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FFFFFF: The far end of the spectrum: orphans who cross the cornfield to utopia: 08/10/18
In hexadecimal colors, turning all the channels on to their fullest gives the color white. It is all the colors at their fullest potential. In the road narrative spectrum, it is the most powerful traveler, taking the most dangerous path, to reach the most impossible destination.
Although Milo Pine's story as told in The Greenglass House and Ghosts of Greenglass House inspired me to place the orphan at the of the list of road narrative travelers, his story is father down in the spectrum because Milo's adventures don't actually leave the confines of his home.
For this essay, then, I'll be looking at four stories: Emily the Strange: Lost Days by Rob Reger, The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente, The Magic Cornfield by Nancy Willard, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. This group consists of a young adult novel, two middle grade fantasies, and a picture book.
The four "orphans" here are Emily Strange, September, Tottem, and Dorothy. Except for Dorothy, these travelers are "orphans" for their aloneness. Being a solo traveler, especially those who perceive themselves to be in danger or are told by others on the road that they are in danger, are metaphorical orphans. It is the aloneness and the perception of danger that gives the orphan their magic, or more broadly, their power over the road.
Dorothy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is for the modern American road narrative, one of the prototypes. The is a literal orphan, though, she does have family in the from of her Aunt Em, her Uncle Henry, and her dog Toto. But in the opening chapter Dorothy's status as an orphan is well established as is her resolve and mirth — two things credited to her age and her love of Toto. She is further "orphaned" when the cyclone takes her, Toto, and the farmhouse across the Kansas farmlands, across the Deadly Desert, and across some Munchkin Country farmlands to the start of the "road of yellow bricks." In less than ten pages, Dorothy has managed to check off all three road narrative pieces: orphan, cornfield, and utopia.
Remember, though, that utopia in its original use means "no place." It isn't an inherently better version of society. It is just a society or land outside of our known ones. Oz in the first couple of books is quite dystopian. But Oz is certainly not Kansas or the United States or even Earth as we know it. It is a land of magic, of talking animals, of witches, and of humbug wizards. It is a place, though, than can be conquered by orphans with power over the cornfield (and one could argue, by extension, power over the Deadly Desert). Dorothy and the Wizard can both invade and conquer Oz because of their solitude and their farmland upbringing.
Emily is alone because of amnesia. In later volumes she becomes more and more attuned to her family, which changes her power dynamic in relation to the road. Here, though, while she is in a town she doesn't recognize and can't recall her own name or how she came to be in this town, she is at her strongest. By strongest, I mean most invulnerable and most charismatic. She is able to charm or intimidate her way through things, and save the town, all before getting back her memory. It is through the act of being the impossible hero.
September in her final journey from Nebraska to Fairyland crosses the farmlands around her on her return but more importantly goes completely off road and cross country once in Fairyland, thus crossing two different types of cornfields. This last book is a race to find the next ruler. There are rules and traditions to how the race is run, none of which September knows, and thus ignores or breaks. Her secondary cornfield crossing is highly metaphorical, as are most of September's journeys through Fairyland.
The oddball in this selection is The Magic Cornfield by Nancy Willard. It is told as a series of postcards written by Tottem to their cousin Bottom. These are sent via a magic mailbox that somehow knows when Tottem needs to send a postcard and where they are within the infinite expanse of this cornfield they are attempting to cross to find help for car trouble.
Per Laura Ruby in The Bone Gap, cornfield is a sentient, magical entity that can be menacing or helpful, depending on the person asking. Willard takes that notion to the extreme, especially if you map the locales mentioned on each postcard in order of appearance. This is not just one cornfield near a broken down car; this is the mother of all cornfields. It is a never ending portal between disparate towns. It is both prison and transportation device.
Dorothy, Emily, September, and Tottem are all orphans who manage (with varying levels of success) to cross the cornfield and reach utopia. For Dorothy, the initial crossing is easily done but learning how to make the return trip is taken up in three separate quests: one to find the wizard, one to kill a witch, and one to find another witch. For Emily, the trip is easy once she is able to regain her memory but to do that she needs to save her utopian town. For
September, the crossing is done twice: once to Fairyland and once through Fairyland. Her second crossing requires learning the rules as she goes, despite everyone apparently trying to thwart her progress. Finally there is Tottem who is imprisoned within the cornfield as it takes them on a cross-crossing goose-chase across the continent as they try to reach their cousin.
Though the individual stories vary greatly, they all share three common elements: orphan travelers who are empowered by their solitude, cornfields or other rural expanses that serve as barriers, and finally a time in an unknown or unknowable place.