There are some great dads out there. They go to their kids' soccer games, fix broken bikes, and tell silly jokes.
Just like Leigh's dad.
Since the divorce, Leigh can't even get a weekly phone call or a face-to-face for Christmas. Even though we don't see much of his dad in the book, we hear a lot about him from Leigh and his mom. Mom sums it up pretty well when she says that Dad is not a bad guy; he'll just never grow up. Dad only makes a personal appearance at the very end of the book, and everything else we learn about him is from Leigh's memories and his telling us about a few phone calls. Learning to deal with his dad's absence is Leigh's biggest challenge.
It's what the story's really about.
Leigh's dad used to drive trucks for a company, but his big dream was to own his own big rig. He works hard and saves up every cent he can to buy the truck. So far, so good, right? Not really. Mom tells Leigh that his dad was a little too "in love" (28.11) with the truck. What Mom means is that the truck seemed more important to him than his family.
Leigh's dad hasn't really grown up, according to Mom. When they met, they both loved to travel around in his truck, spend Saturday nights in bars, and enjoyed the adventure of the open road. Problem is, his dad never really changed, even after Leigh was born. He wasn't home much, she never knew where he was, and he'd forget to call. He liked hanging out playing video games at truck stops more than he liked staying home with his family.
We get a couple more glimpses of his dad's immaturity here and there. When Mom tells Leigh he has to write back and answer Mr. Henshaw's questions, Leigh tells Mr. H., "If Dad was here, he'd tell you to go climb a tree" (9.3). Now, that's just Leigh saying that, but he seems to think that's what his dad might say. Plus, when Leigh tells his dad that someone's been stealing his lunch, his dad says, "Find him and punch him in the nose" (38.10). Pretty impulsive and childish, we'd say. Even Leigh figures out that Dad isn't very interested in his lunch problem.
We can see why Mom felt like Dad was just another kid she had to take care of. A very big kid.
Leigh's heard all the stories about his dad's love for the open road. Mom tells him:
He loves the feel of power when he is sitting high in his cab controlling a mighty machine. He loves the excitement of never knowing where his next trip will take him. He loves the mountains and the desert and the sight of orange trees heavy with oranges and the smell of fresh-grown alfalfa. I know, because I rode with him until you came along. (39.11)
Leigh can relate. The day he rode with his dad hauling grapes to a winery is one of his best memories. Ditto the day Dad took him along on a ride hauling tomatoes:
Mom is right about Dad and his truck. I remember how exciting it was to ride with him and listen to calls on his Citizens' Band radio. Dad pointed out how hawks sit on telephone wires waiting for little animals to get run over so they won't have to bother to hunt. Dad says civilization is ruining hawks. He was hauling a gondola full of tomatoes that day, and he said that some tomatoes are grown specially so they are so strong they won't squash when loaded into a gondola. They may not taste like much, but they don't squash. (37.2)
We've had some tomatoes like that.
Anyway, here's what we learn about Dad from Leigh's description: he can be a pretty good dad, taking Leigh with him for fun and teaching him a lot along the way. Leigh is proud of his dad's job and the fact that people seem to like him:
Then we had lunch at the truck stop. Everybody seemed to know Dad. The waitresses all said, "Well, look who just rolled in! Our old pal, 'Wild Bill,'" and things like that […]. When Dad said, "Meet my kid," I stood up as tall as I could so they would think I was going to grow up as big as Dad. […] Most truckers ate real fast and left, but Dad kidded around awhile and played the video games. Dad always runs up a high score, no matter which machine he plays. (37.3-4)
Wild Bill. Sounds like someone you'd want to pal around with, but as a husband? Not so much. We can start to see what Mom means about him never growing up.
Still, Leigh looks back on those rides and remembers a dad who was fun to be with, an expert on just about everything important to a little boy, a dude who's the best at every video game. Leigh tells us that his dad used to help him "build stuff" (28.2) when he lived with the family. On the truck ride, he teaches Leigh about the animals in the desert, about the fruits and vegetables he delivers, and about the different kinds of trucks he drives. Leigh just wishes his dad would visit him and ask him to jump up into the truck like in the good old days.
Leigh's dad loves him, we're sure of that. He sends his child support payments; he phones him and sends him postcards; he calls him on the phone; and he makes sure Leigh gets the Christmas present he wanted.
