I haven’t posted for awhile because I have been on a journey. I grew up in Southwest Florida but I left home three days after I graduated from high school and rarely came back. My first year of college, my family moved to a new town. Over the next five years first my cousin, who had moved in with us when I was a teen, then my Mom’s second husband (who she divorced when I was six, but who was in and out of my whole childhood), then my Mom all died. My childhood cat even died sometime in there (nobly, as I hear, defending the back yard against the next door neighbor’s bull mastiff). And I stopped going to Florida altogether. That was six years ago.
But, like any problem we try to avoid, it kept coming back to me. I moved to Vermont three and a half years ago and since then I have repeatedly found myself bumping up against the same kinds of themes and issues I tried to run away from when I left home. And I’ve found myself unable to deal with them any more affectively this time around. But the universe keeps bringing them back to me, so I finally decided to try to face them head on.
Three weeks ago I took a flight to South Florida. I have been traveling through the place where I grew up, seeing people I left behind, and facing up to and trying to remember the things that terrified me as a child. It has been a harrowing adventure, to say the least. But I think that this kind of journey ends up being necessary for any child who runs away to survive. It’s a way of seeking clarity, of mourning what’s been lost, and of coming to a new understanding of the self and a new way of being in the world.
In honor of my journey, I’m posting a list of books for teens about similar journeys. Please add any that you can think of, and I challenge each of you to reflect on, and perhaps write about the journeys you’ve taken in your lives to reach the points that you have. And are there any journeys that you’ve been avoiding taking? If so, why?
Journeys are a powerful external metaphor for the internal work a person must do to come to terms with certain painful life experiences. True, some journeys are just about transcending a limited life sphere (like Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit.) But there are some experiences that are so deeply rooted and so life-altering that they taken a journey, internal and/or external, in order to digest and accept them. These journeys change the journeyer. They bring deep insight, as in the Arthurian knights’ quest for the holy grail, and the journeyer returns home profoundly changed.
The first book that came to mind when I thought of this topic was Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. In it the daughter follows the path that her mother took when she left. SPOILER ALERT: The daughter is trying to understand, if I remember correctly, why her motherleft and what it means that her mother has died. Likewise, in the graphic novel The Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa the father, in this case, takes a journey to understand death–the death of his son–though in this case he is trying to outrun it. And While Bilbo is just leaving home to seek his fortune in The Hobbit, I think that a case could be made that Frodo sets off on his adventures in The Lord of the Rings in order to understand Bilbo, his foster-father, better and to mourn his loss.
Then there are the characters who go on journeys because they feel that they belong nowhere and they are seeking out a place in the world. In The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, Lucky is looking for a guardian who won’t leave her like her mother and father both have. Hollis Woods, likewise, in Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff, is seeking a family who will keep her. And in the intriguing Australian Jellicoe Road by Meline Marchetta, Taylor Markham is seeking to understand her parents lives and what happened to them and how she has come to be where she is.
Then there are the characters who set out on journeys on purpose or are forced into them but who have never felt like the people around them. These journeys serve to help them understand why they are different and what their particular strengths and weaknesses are. Harry (/Angharad/Harimad-Sol) goes on this sort of journey in The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. She learns that she has “hill-blood” in her which does, in fact, mean that she isn’t like the “Homelanders” she was raised with–in fact, she discovers, she’s a powerful wizard. Then there’s The Folk Keeper by the lovely, talented Franny Billingsley in which Corinna’s journey to the sea teaches her that she is part seal and has her own water magic. In Keturah and Lord Death, by the equally lovely and talented Martine Leavitt, Keturah’s journey into the forest forces her to discover that she’s in love with Death himself, and that though she loves her village and the people in it, she does not really belong to it.
And finally there are some books in which the journey is darker and harder to articulate. These books are about darkness within and without and learning to meet it head on. In the unsettling book The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean, Symone’s trip to Antarctica forces her to see that she has been dissociating, that her step-father killed her father, and that he is going to kill her. She is forced to not only see these things, but to discover in herself the extreme strength to survive and to reclaim her life. And then there’s the whole Earthsea series by Ursula LeGuin. In the first book, The Wizard of Earthsea, the young headstrong wizard, Ged, must journey throughout the archipelago to hunt down the evil shadow that he discovers he, himself, created. In the next book, The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar’s journey leads her away from a home that is stifling, cruel, and abusive. And Tehanu, in the final book of the same name, journeys out to discover how she fits into a world where she was pushed into a fire by her own father and horribly disfigured for life. On her path, she discovers that she is far more than what any of the people who have harrassed or mistreated her think: she is part dragon.
My own journey home has taken me through all of these categories. Deep pain causes a need for a quest, I think. And any child who has been hurt or abandoned will probably need to take just such a journey at some point. These books provide excellent road-maps for the ride.