Before I begin my review, I need to point out that all of the 1-star reviews of Backpacked by Catherine Ryan Howard focus on the definition of "Backpacking." The reviews come off as arrogant and remind me of the annoying people you meet on the road who claim "I'm not a tourist. I'm a traveler!" "Backpacking" means different things to different people. Stop nitpicking the word's definition. And yes, I realize that the title of the book implies a certain type of travel, but all you had to do was read the book's description to understand what type of traveler Catherine is.
And now for my take on Backpacked (spoiler alert!):
Catherine set out to travel through Central America for eleven weeks. She wasn't looking for a deeper cultural understanding or to somehow "find herself" in this short trip. In the prologue, she lists her exact reasons for going to Central America, which I boiled down to the following: To connect with her best friend Sheelagh, to delay her return from the US to her home in Ireland for as long as possible while maintaining a certain level of comfort, and to brag to her friends on Facebook. At least she's honest.
By those metrics, Catherine's trip was a success. She strengthened her friendship with Sheelagh. She traveled in style for much longer than she could have done in the US. And I'm sure traveling to the top of a volcano and the numerous bus snafus she encountered made for some great fodder to impress her Facebook friends. I have a lot of respect for Catherine for straying so far from her comfort zone and then taking the risk of putting her story into a book. That took a lot of guts, hard work and dedication, and I commend her for doing it.
That said, I did have issues with the book. Here are some of them:
-- The first few pages read like a laundry list of complaints with no indication of either character development or adventure to come. Far from grabbing my attention, I would have put this book down on page 14 (the writing starts on page 11) if I hadn't already purchased it.
-- Sheelagh is an ever-present character in the book, but we never get a physical description of her and only get into her deeper personality traits in the book's second half. We learn early on that she's Catherine's best friend and is an intrepid traveler, but we need more info about her to make her more than a one-dimensional character. The other characters in the book don't require as much attention to detail, but Sheelagh does because she's so central to the story.
-- Several plot lines are started, but not finished. For example, in the Miami airport, it is revealed that Sheelagh has a tendency to lose things, so instead of relying on a bank card, she has hidden large sums of cash throughout her person in some very creative ways. Aside from not making much sense (wouldn't she be more worried about losing one of her $500+ cash stashes than her card?), this entire story gets dropped as soon as as Sheelagh makes it through security at the airport. Did she end up losing anything? Maybe she forgot about some of her hidden money? Did any of it get stolen? Did it burn such a big hole in her pocket that she blew it all in one night? None of these questions get answered and neither the cash, nor Sheelagh's tendency to lose things ever get mentioned again.
-- In another plot let-down, later in the book the two main characters go to a place called "Cafe Lago." Catherine says that she has changed the cafe's name "for reasons that will become clear later." This is a juicy lead-in that promises to blossom into a great story, but instead it fizzles. The owner of "Cafe Lago" simply gives Catherine and Sheelagh the names of three cheap hostels, they check them out and decide on one. Nothing sinister happens at "Cafe Lago," and its owner is painted as a nice man who serves good coffee and gives them helpful advice. The reasons for changing the name never become clear.
-- Several times in the book, Catherine gives the details of a main story and throws in an aside as an afterthought. For example, while talking about a fun night out, she mentions in one sentence that she nearly cut off the tip of her thumb while unlocking a bathroom door, but gives no further details. She needs to either expand that story to at least a paragraph (maybe even a whole page) or remove it. As a single sentence, it doesn't have enough detail for anyone who wasn't there (IE, the readers) to know or care about what happened.
-- There are some basic spelling and grammar issues in the book. A couple that I noticed were the consistent misspelling of "Colombia" (the country is not spelled "Columbia") and using "I" (subject pronoun) instead of "me" (object pronoun) multiple times. For example, "Eloise was funny and fit in really well with Sheelagh and I" should be "...Sheelagh and me." This isn't a huge mistake; it happens all the time in spoken English. But when it makes it into a book, the writing feels unpolished. These are just two examples; I'm not going to give a comprehensive list of the others here.
I think a good editor would have pointed out all of these issues and more. I know from reading Catherine's blog (which I do find a very helpful source of information) that she stresses the importance of hiring an editor, so I'm not sure why these problems made it into the book.
Despite everything I mentioned, I still liked Backpacked. The descriptions of hotels, restaurants and transportation were good. I liked the self-deprecating humor. The characters were flawed in interesting ways. The chapters were short and I wanted to keep reading when I finished them.
My favorite parts of the book were when Catherine opened herself to the world. During this trip, she discovered that she was shy compared with Sheelagh and gave a terrific example of what it feels like to be introverted. I felt so sorry for her when she just wanted some time to herself, but two of her travel companions wouldn't stop talking at her. I wanted her to be more assertive and tell the chatterboxes to shut up, but she was too concerned with hurting their feelings to do so. This showed a character flaw, which made for good writing. Catherine doesn't paint herself as a hero who's out to save the world. She's a human being, just like everyone else. Showing us this trait is where she comes off strongest as a writer.
I'm giving this book three stars because it's a pretty good story that feels unpolished. A round of good editing could tighten the writing and produce a compelling read for a wide audience of travelers, introverts, extroverts who want to understand introverts and self-development junkies.
As it stands, I don't recommend reading Backpacked if you consider yourself to be a "real backpacker" (whatever that means). However, if you are interested in international travel, but reluctant to leave the comfort of a First-World existence, you should read this book. It might not compel you to throw on a backpack and journey into the unknown, but you will travel vicariously through Catherine (the good, the bad, and the ugly) from the safety of your armchair.