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Find more Walk On
“Sometimes you got to walk the day out of you. You know?” says Will, 16. “Walk it right out through the soles of your feet.” Not everyone is a walker, he continues. “Most people aren’t. But I am.”
Tess Dombergh is, too.
At first glance, Will and Tess seem to come from different worlds, literally. Will, narrator of Alison McGhee’s spare What I Leave Behind, is a high-schooler and Dollar Store employee who lives with his mom in Los Angeles, while Tess, the disgraced shadow of her social-climbing twin, inhabits the medieval, fantastical kingdom of Goredd, where dragons live among humans, in Rachel Hartman’s epic Tess of the Road. But deep traumas have taken root inside them both, and over the course of their very different journeys, Will and Tess do the slow, taxing job of working—and walking—through their traumas.
These are books that differ in their execution as well as in their settings. What I Leave Behind is told through 100 vignettes, each accompanied by a Chinese blessing. Several years before the start of the book, Will’s father leaped from a bridge with a note in his pocket; ever since, Will has dealt with his thoughts by walking, observing his neighborhood. When his childhood friend, Playa, is gang-raped at a party, Will suddenly finds himself helpless in the face of another’s trauma.
In scope, Tess Dombergh’s journey stands diametrically opposed to Will’s. When her relationship with a local boy leaves her physically and emotionally wounded and causes her to fall from grace, Tess is relegated to life in a nunnery, or as her sister’s handmaiden. Simmering with a bright yet quiet rage, Tess chooses instead to join a search for a mythical serpent. Her journey, sprawling and massive, centers on the walk itself, which becomes tied to Tess’ own will to live: “The road was possibility, the kind she’d thought her life would never hold again, and Tess herself was motion. Motion had no past, only future. . . . Walk on became her credo; she repeated it to herself every morning upon deciding to get up and exist for one more day.”
Growth through hardship is hardly a new concept in YA, but the last few years in particular have seen an uptick in books that center on the physicality of trauma. Repeated motion, muscle memory, and the way deep wounds live on in the body are repeated themes in both books: Will chases the memory of his father by trying, over and over, to re-create his dad’s cornbread recipe, while a massage triggers a deeply emotional, long-buried memory for Tess. Other books have paralleled the recovery process with a journey or physical experience: Annie trains for a marathon as she grieves her track-star boyfriend’s death in Miranda Keneally’s Breathe, Annie, Breathe (2014); Q remembers the fervent 10 miles he walked with Nest, the girl he loves, who thinks of her bipolar disorder as a three-faced monster in Patrick Downes’ Ten Miles One Way (2017); Annabelle deals with her PTSD by running from Seattle to D.C. in Deb Caletti’s A Heart in a Body in the World (2018).
In What I Leave Behind and Tess of the Road, all of that trauma and motion exists, but it’s winnowed down to its most basic form. “How do you get through, when things are too much?” Will says. “Ask me and I’ll tell you to walk. ‘Just walk,’ I’ll say. ‘Walk. Walk and walk and walk and walk and walk.’”
When pressed, Tess offers a theory that is much the same. “You don’t get there,” she explains. “You’re on the Road, and the Road goes ever on and on. . . . I have been walking, literally walking, for two months, and I feel . . . right when I do.”
Few things are stigmatized like mental illness, trauma, and the recovery process. Healing, so often, goes hand in hand with shame, and there are no quick fixes, no fast roads to wellness. In their measured passages, these books—hymns to the journey—offer two poignant, if disparate, examinations of the step-by-step walk that leads out of a place of pain and into one of healing. For teens, for whom life is often a breakneck thing, the plea to walk on—whether that means keep going or go slow—is a message that, word by word, bears repeating.
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