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Review by Kelly Jarvis: The Highway of Spirit and Bone by Steven Ostrowski

The Highway of Spirit and Bone opens as David Stepenski, a domestic ethnographer and professor of anthropology, is preparing to drive his 79 year old mother from her home on Staten Island to a retirement community in Flagstaff, Arizona, so she can live out the rest of her life near his older sister Debbie. His younger sister Jeanette, an ultra-conservative lesbian, accompanies them on the road trip which features a diversion to visit their estranged brother Aaron, a thrice-divorced adjunct poet living in Las Vegas. Although the long ride across the country affords the Stepenski siblings and their “Ma” ample time to unravel the complex history of their relationships, the ride is also haunted by the people they have left behind including David’s wife and two children, Jeanette’s possessive ex-lover, and the ghost of their abusive father who is repeatedly labeled, in Flannery O’Connor style, “a good man.” Each day of the journey is touched by somber poignancy, with Ma noting “In a million years you could never guess when you’re young where you’ll end up when you’re old.”


The narrative, which takes place in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, moves through Pennsylvania, across the Blue Ridge Mountains, into Nashville, and past the Hoover Dam, with stops at roadside diners and inns along the way. Ostrowski’s physical and temporal settings are brilliantly liminal in their construction; his characters are suspended between the starting point of the journey and their destination, between their childhood memories and their adult selves, between their obligations to each other and their deepest desires. They are pulled between the tediousness of their seemingly endless journey and the pain of arriving too soon, between flirting and cheating, between living and dreaming, between blame and forgiveness, and between life and death. Filled with references to the literature, music, religion, folklore, and philosophy that shaped much of the 20th century, the novel is harrowing, heartbreaking, and impossible to put down.


As the family drives down I-40, the narrator, David, notes a red, white, and blue sign spray painted with the phrase “The Highway of Spirit and Bone” and thinks to himself, “There’s a poet a-loose in these here hills.” There is a poet a-loose in the novel as well, and that poet is Ostrowski, who artfully sensitizes readers to the pain and beauty of living with his meditations on simple words like love which is described as “the linguistic container for the most complex, far-reaching, penetrating, challenging, misunderstood idea—force—in all of existence.” Ostrowski’s prose holds readers in its grip, and the novel’s conclusion, which is all the more admirable for its poetic restraint, feels like an epiphany not only for the protagonist but for those who have traveled through the pages of the book along with him.


Steven Ostrowski’s debut novel about one small family is a microcosm of humanity that captures our competing needs to both fix broken things and to wonder at that which we fail to understand. The forward motion of the characters’ road trip parallels their inward movement toward the acceptance and forgiveness needed to love imperfect people in a broken world. Although Ostrowski’s characters are deeply flawed individuals, their journey across the country and deep into their psyches teaches us that the space between birth and death holds endless opportunities for grace and growth. The Highway of Spirit and Bone is a haunting and sometimes hysterical romp through turbulent family relationships, but, like the narrator’s mother, in the end, it will be all the love between the characters that I most remember.


You can purchase the book here and sign up for my reader list here to have my exclusive interview with the author delivered to your inbox on June 1st!

Kelly Jarvis works as the Assistant Editor for The Fairy Tale Magazine where she writes stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and interviews. Her poetry has also been featured or is forthcoming in Blue Heron Review, Mermaids Monthly, Eternal Haunted Summer, Forget Me Not Press, The Magic of Us, A Moon of One’s Own, Baseball Bard, and Corvid Queen. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine and the World Weaver Press Anthology Mothers of Enchantment: New Tales of Fairy Godmothers. You can find her at https://kellyjarviswriter.com/

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