Book Review: Songs for a Teenage Nomad by Kim Culbertson (Reviewed by Tapati McDaniels)

I confess I was drawn to this book by a personal history of moving and changing schools. I wanted to see if the author really captured that experience accurately.

We follow Calle (pronounced Callie) through her first day in yet another school. Now a teen, she’s been moved continuously by her mom after each romantic breakup. We sense a mystery behind her father’s absence and suspect we know what it might be, but the truth is more complex than we might imagine. I was happy that I couldn’t figure it all out in advance and that Kim Culbertson wove a more complex tale than the book jacket implied.

Calle has long since developed coping strategies for her mother’s nomadic life and among them are keeping a journal where she links memories to songs, providing her the sense of continuity she is lacking, and not getting too involved in the social life of the schools she is plunked down in. Why get attached if you’re going to be moving in a few months anyway? Yet there is something different this time, perhaps different with this school and these classmates, perhaps something restless and defiant in Calle herself. This time she gets involved; this time she becomes attached. This time she wants to rebel at the first signs that another move may be on the horizon. This time she wants answers.

The writing flowed and the connection of music and occasional poetry was ideal for the themes explored. Even if you don’t know the songs mentioned, you can relate to how certain songs evoke memories. The use of these songs could have seemed like an obvious device for connecting the story but Culbertson used them so skillfully that they seem like a natural feature of Calle’s character. Some songs, such as “Mr. Tamborine Man” by Bob Dylan, take on special significance. We may never hear those songs the same way again.

Tapati McDaniels is the former publisher and editor of Uppity Women Magazine and is currently writing a memoir. Excerpts can be found at where you can contact her with questions or comments.

Calle wasn’t the only student with family secrets and dysfunction. Culbertson attempts to show the double bind of having no refuge at home and a hostile environment at school. In this she didn’t quite succeed and I was disappointed. Her portrayal of bullying felt a little light to me. It seemed like her bullies didn’t really have their hearts in it. Real life bullies are more relentless and omnipresent. Now, unlike my school days, with cyber-bullying they follow you home, too. I suspect Culbertson felt that exploring the bullying incidents more would detract from the problems at home for Calle and her friends. It is, perhaps, my own personal history that made me hope that Culbertson would fully portray the heartbreak of having no safe place, no time off anywhere and no stable adult to turn to for help.

The conclusion, which I reached after reading straight through into the night, was satisfying and complex. There are no easy answers for Calle and her mom but there is hope. That’s more than she possessed when her story began. Other troubled classmates must keep coping with absent or ill parents just as in real life. There are no miracle cures here and I found that very appropriate for a young adult age group that must come to grips with a life that won’t always be rosy and neatly solved in sixty minutes like they see on TV.

Songs For A Teenage Nomad by Kim Culbertson
Sourcebooks, Inc 2010

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