Rules of the Road

“Somewhere long ago in this country it was determined that after 65 a person’s brain is no longer capable of making business decisions. I think that is rot. I have more business ability at 73 than I had at 63, and I resent the implication that I am over the hill and can no longer oversee the company my husband and I built from scratch.” So says Mrs. Gladstone, the intimidating, white-haired Texas widow who owns Gladstone’s Shoes—a company built on quality and service, with 176 stores in 37 states. Now her son, Elden, who cares nothing for quality, just wants to make a quick buck by selling out to a large conglomerate. Unfortunately, most of the stockholders agree with him.

Jenna is an extra-tall, gangly 16-year-old with a divorced mom and an alcoholic dad. She’s awkward with most teens but loves her part-time job selling shoes in Gladstone’s Chicago store. Jenna has had her driver’s license for only six months, so she’s astonished when Mrs. Gladstone hires her as a chauffeur to drive from Chicago to Dallas for the annual meeting, making surprise visits to multiple shoe stores on the way. Why her? Mrs. Gladstone says Jenna reminds her of herself at that age, and she needs a driver who understands the shoe business.

The two forge an unusual friendship on the road. Jenna’s sales instincts make her an astute spy who can quickly assess any shoe store’s marketing and service. Mrs. Gladstone is both compassionate (respecting Jenna’s need for privacy after a good cry) and fierce (whacking her cane against the banister). When Mrs. Gladstone’s bad hip nearly ends the journey, Jenna braves her boss’s temper to calmly point out that needing help won’t make her any less tough.

Readers will enjoy this book’s sensitive portrayal of older characters, including Mrs. Gladstone’s friend Alice—an equally gutsy retired model still attractive in her late 60s—and Jenna’s wise grandmother, whom Jenna once considered her best friend and whose loss of memory to Alzheimer’s she now mourns. The book is both a study of tough love and chock-full of wry humor. It might even inspire readers to buy a good pair of shoes.