A 16-year-old boy is having a tough time at home and at school, runs away and joins a group of street performers. In some books it’s a circus, but the basic plot has been used before.

“The Other Way Around,” a young adult novel by Sashi Kaufman, is engaging nonetheless, because the writing is crisp, intelligent and funny while the characters seem real and complex.

Kaufman is a middle school teacher in Portland, so her daily contact with young people gives some grounding in how they talk and think. “To my fellow students and teachers both past and present – you are all in here,” she says in her acknowledgments.

Narrator Andrew West is struggling, partly as a result of his parents’ recent divorce. Thanksgiving at his Glens Fall, N.Y., home with just his mother, uncle, cousin and too much football makes things worse. The holiday traditionally had been at the home of Mima, his grandmother on his father’s side, in Bloomington, Ind.

Andrew tosses some clothing, a toothbrush, extra glasses and a copy of “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer into a backpack, picks up his cell phone and all the cash he has on hand. He then heads to the bus station, planning to visit Mima.

The only people in the bus station are five teens sitting in a corner on backpacks and rolled up sleeping bags. One girl, seeing Andrew about to be refused the bus ticket because of his age, pretends to be Andrew’s sister and says their mother is outside.

Ticket in hand, he answers a call from his mother and tells her he is already on a bus to Cleveland, the first leg of the journey to Mima’s. He can’t go, his mother tells him, because Mima had died Tuesday. Andrew’s mother had not told him because she thought it was his father’s job to tell him, and besides, things had been busy.

Andrew eats with the group in the corner and discovers they had spent the summer doing a combination trapeze and dance routine for tips in Burlington, Vt., and were heading to warmer, more lucrative locations. Their money and gasoline for their Volkswagen camper had run out in Glens Falls.

Andrew redeems his ticket for gas money, and this road-trip novel gets rolling.

The troupe is made up of straight-edge (no drugs, alcohol or tobacco), mostly vegetarian freegans, who dumpster dive behind superstores for mostly still-in-its-package and about-to-hit-the-expiration-date food and anything else they might need.

The trip is the framework of the novel, with the troupe performing its show with a message, sometimes making good money and sometimes not, as they take an indirect route to a New Mexico campground, where similar youths are spending the winter.

Along the way, they wash dishes and work at an organic farm where Andrew’s relationship with the farmer’s daughter gets complicated.

Much of the interest in the plot is seeing the relationships among the six people in the microbus change and develop.

At the start of the road trip, Andrew does whatever the freegans decide, following their lead, enjoying his freedom as he sits in the microbus cargo space. “It’s an odd feeling to be hurtling down the highway at 60 or so miles an hour with no restraint, when my whole life had been belted in and buckled down. I kind of like it.”

Another part of the plot’s framework involves “Into the Wild,” a book about a college graduate who gives up his possessions to live alone, and eventually die, in Alaska. At the beginning, Andrew seems to love the book, and toward the end he leaves it behind. He notes that the subject of the book writes in the third person in his journal. “But this time it strikes me as contrived.… How can you really experience anything if you’re always observing it from the outside?”

As the journey progresses, Andrew takes more control of daily events – and his life as a whole. Near the end, he leaves the group to stay behind with a member who is injured.

“The point is, I chose it,” he says, and goes on: “Because if I have learned anything in the last few weeks, it’s that sometimes you have to choose.”

I won’t give away the ending, but young adult books often need a life lesson, even though it sounds corny.

Kaufman handles that part well, balancing probability with believability.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]