This coming of age novel is set in the whorl of the early 1960s, when isolationism and Communist threats dominated the attitudes and actions of American families. Kate’s mother Ellie falls in love with a Beatnik. Every decent and proper ideal that has been modeled by her Post Victorian mother is questioned and then rejected by Ellie. Ellie gives up a stable home and her teaching job to wander around Europe with Louis for a year with two children in tow.
Off the Tracks weaves through current events that impact Kate and her extended family. While she is living in Berlin with an aunt, the wall goes up and she must be evacuated alone, on a GDR bus with armed Vopos. She rejoins her mother and brother in West Germany. There, she learns how to take care of herself and her younger brother as they rotate between living in rooms for migrant workers or at times sleeping on trains for days at a time. Her biting humor and sense of the absurd save the day in tough situations. When the children have been riding for several days without adults, a Norwegian train conductor challenges the idea of two children traveling alone on Christmas Day. Kate does not respond to questioning in Norwegian, German or English. She points to her brother’s US Passport, with its stated birthplace of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Si si, son Mexicanos. Habla Espanol?” The two “Mexican” children continue their journey.
Love and humor are woven through the chapters as Kate, Ellie and Jack attempt the carefree life of the Beatniks. The children learn how to drink wine and juice from a bota (wine skin), and nine year old Jack smokes a pipe with no tobacco in it. Twelve year old Kate is not impressed by the adults around her, and forms independent attitudes that contrast sharply with their antics. Kate keeps her journals with her, recording daily crises.
Both children become very aware of the roles of gender and sexuality as they interact with various adults. Jack learns how to butcher chickens and pigs. Kate learns how to knit, and which beers are best to drink when pregnant. Ellie is also learning some things about sexuality, as the adventure leads toward a painful outcome. The sexual freedom of the beatniks included freedom to experiment with homosexuality and bisexuality. Her lover did not plan to marry her. He did not plan to ever marry anyone.
With her pride damaged, Ellie and the two children return to New York to pick up the pieces of their lives once more.