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How I classify the road narrative protagonist: 08/03/18
For many scholars the road narrative brings to mind young white men on their own against the lonely highway where they are on a quest to find themselves or meet the woman of their dreams. For anyone else, the road is full of untold dangers, especially if that someone else is a young white woman. A woman on the road is an act of desperation — to avoid domestic abuse or to seek rescue. Ask these scholars what about children or POC or anyone else and the answer is no: the road is too dangerous; the trip is too expensive; you can't travel without a car, etc.
But here's the thing — authors don't ascribe to these rules. Some do, of course, and there is a huge mountain of a certain kind of road narrative getting all the attention. Other authors, though, incorporate the road into their narratives and include protagonists who given the naysayers would expect to find danger or death.
In fact, it's usually just the opposite. The more vulnerable a character potentially is, the more heroic they often end up being and the more magical or transformative the journey ends up being.
In my road narrative spectrum, I've ordered types of protagonists from most to least vulnerable. Now my ordering is admittedly from a white centric point of view. For more explanation of the types of travelers I've recognized, please read Traveling Party.
This post, then, will go into how I place a protagonist in one of those six categories. Sometimes the narrative makes the choice obvious if the protagonist has one of the attributes.
For instance Milo Pines in the Greenglass House books is an orphan (albeit an adopted one). But his powers of understanding the road (including the ever changing landscape of Nagspeake) stems directly from his status as an orphan.
Likewise, M, in The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break and its sequel, is literally the Minotaur of mythology. He's immortal and free from the labyrinth but he's still living in a labyrinth of his own making, in this case, the lesser traveled roads of rural America.
But for many of these books finding the best way to describe the protagonist takes more work. A protagonist can have multiple aspects of the spectrum. Take for instance the sisters in Sweet Legacy by Terra Lynn Childs. By the third book they are established as sisters and descendants of Medusa. While they are monsters (scarecrows because they protect) it is their status as triplets (just like the Halliwell sisters in Charmed) that gives them their power.
Sometimes a character is even more metaphorical. In my reading of American Street by Ibi Zoboi, both Fabiola, recently moved to Detroit from Haiti, and "Bad Leg" serve as metaphorical scarecrows (protectors) for their neighborhood in Detroit. Fabiola's protection is family oriented, turned inwards on her home — both the memories of her childhood home and her new home (and her desire to bring her mother home), while "Bad Leg"'s protection faces outwards to anyone faithful enough to listen.
Recognizing a protagonist's role in the road narrative is one of finding either their literal stated center, or their metaphorical or thematic center. A character's status may change over the course of the narrative as part of character development. When that happens, I will outline the progression but for the purpose of indexing the book, I will take the final evolution.
A good example of a road narrative (and protagonist) evolution is Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber. Iris starts in the middle of the scale as the member of a family and then goes as far as an orphan (the most powerful of travelers) but is then rewarded with a sizable inheritance as well as newly learned skills (namely driving), thus settling into the role of a privileged traveler who is centered on home and the railroad. Basically, while she has complete freedom to travel, she choses not to.
The protagonist of the road narrative is the one who interacts most directly with the road (or the lack of road). As most of the narratives I'm reading are character driven, the protagonist is therefore the first element in the spectrum.