Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 870
An unnamed young man is riding his bicycle, dressed in his father’s Army fatigue jacket and wool cap, or took. He is fearfully yet determinedly making a long trek from Monument, Massachusetts, to Rutterberg, Vermont. He carries a package for his father and, just before leaving home, discards some medicine.
The narrative switches to a transcript of a discussion between questioner “T” (self-identified as “Brint”) and subject “A.” The goal appears to be to elicit memories from A, and among the topics discussed are an abrupt move the family made when A was of preschool age and had the name Paul Delmonte. The transcript—composed of both exterior questions and answers and interior narration—ends when A complains of a headache.
The rest of the book alternates chapters between these two formats. The rider is Adam Farmer, an older teen who encounters many obstacles, including a dog attack, hostile local boys who run him off the road, poor weather, a thief, and failed attempts to reach his friend Amy on the phone. Through it all, he remains focused on his goal of Rutterberg and shores up his courage by singing “The Farmer in the Dell,” the way his insurance-salesman father once did.
During the transcripted sessions, A is guided by Brint through a series of important life events, including meeting Amy. A is shy and introverted, while Amy is quick-spirited and mischievous; her idea of fun is to play pranks called “Numbers.”
A major milestone occurs one day when A—now in his mid-teens—receives a call from Amy. She tells him that a newspaper editor from A’s former hometown visited Amy’s father, a local newspaper editor himself. Amy’s father mentioned the Farmers to his visiting colleague, but the visitor did not recall any family named Farmer ever living in the town. After that call, A becomes suspicious about heretofore unquestioned truths about his life and quietly investigates. He uncovers a double birth certificate for himself, and he listens in on his mother’s “special” phone calls.
A’s conversations with Brint seem superficially straightforward, but they are laced with menace: A’s behavior seems to be coaxed or modified with pills and needles, and A is wary of Brint’s motivations. Nevertheless, the discussions continue and A remembers a man named Mr. Grey, who came to his home occasionally to speak with his father in private.
Eventually, A learns the truth when his father realizes he has been snooping around: The “Famers” are actually the Delmontes—A is now known as Adam but his real name is Paul—and they are part of the witness relocation program. When Adam’s reporter father testified against some high-level individuals, he and his family were nearly assassinated, so they had to be protected. Mr. Grey (also known as Thompson) is their sole link to the department. He visits in order to check on them, but Adam’s father suspects that his family has become problematic for Thompson. Shortly after Adam learns the truth, Thompson sends a warning that they may have been found out. The family takes a short vacation until matters can be resolved.
Adam—riding his bicycle to Rutterberg—arrives at the Rest-A-While Motel, where he believes he has recently stayed with his parents, but when he arrives the motel is long deserted. He calls Amy one last time and learns the phone number he has been calling is not hers: It has been used by the same single man for three years. Adam panics and blacks out.
Adam continues his recollections: The family did stay at the Rest-A-While Motel, but the next they were run down by a car. Adam watched, immobile and injured, as his mother died on the road, though his father seems to have escaped. Voices approached, saying his mother had been “terminated” but that Adam could have some use, so he was taken alive. Before he was lifted from the ground, Adam caught a glimpse of familiar gray pants.
Adam arrives in Rutterberg on his bicycle, turns the corner, and finds himself back in the hospital, where a doctor is waiting for him. Walking on the hospital grounds, he is greeted with episodes from his bicycle journey in miniature: a growling dog, jeering patients, a helpful maintenance man. Adam asks if his father is dead, and the doctor looks sad. Adam then acknowledges that the doctor always seems sad when Adam realizes yet again that his father is dead and there never was a bicycle journey.
The final chapter represents Brint’s summary transcript of his conversations with A. The summary is an annual report on A’s condition. The report has been prepared three times, and it implies that Thompson/Grey has been suspended pending an investigation into whether he was involved in the termination of the Farmer family. It also indicates that this year’s conversations with A have not provided any new information. Brint’s recommendation is to keep A confined and in his current amnesiac condition until the rules allow him to be terminated or until he kills himself.
The determined young man again sets out on his bicycle, heading to Rutterberg, Vermont, to see his father.
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