Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 860

In a novel, one of the ways to show growth or character development is to show different responses to similar situations. Peck establishes these changes in Drew and Stephanie Wingate by showing the reader how they respond to their mother and friends at home in suburban Chicago and then contrasts these responses to those at sea with Connie Carlson, their grandmother, and the friends they acquire on the Regal Voyager. At home, Stephanie talks constantly to her friend Gillian Bergner, plays her music and VCR, and only steps outside to go to the mall. Anger and rage are Stephanie's allies in controlling her mother and her brother. For this fourteen-year-old, being free means being obnoxious.

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Drew, the main character and narrator of the novel, is a fifteen-year-old who celebrates his sixteenth birthday on the ship. At home he is a kind boy who misses his remarried father and feels compassion for his mother. The hole in his life created by his father's departure is partially filled by his friend, Bates Morthland, and by Bates' father. Though Drew appears to be a good student, the most he hopes for in the summer is a driver's license, a job, and girls. Like most young men, however, he worries about what to say to the opposite sex and about his own appearance.

Connie Carlson, the grandmother Drew has not seen since he was ten, alters the lives of both of her grandchildren by arranging a two-week cruise that begins in London and continues on to European ports. Unlike her daughter, who is low key, passive, and unsure of her attractiveness, Connie is a professional entertainer with a considerable following. She arranges to have her grandchildren see her at work leading a band through song arrangements that feature her. The first of Connie's two performances on the ship is on the first night that Stephanie and Drew are aboard. Consequently, they are able to see her power over her audience and the nearly fifty-year loyalty and history that audience and performer share. Both Stephanie and Drew are impressed. As Holly, the dancer-singer-model says, Connie can "make an audience of people just her age be young again, and in love with each other." In a curious way, Connie becomes a substitute for the missing father that Stephanie and Drew lack as she sets up growth experiences.

Stephanie and Drew begin to understand authority, love, and responsibility through Connie's zest for life and her approaching death from cancer; through her gifts of the dinner jacket, heels, and formal that seem to provide rites of passage; and through other people on board, especially Holly, who is like a sexy older sister for Drew, and the alcoholic Shep, who is unaware that he is their grandfather.

In an early episode aboard ship, Drew has the responsibility of sobering up Shep in a sauna, and later he and Holly must help bring back the drunken Shep from a bar before the ship leaves port to save the old man's job. When Drew suggests that Shep might wish to be left at the bar, Holly retorts, "that has nothing to do with it." Holly is willing to take the responsibility of overriding the will of another person for his own good, and Drew begins to admire her sense, courage, and grit. She becomes his mentor as he learns about love, and she encourages his slight attraction to Melanie, a girl close to his own age.

For the past three years, Melanie's family, the Krebs, have traveled to the Soviet Union on cruises so that Melanie's grandmother can have a chance to see her. Since the grandmother cannot emigrate to the United States because of Soviet policies, the cruises are the only opportunity for the Krebs's family to be together. As Drew and Stephanie watch the Krebs' reunion in Russia, they begin to appreciate the value and cost of what it means to be a family separated by circumstance. Connie, Stephanie, and Drew transfer to each other the feelings they observe vicariously in the Krebs family.

Connie's gift of the adult garments is really a mask for the adult responsibilities lying underneath. Drew and perhaps Stephanie would like to make themselves known to Shep, their grandfather, but Connie's explanation that Shep would think the story a trick convinces them not to, so their grandfather leaves the ship without knowing that he has seen his grandson and granddaughter. This merciful strength that Connie tries to teach Stephanie and Drew is all the more necessary in establishing her separation from them, especially with her impending death, the last growth experience for Stephanie and Drew. They wish to take their grandmother back home to the suburbs, but Connie will not allow this. She wants her grandchildren to see her in her strength and power and does not want their pity. Drew and Stephanie must gain the strength to let her walk away. Stephanie resorts to tears, and Drew becomes ill at the prospect; however, both succeed in separating on Connie's terms. Though Peck's title suggests lost opportunities and the resistance both children had to Connie and the trip, both gain tremendously from their experiences.

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