The Runaway’s Diary By Marilyn Harris

Fifteen, almost sixteen, and on the road- to where?

runaway

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;

Etc.

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:

Me.

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.”

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13 Responses to The Runaway’s Diary By Marilyn Harris

  1. scopypdx says:

    That was SO GREAT. I love these.

  2. Jen says:

    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.

    • mondomolly says:

      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!

  3. michele says:

    Go Ask Alice would be a good one! I totally bought that “based on a true story” line hook, line and sinker.

    • mondomolly says:

      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! 🙂

  4. Natalia says:

    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.

    • mondomolly says:

      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.

  5. stefany says:

    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.

    • stefany says:

      I also would like to have a copy of it in english. But there’s not even a pdf file anywhere 😦

      • mondomolly says:

        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. 😦

  6. lynda says:

    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.

    • mondomolly says:

      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!

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