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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

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Many world travelers read others’ travelogues to get new destination ideas and to see if the described experiences, whether positive or negative, run about the same way as their own. Being no different, I read Letters to Zerky with the expectation of following a family as they explored Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. But what I wasn’t prepared for was Zerky.

Letters to Zerky is part travelogue, part autobiography, and part memorial for an extremely special little boy. Author Bill Raney utilizes the very letters he had written to his adopted son, Eric Xerxes (“Zerky”) during the travels as the book’s content. Zerky was merely ten-months-old when they – Raney, his wife, JoAnne, Zerky, and their dachshund, Tarzan – set foot for the first time on the other side of the world. Raney knew that his beloved baby would be way too young to remember this once-in-a-lifetime trip so he chronicled the family’s itinerary in a series of letters. With each letter addressed to Zerky, he paints vivid descriptions of their lives during their 13 months abroad in a little VW bus camper. Raney had hoped to give these letters to Zerky when he was older so that he may one day relive the trip through his father’s words. Sadly, that day would never come.

Reading Letters to Zerky was excruciating because I knew that at some point in the book, Zerky would die. Yet, I didn’t know exactly when. With every chapter, I wondered, “Would Zerky stay safe and see another day?” Each beautifully personal letter was chock full of love for this baby and of innocent wonder at the exotic places and people the Raneys were getting to know first-hand. The tone is light-hearted and whimsical throughout, giving a delightful “hippie” or “flower child”-esque quality to the author’s personality. JoAnne’s infrequent entries are more matter-of-fact but only add more to the overall delicious flavors of landscapes, the locals, and unique experiences as they are captured in exquisite detail.

While death waits for no man, it seems to have waited to descend upon the author’s life all at once, taking one loved one after another and leaving him with only a second adopted son as consolation. Yet somehow, Raney manages to rebuild his life, find love again, and eventually find the words he had written to his precious boy so long before. Letters to Zerky is a profoundly touching read and a wonderful way for this father to ensure his lost son’s memory lives on. Zerky will be cherished by those who never even had the chance to meet him. Heart-wrenchingly brilliant!

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