Here’s What the Critics Have to Say

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The Denver Post:
“Letters to Zerky, a Father’s Legacy to a Lost Son and a Road Trip Around the World,” is that rare travelogue with no ego and a true sense of discovery, because when author Bill Raney was writing these missives to his 10-month-old boy, Zerky—the nickname he and his late wife JoAnne Walker Raney had for son Eric Xerxes Raney—he had no plans to publish them. They were meant simply to give Zerky narrative snapshots of a trip he would never remember.

It is only now, 40 years later, with both Zerky and JoAnne long and tragically deceased, that Bill has decided to share these very personal, often amusing, sometimes painful and mostly fascinating tales of the trio’s escapades across Eurasia in a Volkswagen van during the Vietnam War. Combined with JoAnne’s diary entries from the time, the book is a compelling and poignant read. The glimpses into their lives and the world at the time—including travel into what was then Czechoslovakia, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and China—are invaluable.”
–Kyle Wagner


ForeWord Magazine:
In April of 1967, when the Summer of Love was dawning in San Francisco, Bill and JoAnne Raney left with their dachshund, Tarzan, and ten-month-old son, Eric Xerxes. They flew to Germany, bought a VW camper van, and spent the next thirteen months traveling through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Saddened that young Zerky would not remember this amazing trip, Bill began to write him letters and JoAnne kept a diary so that when he was older, he could read about all the adventures he had been on.

Forty years after returning home from this trip, Bill found the letters and his late wife’s diary along with photographs taken during their travels.  Both JoAnne and Zerky had tragically passed away within a couple years of returning home, and Bill published these documents as a memorial to them. The letters and diary entries introduce readers to a brave and adventurous JoAnne who had previously lived in Paris and hitchhiked around Yugoslavia during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and a blonde little Zerky who charmed everyone he encountered.

Bill’s letters transcend the average catalogue of events; he is a masterful storyteller who uses foreshadowing, personal and social insight, and beautiful description to weave a tale that keeps readers turning the page for more. The history of this small family is interwoven with the histories of the countries they visit, providing a glimpse into the world as it once was. There is honesty in these letters, showing not only the highs of the trip, but also the lows and the parenting mistakes, such as the time they freely handed Zerky over to a mysterious tribesman in Iran for a horseback ride, only to watch horror-struck as the man in flowing white robes galloped away on his jet black horse with their baby boy. Luckily, the man returned Zerky after a thrilling ride in the Great Sand Desert.

The Raneys’ journey took them through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Hong Kong, and a few countries that no longer exist. The book will appeal to a wide audience, including those interested in travel, Middle Eastern history, and simply a well-written story of adventure. It is a lovely tribute to a little boy who crossed cultural divides to bring people together. “Zerky was the common denominator that brought us together with the peoples and cultures of the world during this thirteen-month-long adventure between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans,” Bill writes. “He was our passport to the world.”
–Christine Canfield, ForeWord Magazine


Kirkus Reviews:
“A buoyant, bittersweet and often plaintively gorgeous travel memoir by Raney, founder of the Nickelodeon Theatre in Santa Cruz California.

The adventure quotient here is high, but the main ballast of the book is emotional. Shortly after returning from the expedition, JoAnne, eight months pregnant, died of an aneurism, and within a year Zerky was killed while playing near his family’s home. The book remains a testament to the power of the human spirit—to wonder, endure and remember. A chronicle of travels through a bygone world.

Raney’s debut book follows the arc of a yearlong expedition around the world, launched in 1967, at the height of the “summer of love in a summer of death.” In San Francisco, where the author lived with his wife JoAnne, hippies and beatniks flooded the streets, and new reports arrived every day from the bloody conflict in Vietnam. The couple decided to decamp for Europe, where the dollar was strong and the possibilities seemed endless. Along for the ride is Tarzan, a fiery dachshund, and a baby boy named Eric Xerxes Raney, known as Zerky. For a while, this quirky little family made its way across the Continent, camping in open fields, cavorting on beaches and scrambling through the Swiss Alps. The narrative is built on letters Raney wrote to Zerky–who would presumably be too young to remember the breadth of these adventures–and diary entries by JoAnne, a fastidious chronicler of the far-flung. “That there might be a world beyond Europe, a world you could drive to, was something that never occurred to us until six months later,” the author remembers, near the beginning of the book. Soon enough, the Raneys caterwauled through Turkey, Pakistan, India and Iran–a journey that would prove difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate in these pitched political times. In Kabul, Afghanistan, they vividly pick their “way through random passageways and alleyways that were left between buildings at the time of their construction.” In Eastern Turkey, they face down a gaggle of armed and angry soldiers. The adventure quotient here is high, but the main ballast of the book is emotional. Shortly after returning from the expedition, JoAnne, pregnant with her second child, died of an aneurism, and within a year, Zerky was killed while playing near his family’s home. The book remains as a testament to the power of the human spirit–to wander, endure and remember.  A chronicle of travels through a bygone world.”


