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BOOK REVIEW: Journey Outside by Mary Q. Steele

BOOK REVIEW: Journey Outside by Mary Q. Steele

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April 26, 2024

Thanks to Tyler Wright, a 2024 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s review.

A recurrent theme in Mary Q. Steele’s Journey Outside is this idea of rejecting comfort and refuge in the familiar and instead turning one’s attention to the unknown.  Where other tales within the “hollow earth” subgenre present clear external threats that the protagonist must contend with, Dilar’s conflict resides strictly within himself.  From the story’s onset, Dilar makes the bold decision to cut himself off from the protection and familiarity of his underground river raft entourage.  While all the members of his tribe are fast asleep in the comfort of their tents, Dilar dives into the water, swims to a rocky outcropping, and proceeds to scale it.  As Dilar watches the raft caravan disappear down the tunnel and the darkness slowly envelop him, he is left to his own thoughts—will he ever see his family and friends again?  Do the elders’ whispers of a “better place” truly exist somewhere in the beyond? 

Eventually Dilar finds himself outside of his subterranean abode and is thrust into a world long forgotten by his people.  He is consumed with an appetite for answers, setting off in the dead of night in a mysterious direction.  He awakens in a town of sheep herders, and it is there that his journey outside begins.

While I might be tempted to explore Mary Q. Steele’s short 1979 science fiction novella through the philosophical lens of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, this focus would likely obscure richer meanings hidden just beneath the surface.  There is an obvious parallel to Plato’s Cave parable in the story of the raft people who are stuck in a confined underground river world, whether consciously reworked by the author or a product of her own subconscious.  With the author’s passing in 1992, we are unfortunately left to speculate as to her motivations and thought process behind this unique Newberry Honor book vision.  Comparisons to Plato’s Cave would be the more comfortable approach to such an analytical undertaking—but like our protagonist Dilar I must reject it outright in the name of something more elusive beyond the horizon.

Dilar, through his pursuit of truth, not only freed himself from the tiny world and only home that he had ever known, but he also managed to break through the boundaries of other foreign lands.  Each location that he finds himself in is met with conditions that are favorable for settling down, and yet none manages to arrest his interest for long.  His meeting with Wingo the snowed-in cave hermit presents him with a particularly decadent prospect.  Dilar is offered endless culinary delights and hot cakes, fantastic stories of the hermit’s adventures around the world, and morning walks in the serene beauty of a mountain summit.  In another scenario, Dilar meets up with a wandering tribe of nomadic minimalists who have learned how to let go of earthly desires and simply exist in the moment.  With each of these tantalizing options, Dilar manages to break out of the spell of comfort and find a way out; resuming his noble mission to uncover the truth about his people and chart a way back.

I have encountered this sort of theme in other works of fiction, and I also recognize it, to some extent, within my own life.  One of the more notable examples is an event in Homer’s The Odyssey where the Greek hero Odysseus and his men visit the mysterious Lotus-Eaters, a tribe who consumes a plant with the power of lulling men into a state of bliss.  Unlike the very real bodily threats imposed by the cyclops and monsters of the deep, this quest-ending danger comes in the form of a deceptive sense of comfort and relaxation that halts men in their tracks and strips them of their past identities and sense of agency.  A more recent rendition of the theme is in the 2012 movie Life of Pi, based on the book by Yann Martel, where the protagonist Pi and his tiger companion Richard Parker become shipwrecked on an island lush with food and water and an end to suffering.  Their cause for celebration was short-lived, however, when one evening Pi discovers a human tooth from a long-deceased island inhabitant, realizing then that they will surely meet a similar fate.

We learn that Wingo’s caregiving spirit proves antithetical to the natural order of things, transforming large cats into dependent, slothful creatures.  A moment of realization suddenly seizes Dilar that his affiliation with the hermit, however accommodating and jovial he might be, is nothing more than a comfortable prison.  Both stories’ protagonists, Pi and Dilar, reason that it is time to move on lest they be slowly consumed by a life devoid of meaning.  Both stories also curiously feature tigers turned dependent on their caregivers—in the case of Richard Parker, it is the island’s seemingly unlimited supply of meerkats, and in the case of the once fierce tigers on the mountain it is by the charitable hand of Wingo.  

Another element that I strongly resonate with was the author’s choice to avoid fantastical tropes of wizards, dragons, and magic.  This fantasy realm—if one might be so bold as to include it among more prominent examples of otherworldly escapism—is full of tigers, hermits, desert nomads, eyeless cave fish, and vengeful eagles.  While the world’s lore is subtle and gentle, there are occasional signs of fantastical whimsy sprinkled throughout its locations and cultures and yet it rarely departs from the believable.  There are hints of a dystopian event at some point in the distant past, but Steele knows to leave much of this up to the reader’s imagination.  We simply don’t need to look under every rock for an answer in this book.  The right reader will likely find themself lost in the misty forests of Steele’s world as they contemplate their own existence, making the story as much about Dilar as it is to them.

The style of worldbuilding that Steele offers is something like a dance between the rigid natural laws that govern our world with a slight tendency toward the surreal, albeit without ever fully making a leap into the thing of fairytales.  The resulting tapestry of nature that immerses us is never overpowering.  A warm balance struck between realism and fantasy arrests our imaginative intrigue while gently cloaking us in real-world familiarity.  Dilar’s world is indeed one that is slightly adjacent to ours; much closer to our celestial happenings than that of J.R.R. Tolkien and L. Frank Baum.  As I wade into the imagery of its cedar forests, noble deserts, and sparsely populated rural farmland along its coast, I feel this sense of hyperrealism permeating the familiar, and it welcomes me in its embrace of beauty.

Does Dilar ever discover the true history of the raft people and their strange descent underground?  Does he rescue his people from their endless search for a “better place,” (as loosely prophesied by his grandfather), ending the story in true Logan’s Run Hollywood assurance?  I leave you with a quote from author Thomas Wolfe that simply asserts: “You can’t go home again.”  So even if Dilar does make it back home in the physical, is he truly home again?  Knowing what he knows now of his place in the world, can he ever comfortably return to the ancient underground waterway that dominated his adolescence?  Furthermore, what happens when the reader journeys outside of their own tiny cosmic predicament—can they ever return in the same manner by which they came? 

While the tug in this direction dictates every one of Dilar’s actions in this new world, I feel that the reader in their want for a just resolution would be missing out on the real story unfolding before them.  This story is as much a “journey outside” as it is a “journey inside.”  In short, this is a story about a boy finding his place in the world.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/medeia

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