Between Two Trailers: A Memoir

Image of Between Two Trailers: A Memoir
Release Date: 
April 16, 2024
Convergent Books
Reviewed by: 

Between Two Trailers will keep you reading, just as Hillbilly Elegy and The Glass Castle did. The author has quite the story to tell . . .”

It’s hard to imagine a more dysfunctional set of parents. In a filthy house trailer in rural Indiana, able-bodied Mom (known as The Lady) lies indolently in bed watching televangelists while miscreant Dad (known as King) instructs his four-year-old daughter, the author of this book, in the fine art of knife fighting, making sure she’s hands-on with a razor blade to process the drugs that are the family’s living.

We know from reading the back flap that a healthy-looking J. Dana Trent survives a horrendous start to become a Divinity School graduate of Duke and a community college professor. This book is that story, told quite well but with some overwriting, in a linear fashion up to the present day.

“I was holed up with her [The Lady] and King all the time, a witness to their moods and reclusiveness, their isolation galvanized by depression and the drug business,” Trent writes. The pair met at a psychiatric hospital. They weren’t patients—they worked there, but both were undoubtedly mentally ill, and neither one recovered in any meaningful way.

The contraband is hidden in what the author describes as kiddie-ride animals. Young Dana goes along on drug drops, as Dad provides life instructions more appropriate to a budding gang member. The family worked for a dealer named Viper, who provides Dana with a brand-new My Little Pony sleeping bag. He acts more parental than her actual parents, who fed her on nothing but ketchup sandwiches.

The author describes a drug delivery to a backwoods Sam Elliot lookalike. “The tattered red cutoff shirt he wore told me his veined biceps would beat me in hand-to-hand combat,” the author writes. “When he smiled and shook my father’s hand his nicotine-stained teeth were so far apart in his mouth it looked like God had forgotten to give him a full set. He seemed nice enough. But the woods and quiet were how you got yourself into a kill room.”

Dad is a proud product of Vermillion County, described as a good place to murder someone—because the sentences are always light. The Lady is a wilted Southern flower, once a beauty queen and now just insanely entitled. Dana’s salvation is King’s nearby parents, hellions in their day but now offering a stable oasis away from the fetid trailer.

Dana grows up in fits and starts, and when her parents eventually split up, her mother takes her back to her native North Carolina to sponge off relatives. The Lady is a trained psychiatric nurse, but not as she explains “a medical one.” She’s fired from job after job, all the while racking up huge debts on credit cards. King starts to look like the stable one—he deals in cash only.

The middle section of the book drags somewhat. King doesn’t change—not one iota—and their occasional father-daughter reunions are disastrous. Drug deals go bad, delivery trucks are crashed. But somehow nobody goes to “college,” i.e., prison. The Lady just sinks down.

The book is meant to be redemptive, but that message is kind of muddled. Dana has problems of her own, including financial woes, alienation from peers, drugs, a hair-pulling problem, and food disorders. She makes it through college and graduate school to a healthier life—how, it’s not quite clear—and even acquires a fiancé. She’s now Reverend Trent.

It seems that we’re heading to at least a mildly uplifting denouement, but the reality is that Dana blows the big redemptive moment. At the end, she goes back to Indiana to celebrate local hero Ernie Pyle. Trent makes her peace with her erstwhile community—now seen in a warm nostalgic glow. But the parents who were front and center the whole book are now off the table.

Between Two Trailers will keep you reading, just as Hillbilly Elegy and The Glass Castle did. The author has quite the story to tell, even if there’s no heartwarming finish.