Andi Diehn writing in ForeWord:
“All over the world, people were enamored of Zerky, a little blonde boy on a big adventure. When the family suffers tragedies, readers will grip the pages more tightly in sympathy. At it’s heart, Letters to Zerky is about the love of family. Many parents have longed to chuck aside daily drudgery and show their children the world in all its glory. The Raney family had the courage to do just that, and the literary world is richer for it.”


Midwest Book Review:
Wanderlust doesn’t wait for peace. “Letters to Zerky: A Father’s Legacy to a Lost Son and A road Trip Around the World” is a unique memoir as a father addresses his son about a road  trip the son took when he was a young child. Bill Raney took his son across the globe when he was only an infant, as they toured Europe and Asia. Aimed at his son, there’s no exclusion as any reader will be mesmerized by this truly unique and legendary family vacation that makes Disney World look dull. “Letters to Zerky” is an enticing and fun read, well worth reading for lovers of true adventure.”


Travel Author Brandon Wilson:
Light some incense, dust off your beanbag chair, pour some jug wine, and put your favorite Grateful Dead album on the stereo. Get ready for a journey to the past when the world seemed simpler, Americans were loved, and a van, a backpack and a smile could get you anywhere you needed to go. Letters to Zerky captures those innocent times in this touching blast to the past and tender tribute to a son.   In 1967, Bill Raney, his gutsy wife JoAnne, their tow-headed 18-month old son Zerky, and fearless dachshund Tarzan packed-up their life and packed-into their trusty VW van to set-off to see the world. This raw memoir captures those exciting and epic times through a series of letters that Bill wrote to his infant son who might someday wonder what happened during their wild time together on the road.  Over the next year, the footloose gang crossed the planet on a dream, as they traveled overland across Europe through Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sikkim, Assam, Nepal, Thailand, and eventually to China. Bill takes you along on that rugged ride, as you share the family’s day-to-day personal struggles and triumphs, while exploring territories that are out-of-bounds today for all but the most intrepid of us.”
.–Brandon Wilson, Lowell Thomas Award-Winning author of “Along the Templar Trail” and “Yak Butter Blues”


The Californian:
“Kudos are definitely in order to the author for including not only a wealth of color photos of the trip, but also lots of maps. Besides five full-page color maps that trace the entire journey, each section of the book begins with an excellent detailed map that shows the family’s route through a given country. Anyone who enjoys reading “on-the-road” adventures will find “Letters to Zerky” a captivating memoir.”
.–Robert Welch


Readers Views:
“Letters to Zerky”
is a beautiful tribute written by a father to his son. The book is dedicated to honor memories of his young son, Zerky, alive and full of promise one minute – gone the next.  The collection of letters written to Zerky was actually written over forty years prior to publication. Four years ago Raney rediscovered the letters in the back of a file cabinet. He explains it this way. “In April 1967, we flew from San Francisco to Munich, where we picked up a shiny new Volkswagen bus. What a shame our ten-month-old son would have no memory of his great adventure. Thus was born the idea of a series of letters to Zerky, letters for him to enjoy someday when he was old enough to wonder about all the places he’d been and the things he had seen.” Now that he shares them with you, the reader, in hopes that your enjoyment will give the letters a new purpose and to keep the memory of Zerky alive.

These adventures took Zerky and his parents Bill and JoAnne Raney on a 13-month road trip around the world. Zerky’s winning smile and sociable nature became Bill and JoAnne’s window of opportunity for creating good-will and winning friends throughout the world, in spite of cultural differences, language barriers, and religious prejudices.

The combined gifts of the Raney’s eloquent word pictures, detailed descriptions, magnificent photography, global curiosity, and human interest stories give the book the flavor, anticipation, and excitement of world travel, as well as the drama and intrigue of a political thriller. However, the reality and warmth of the Raney’s genuine enjoyment of life, their honesty and openness in expressing their opinions, preferences and experiences blend to move the story from sheer entertainment to the heartfelt interaction that accompanies a well-written personal memoir.

I personally was drawn to them as they wrote of their genuine respect and love for one another, the deep affection and dedication they felt for their son Zerky, and the open pleasure and appreciation expressed for the individuals they met along the way.

