Cleary, in her first attempt at fantasy, includes a number of important themes for young people: responsibility versus recklessness, loyalty to friends and family, courage in the face of pressure to “stay safe,” and atonement for mistakes.
Ralph, like Keith, longs to be older and to be able to explore his surroundings freely. He is impatient to see the world and to have adventures. His restlessness causes him to behave irresponsibly early in the novel. Desperate to ride the motorcycle, he tumbles into a wastebasket. Convincing himself that he is doing a scientific study, he pits the motorcycle against a vacuum cleaner and loses. He “borrows” the motorcycle without Keith’s permission. It is only when Ralph realizes that freedom brings responsibility—in his dangerous mercy mission—that he is rewarded with true friendship. His newfound ability to consider consequences keeps him from leaving with Keith and doing the traveling that he has always wanted to do; the price of being kept in a cage is too high. Instead, he decides that he will stay in the hotel and explore the possibilities there.
Ralph’s friendship with Keith makes him realize the cost of being a grown-up, a common theme in Cleary’s work. Here, a reckless character behaves impulsively and makes mistakes, but, when he sees the consequences of his errors, he atones for his bad judgment by behaving with bravery, kindness, and maturity.
Cleary depicts the...
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