On the other hand—and it's a pretty big hand—he's often missing in action.
Those support payments are late sometimes, he doesn't phone when he promises to, and he's never come to visit. It's easy for Leigh to think that his dad has forgotten about him, especially when he hears another boy's voice in the background during a phone call. Talk about awful situations.
Dad's not sure how to handle Leigh's disappointment in him. After Bandit goes missing—which devastates Leigh—what does Dad do? Visit more often? Nope. Call him on time every week? Uh-uh. Take time to write a long letter?
Today I got a letter from Dad postmarked Albuquerque, New Mexico. At least I thought it was a letter, but when I tore it open, I found a twenty-dollar bill and a paper napkin. He had written on the napkin, "Sorry about Bandit. Here's $20. Go buy yourself an ice-cream cone. Dad."
I was so mad I couldn't say anything. Mom read the napkin and said, "Your father doesn't mean you should actually buy an ice cream cone."
"Then why did he write it?" I asked.
"That's his way of trying to say he's really sorry about Bandit. He's just not very good about expressing feelings." (43.1-4)
You can just imagine his dad, sitting in a truck stop restaurant in Albuquerque, trying to figure out how to make up for losing his son's beloved dog and not knowing how the heck to do it. That's pretty sad, too.
At least he tried?
At the end of the story, Dad suddenly shows up at Leigh's house. Dad seems to realize he has a lot to make up for. He's kept looking for Bandit, putting messages out over the CB radio every day. Finally, he meets up with a trucker who'd found Bandit, and Dad brings him back to Leigh:
I think I hoped he would say he had driven all the way from Bakersfield just to bring Bandit back to me. (60.13)
Instead, Dad says he's there because he was waiting on a load of broccoli nearby. Not a very thoughtful thing to say after all that time not visiting:
So Dad had come to see me just because of the broccoli. After all these months when I longed to see him, it took a load of broccoli to get him here. I felt let down and my feelings hurt. They hurt so much I couldn't think of anything to say. (60.15)
Leigh shows him the burglar alarm he made for his lunchbox, and his dad is impressed. He says he always knew he had a smart kid. Leigh shows him his prize-winning story about the day on the truck, and Dad says he thinks about that day a lot and is glad Leigh remembers it, too. He tells Leigh, "You're smarter than your old man" (60.24). That's gotta make Leigh feel great.
Then we learn the real reason Dad decided to visit, a reason Dad didn't admit to Leigh at first:
Dad looked tired and sad in a way I had never seen him before. […] Finally Mom brought in two cups of coffee. […] Dad said "I miss you, Bonnie."
I had a feeling I didn't want to hear this conversation.
[…] "Have you found someone else?" asked Dad.
"No," said Mom.
"I think about you a lot on the long hauls," said Dad, "especially at night."
"I haven't forgotten you," said Mom.
"Bonnie, is there any chance—" Dad began.
"No," said Mom, in a soft, sad voice.
[…] "Well…" said Dad and set his mug down. "That's what I came to find out, so I might as well be going." (60.22-37)
Mom says there have been too many broken promises. She knows he hasn't changed.
Dad gives Bandit back to Leigh partly to make up for his own absence. At least Leigh will have his dog, even if his dad isn't around much. Before he leaves, Dad gives Leigh a huge hug and promises to see him more often. He even tells Leigh that he's a good kid and he's proud of him:
"I'm proud of you, and I'll try not to let you down." (60.44)
Know what Shmoop noticed in that sentence there? "I'll try." Maybe Dad learned something about himself after all—that he hasn't been a good dad and loves the life on the road too much. He probably isn't ever going to get a World's Greatest Dad T-shirt. But he'll try.
That seems to satisfy Leigh. He's glad that his dad didn't come to visit them just because of the broccoli. Dad really missed them. After his dad leaves, Leigh is sad but happy, too. He seems to have finally accepted that his dad will never be who he wishes he'd be, but he cares about Leigh and does what he can.
We agree with Leigh's mom: his dad is not a bad person, just a little immature and clueless when it comes to responsibility, consistency, and emotional stuff. Even though he's hardly in the picture, he's one of the most important characters in the book. He makes Leigh think about his life and teaches him to cope with life's disappointments. You might even say he helps Leigh grow up.
We just wish there were less sad ways to do that.