A balance of a stimulating narrative, informative world views, detailed maps, and illustrative photography quickly move the reader from chapter to chapter, and country to country, from Afghanistan to Turkey, and all points between, throughout the pages of the book.

“Letters to Zerky” is a truly remarkable accomplishment, excelling in travel reporting, escape through adventure and drama, and a heartwarming memoir. It is beautifully written, a captivating narrative, storytelling at its best!”
.–Richard R. Blake


Santa Cruz Sentinel:
“In the period between 1966 and 1970, Bill Raney experienced enough sublime joy, crushing tragedy and pivotal life changes to embarrass a Russian novelist. Forty years later Raney is reliving those exhilarating and awful years in a new book that focuses on the most epic of those experiences. “Letters to Zerky” is Raney’s account of the year-long trip across Asia he took with his wife JoAnne and his young son Eric Xerxes Raney, aka Zerky… an immediate account of a journey through a world before globalization and terror alerts, along paths rarely frequented by American tourists… As a travel book, “Letters to Zerky” presents not only a portrait of different places, but of different times. One of the reasons that Raney was moved to put out the book was that the Iraq war, and other events in the Middle East, made Americans much more aware of events in the region than they had been before. In that year of travel, the Raneys experienced several bizarre moments: being held at gunpoint by a group of Turkish soldiers, watching their young son being taken away by a Persian tribesman on horseback.
Raney wants to talk about the grand trip, not only because of what it says about the world, but because it’s his way of keeping the memory of his first wife and lost son alive. He’s also written and recorded a song about the trip called “Zerky’s Waltz,” and refurbished an old VW van as “The Zerky Mobile.” He’s working to establish a small park near Santa Cruz High in memory of Zerky.  “I loved JoAnne and I loved Zerky,” he said. Talking about them has always been refreshing to me. I’ve been comfortable all along about it. I think it’s therapeutic.”
Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel


Christina Waters.Com:
“I’m still in tears over his introduction to the book, a legacy to his lost ‎son. Bill started writing letters to his little boy about the trio’s daily foibles and sweet moments so that when Zerky grew up he would have a record of this amazing journey. Europe, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, Nepal—the book tracks Bill’s journey with wife and young son during the late 60s. It’s a real-life caper loaded with hair-raising events way beyond the pale of mere touristic wandering.”

Metro Santa Cruz:
“It’s as a portrait of grief that “Letters to Zerky” truly excels.  In July 1969, about a year after their return to California and a month after their opening of the Nickelodeon Theatre, JoAnne died of a cerebral aneurism.  She was eight months pregnant.  Raney sleepwalks through the next year.  “How do you handle the death of a spouse,” he asks.  ”I can only speak for myself, but I think you don’t handle it, it handles you.”  … a gently persistent message not to wait, not to squander, not to miss anything.”
Traci Hukill, Metro Santa Cruz


The Explorateur:
“We were so touched when we read “Letters To Zerky,” a beautiful story about a young American family who in 1967 embarked on a journey around the world with their 18-month-old son.  We strongly urge you to pick it up.”

A Cava Wine Bar Salute to Zerky’s Waltz:
“Open Mic Night’ at ‘Cavas,’ a wine bar in Capitola, began with a tribute to Michael Schrandt who died in a house fire on April 18, just over a month shy of his 18th birthday.

Bill Raney, founder of Santa Cruz’s beloved Nickelodeon movie theater and author of “Letters to Zerky: A Father’s Legacy to a Lost Son and a Road Trip Round the World” was a show stopper with a musical tribute in memory of his young son.  At one point nearly the entire room spontaneously got up and started dancing to the tender Zerky Mobile which was written as a waltz.”
.–Pizza & Prose, Capitola, California

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Whitney Love:
I have just finished a book that truly is one I could not put down! It is called Letters To Zerky: A Father’s Tribute To A Lost Son and a Road Trip Around The World. This is a travel memoir unlike any other I have ever read. To begin with, the travelers set out in the old flower power days of the sixties. Bill Raney, his wife Joanne, and their ten month old toddler named Zerky set out in a VW bus to explore the world. They camp on beautiful beaches and live the life most of us just dream about. Follow them as they travel through Turkey, Iran, Afganistan, India, West Pakistan, Assam, Nepal, Munich, Italy, France, Spain and much more from the perspective of a very different world in the sixties. The author is a fantastic story teller and the little family experience breathtaking landscapes, people, cities, cultures and exhilarating adventure.

A magnificent story and tribute from a father to his son (now deceased). If you love a good story and you love to travel you will love this book. I certainly did.

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