we should be able to find a way for us all to purchase the book from Amazon, read the book, copy it for our own personal use if you want and mail it to the next person. The last person that has it could keep it or send it to one of the others that couldn’t make their own copy. Anyone game? If you’re interested, send me an email at email@example.com.
Thanks for commenting! Love hearing from people who recall this book so fondly! Good luck in search for it! 🙂
I typed “teen runaway diary novel” into Google, and you were the first hit; that cover gave me an INSTANTANEOUS visceral flashback. Thanks for saving me what would probably have been a lot of time and brain-wracking! Apparently I did catch the snap that this was a work of fiction…? But nonetheless, I have had bits of Cat’s poem (oof) for “the man who brought me hot soup” (eeehh) in my head for what must be close to 40 years. Wow, and thank you, and I’m excited to jump down this here blog rabbit hole!
I first came here by googling Donna Parker books, I think, and yes, it is a fun rabbit hole 🙂 !
I am always so happy when someone comments on thsi post that they remember this book, it seems to have really stuck with readers for 40+ years! Thanks for commenting!
I read this book as a teenager and never forgot it. Always remembered the name Cat Toven. I would love to read it again but could never find it. Thanks for posting!
Thanks for commenting! I love that this book is so fondly remembered and readers keep finding their way to this review! 🙂
I read this book as a young teen in the early 70s. Out of all the books I’ve read over 57 years, this one has stayed with me and somewhat haunted me. I am so thankful to have found this page. ❤ Cat Toven lives on.
Thanks for commenting! It’s always great to hear from readers who remember this book and how it impacted them as teens 🙂
Unless you were a troubled teen in the 1960s this book cannot make sense to you. It is not an”art” It is the ramblings of a naive disconnected teenager trying to make sense of things that no longer make sense. Without any real help. There were no counselors for us, no shrinks, no doctors or police just the knowledge that what we were being told by almost everyone was bullshit! And our peers did not have an answer either. As a 13 year old abuse victim this book saved my life! Without it i would have killed myself that summer. It makes sense in it’s context and if you don’t know that then you really need to stop talking about things you don’t understand. You sound like a first grader trying to dissect shakespeare with words from dick and jane books.
Some how I ran into this book in high school, and three decades later I purchase from somewhere but not sure where. But I reread the book again with those powerful feelings as a teenager, the very hurt of not being loved enough by parents, when I had it all wrong. This book had created a heart of hurt and emptiness for me because of my circumstances in my early life. I know my parents loved me and supported me the best they could, and at times this book brings me to painful tears because of the character’s loneliness in the story. This was the only book that gave me a different taste in my outlook in life, and the trials that the character had was something to deal with in her own time. But what a sad ending. Will not forget Cat Toven.
Thank you for commenting! This is one of the most-remembered books I have reviewed on this site, and I love that so many people were so touched by it!
Hello to anyone that reads my comment.
I’m Edith when I was a small girl my mother and grandmother would always wake me up from nightmares I would scream, cry and start running out of my bed… I would always have the same nightmare… I was to catch a flight in a long plane runway and when I was closer to the plane I would be stopped by around 30 people trying to stop me from getting in the plane I would keep pushing my self to get to that plane, ones I have passed the mob of people I would tripping and fall to the floor with pieces of bodies everywhere and blood I could not get up and I would see the plane leaving and me crying and screaming because I could not catch the flight.
Now I know this is so crazy… when I was 16 about to be 17 my grandmother took me to a curandera in México because I couldn’t stop having this nightmare, the curandera did her thing and sat me down and told me I’m gonna do something and you will remember things thing that might now make sense to you but that is how we can block you.. well after falling asleep God knows how! She woke me up with a strong smell of roses and said; “Ok you will never have that nightmare ever again I have gotten you to your past life this is your second life and in your first one you where a young girl when you died trying to save your dog from been hit by a car, you’ve mention a bridge a cave a radio with batteries and been hungry this is why you keep having that nightmare over and over again you where going home (long runway), your dog runaway (airplane) but you got hit by a car trying to catch him (people holding me back) and got killed (blood and body parts).” I was in shock but she also mention to me to always be carefull when in a car, driving, riding etc… Because this is how you will die in a car accident, in this life!
THE STRANGEST THING IS THIS STORY!!!
My grandmother passed away last year in October 19 (today is October 23) I was going through some of her things and I came across the note that that curandera gave my grandmother back then and started remembering about that nightmare it’s 4:19 am I have been up for to days and nights looking about this curandera, investigating about passed life, what dreams mean, a dog been running, catching a plane, blood, body parts etc all of it!!! Well I ended up with a PDF of a spanish book named DIARIO DE UNA HUIDA (Diary of a runaway) started reading it yesterday I have finished it and started looking info about this book, and came across this article OMG my mind is blown away don’t know what to think I’ve cried for the passed two hours I’m more confused then ever! I can believe this I have called my husband at work to come back home (he is on his way here) meanwhile I’m trying to understand what has just happened!
I have my daughter and son with me now here in bed and my mind is all over the walls. What is this? Can there be an explanation to it all? I know it’s hard to understand what I’m trying to say here but OMG what on God name is this?
I remember reading this book when I was around 13 or 14. I think it was given to me by one of my older cousins. I remember thinking it was special because I had always thought of running away and how cool it would have been to just do it. Yeah, right. However, I was mortified by the ending. I think I even cried which is saying something at 13. I completely thought it was based on a true story. The story itself was alarming for me, especially the topic of the boy trippin’ in the van and Cat not knowing whether he was dead or alive. Intense at 13. Read it several more times after that, feeling that Cat and I were kindred spirits.
I read this book in 1972 and it made such an impression me. I remember sobbing at the end when Cat was hit by a car! All these years I could never remember the name of the book, so yes thank goodness for Google! I would love to have another copy. If anyone makes copies, I will be happy to purchase one.