Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Review: Letters to Zerky: A Father's Legacy to a Lost Son and a Road Trip Around the World by Bill Raney and JoAnne Walker Raney

446 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9821384-0-3
List Price:$27.00
Pub Date: November 1st, 2009
Published by: Nickelodeon Press


So many of us have dreamt about taking off for parts unknown, to see and experience the world. From April of 1967 until May of 1968, a young couple lived that dream. A few months after Bill Raney and his wife JoAnne adopted an infant son they called Zerky (Eric Xerxes Raney), the three of them embarked -- with their miniature dachshund, Tarzan -- on a trip in a new Volkswagen camper-van. It took them nearly around the world.

They traveled across Europe and through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sikkim, Assam, then flew on to Thailand and Hong Kong, before returning to San Francisco -- a trip that couldn't be replicated today. Their experiences were sometimes fabulous, sometimes frightening, but always enlightening, as they discovered different cultures and wonderful people. Because Zerky was too young to remember his great adventure, his father wrote him a series of letters along the way, while his mother kept a diary. Both were for Zerky to read someday when he was older and would be curious about all the things he had seen and done. 

My Review:

5 stars out of 5

What a touching story told by Bill Raney.  In this travel memoir, we follow Bill, his wife JoAnne and adopted infant son, Zerky, as they travel the world in their RV to experience a trip and adventure of a lifetime.  Because Zerky would be too young to remember the trip, Bill documented the trip through letters to his young son, while JoAnne used a journal to document the trip.  Life being unpredictable, turned this once in a lifetime adventure into a remembrance of sorts for the author, as he lost his wife while she was 8 months pregnant upon their return to CA, and a year later, his son Zerky passed away at age 4.  So, instead of documenting the trip, Bill ended up turning his memories, letters and photos into this wonderful book.  Letters to Zerky reads like a diary, and really does pull at your heartstrings.  The book and the way Bill tells of his adventures with his late wife and son are honest and pure.  You can't help but feel happy that they were able to experience this type of journey while together.  So many people dream of spending time with their families in such a way, but due to hectic schedules, money restraints and more,  trips like these can't be taken.

If you like reading memoirs, or are looking for a great book to read this summer, you definitely have to pick up Letters to Zerky.  I promise you will not be able to put it down, and will be sharing it with friends. 

About the Authors:

Bill Raney was born in Grand Forks, ND, and spent his teen years in Port Angeles, WA. It was there he got a ham radio license and started cruising the world on the airwaves. After two and a half years at Reed College, in Portland, OR, he dropped out to become a beatnik in San Francisco's action-packed North Beach district in the late 1950s and 60s. It was there he met and then married JoAnne, who owned and ran The Movie, a small art theatre in North Beach.

In April of 1967, soon after Bill and JoAnne adopted their son Zerky (Eric Xerxes Raney), they left for the journey detailed in Letters to Zerky: A Father's Legacy to a Lost Son and a Road Trip Around the World. Upon their return to California thirteen months later, the Raneys moved down the coast to Santa Cruz, where Bill got a bank loan and started the Nickelodeon Theatre, now a Santa Cruz institution. It is still going strong today.

One month after the Nickelodeon opened, JoAnne died in her sleep of an Undiagnosed cerebral aneurism, and about year after that, Zerky died.

Two years after JoAnne's death, Bill married Nancy. Together they ran the Nickelodeon Theatre, with periodic getaway trips to exotic places. After Selling the Nickelodeon in 1997, they moved to Spain for six months. Upon Their return to the U.S., they bought an old 42-foot trawler on which they lived for the next eight years, cruising the Pacific Coast from Santa Cruz North to Alaska and back. It was towards the end of their wandering lifestyle on the boat that Bill came across the letters he had written to Zerky on that Trip so many years before. He also rediscovered some old pictures and JoAnne's diary. Bill realized they could be a book that might serve as a Memorial to Zerky and JoAnne.

Today the Raneys live in a redwood forest outside Santa Cruz. Bill's wanderlust still grips him, although his seventy-four years have slowed him down.

Zachary, Zerky's adopted brother, grew up to become a baseball pitcher, and is now a teacher living in San Diego.

In addition to Letters to Zerky, Bill Wrote and recorded a song about the trip, Zerky's Waltz, which can be heard at Bill has also Refurbished an old VW bus, which is now The "Zerky Mobile". He intends to drive it as far as he dares (spare parts are hard to find). Bill is also in the process of establishing a small "park" at the Santa Cruz High playing field, in memory of Zerky.

JoAnne Walker Raney was born in Consumers, Utah, then a mining camp up in the mountains, now a ghost town. After graduating from Stanford University in 1955, having majored in International Relations and studied Russian, she moved to Paris, and then hitchhiked through Yugoslavia (during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising). A few of her adventures there are recounted in Letters to Zerky.

She returned to San Francisco in the late 1950s, to buy and remodel The Movie, a small art theatre that had come up for sale in North Beach. She and Bill were married in 1966.

In May of 1967, on the eve of The Summer of Love, as runaways began trickling into San Francisco, with flowers in their hair, JoAnne sold her little theatre and she and Bill and Zerky and their little dog Tarzan left on their around the world adventure.

Upon returning to California thirteen months later, the Raneys moved down the coast to Santa Cruz. While Bill worked on making the Nickelodeon Theatre a reality, JoAnne chose to focus on being a full-time mother to Zerky and to Zachary, their second adopted child, as well as to a third child when she became pregnant. Eight months later -- and one month after the Nickelodeon opened -- JoAnne died unexpectedly of an undiagnosed brain aneurysm.

In Letters to Zerky: A Father's Legacy to a Lost Son and a Road Trip Around the World, Bill has lovingly incorporated JoAnne's diary entries from their journey, along with the letters he wrote. Both were for Zerky to read someday when he was older and would be curious about his great adventure. Now you can read and revel in this once-upon-a-time trip of a lifetime, as you contemplate a time now gone.

While tragically Zerky didn't grow up to be able to re-experience their trip-of-a-lifetime, the rest of us can read and revel in this glimpse of another place and time as witnessed with eyes and hearts wide open to each wonderful day.

Disclosure:  I was sent a copy of this book in order to write up an honest review.  The views above are mine and mine alone.

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