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Road Essays
FFFFCC: Orphans, Utopia and Mazes
FFCC66: Orphans traveling off road through time
FF9966: Orphans off road in the wildlands
99FFFF-990000: Scarecrows and Minotaurs

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FF9966: Orphans off road in the wildlands: 09/20/18

FF9966: Orphans off road in the wildlands

Among the orphan as protagonist, getting to the wild lands through an off-road route is the next large clumping of road narratives that I've analyzed.

The books discussed here are Amped by Daniel H. Wilson, The Balloon Boy of San Francisco by Dorothy Kupcha Leland, Keeper by Kathi Appelt, Questions Asked by Jostein Gaarder, Akin Duezakin,  Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale, The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, and The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown. With the exception of Amped, this books were all written for children. From the children's books, Questions Asked, is a picture book and Rapunzel's Revenge is a YA graphic novel.

I'm not suggesting that this type of road narrative is best suited for children. The clumping here reflects my own natural interest in reading middle grade books. Now that I have a more focused understanding of the road narrative I am being more mindful of selecting from a wider range of ages.

The key piece of this segment of road narrative is the wildlands. It is similar to the cornfield but is less likely to be itself a barrier to a different world or the walls of a paranormal or metaphorical prison. The wildlands instead are those places not touched by the road and not touched by mankind. The wildlands are often set up as a foil or obstacle for the protagonist. Or it's a place to hide, an unlikely place to be found because of its remoteness.

Calling a journey to a remote, removed from the road, narrative also "off-road" may seem redundant but there are plenty examples of blue highways and interstates (or railroads) going to the wildlands. Roads do make the wildlands accessible (think National Parks, for instance).

Interestingly, three of these seven examples involve robotics: Amped, and the two Wild Robot novels. Owen Gray, technically, is a cyborg, not a robot, in that he is a human modified by technology, not a fully autonomous mechanical device. But going back to the source, robot is from the Czech, robota, meaning "forced labor" (via Čapek's R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots. Also interestingly, Roz (aka the Wild Robot) is a Rossum's robot.

For Roz and Owen Gray, the wildlands offer a way to get "off the grid" and way from the prying eyes of their AI or robotic overlords. Initially for Roz, the island was an accident as she was washed ashore when a cargo ship lost a shipment of robots. She was the only one to survive the accident. For Owen, the off-grid area is one of forced isolation as the U.S. government decides amped people can no longer be trusted. They are sent to concentration camps away from society.

Water features in five of these seven narratives. The ocean appears four times and a lake the fifth time. For Roz, the ocean becomes first the source of her isolation and later becomes a major barrier to her ability to return to her animal friends and family. For Keeper, the ocean serves as a reminder of her abandonment. Keeper believes the mother who left her at a tiny community in Texas pressed right up against the Gulf of Mexico and a nature preserve, was a mermaid. Over the course of this book she will try to reunite herself with her mother (to near disastrous results as this is realistic fiction, not fantasy). Questions Asked (aka Det spørs) features a lake where a family tragedy occurred a year or so earlier. The lake, accessible through the forest, is destination. For The Balloon Boy, the water in this case is the San Francisco Bay / American River as it takes place in a time before the Benicia bridge was built.

The outlier in terms of the type of isolation and the type of wildlands is Rapunzel. Anyone familiar with the story knows that she is trapped at the top of a tall tower and has grown her hair long enough that it can reach the ground from way up there. In the traditional version, she is rescued by a man using her hair as a rope. Shannon Hale (and later Tangled) imagine two versions where the man in question is a scalawag and she rescues herself but tags along with the man because he's entertaining.

Hale, though, removes Rapunzel from the luscious forrest she's usually put in for a familiar landscape of southern Utah. Rapunzel has been trapped somewhere visually equivalent to Mexican Hat or maybe even southern Colorado, namely Mesa Verde. The area gives a chance to imagine Rapunzel using her hair as a lasso and makes her tower all the more isolated.

How do all of these qualify as "road narratives" when there's nary a road? The road here — or rather the lack of a road — serves as narrative negative space. It's absence is what drives the narrative and informs the decisions that these six orphans make. Each protagonist has a destination in mind even if they can't reach it or need to take unconventional (off-road) methods to get there.

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