Trust in the Face of Trouble
'Stray' by Joni Johnson has an interesting premise. When Lila finds out that her father is about to kick her out of the house on the eve of her last day of high school, she isn't quite sure how to react. Despite her father's lack of care of sensitivity toward her, she doesn't know anything other than the world in which she has lived for the last seven years since her mother left. Rather than despair, she tries to figure out what she might do to leave on her own, but before that becomes a possibility, her father decides to ship her off to a grandmother she doesn't even know. The only problem with these occurrences is that they are mostly known from the description of the book, and it makes everything leading up to it seem not quite as important.
When Lila finds herself stranded on the cross-country road trip to her grandmother's, there are many questions to ask, including whether her father meant to leave her. Even though this question is never fully answered, there are subtle hints to make readers believe that maybe he didn't. Yet the fact remains that Lila finds herself all alone, stranded at a gas station in the middle of who-knows-where, and the only person who comes to her aid is Vance, the gas station attendant and all around country boy who will most certainly find a way into Lila's heart.
Despite the predictability of all of these happenings, the story is still quite thought-provoking. As readers wonder what they would do if faced with a similar situation, they discover more of Lila's doubts about letting others in and sharing more than just half-truths, namely in terms of Vance and his mother, Vicki. Their kindness and loyalty to her after knowing her for less than 24 hours is admirable, even if it seems too good to be true. Yet it is nice to consider that truly good people do exist in this world and would help in just the way that Vance and Vicki do. Lila and Vance's attraction to each other, and lead up to their romantic entanglements, also forms a large part of the engagement factor with this novel.
Trouble looms ahead, though, in the form of Vance's former (and current) nemesis, Jimmy, along with Vance's ex-girlfriend, Mandy. Lila's dad, whether present or not, remains an antagonist throughout the novel as well, and Lila and Vance's similarly questioning natures even make them turn on themselves and each other from time to time.
Even though there were some grammatical issues throughout and a bit too much description at times that could have been cut short to get to more of the action, Lila's story will pull at readers' heartstrings and compel them to find ways to be more compassionate in their own lives by helping others who are struggling. The ending was also not quite what was expected, but kept with the sense of reality that Joni Johnson worked hard to portray throughout her writing. This is a story about courage in the face of adversity and how trust can be earned even if one believes it remains an impossibility.