Back Roads Themes
by Tawni O'Dell

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Back Roads Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The social conflicts that Harley Altmyer endures and attempts to understand are inextricably woven into the themes of Back Roads, so that it is impossible to separate them neatly, and Harley bemoans those English teachers who take the pleasure out of books by "breaking them down into themes and sentence structure." However, the best novels do have important themes, and this one is so well written that its pleasures are indestructible. By definition, the most vital theme of any bildungsroman is the process of, and the necessity for, maturity. Harley's progress can be summed up by two especially riveting scenes: the one in which he seeks and accepts the help of Betty, his first counselor, and the one in which he confronts the authorities after he is arrested. No longer does he fantasize that he is capable of complete independence; he allows his counselor to take him into her home and comfort him because he knows he needs her and that she is good at her job. At the jail, when the sheriff makes a snide remark about Callie, Harley yells for him to shut up, knowing that this outburst will bring even more physical abuse from the deputies. A bit earlier when Harley is talking to his uncle Mike on the phone from jail and Mike asks incredulously if Harley is sure that he wants to use his only phone call to talk to his sister Jody, a six-year-old girl, Harley simply and assertively says, "Right." He has grown up a lot, not completely, not without scars, and not without severe damage, but by the end of the novel, he is very nearly an adult, and he can accept both help and responsibility.

He is also no longer a teenager. At the conclusion of the story, Harley is twenty years old, having "celebrated" his birthday by having a few beers and hiding his uncle's rifle. Harley has come to realize that the rifle, which was used to kill his father, is more of a danger to the family than an instrument of protection.

Another important theme is the pull of family, the primeval drive to react emotionally to one's parents and siblings, even when those reactions can be tremendously, irreversibly destructive, as in the case of incest, which figures prominently in Back Roads. A subtheme here is parental responsibility versus the selfish, id-driven desire for pure pleasure and the need to vent one's anger. Harley's father has abused his family, and this abuse has led to his murder. Harley feels compelled to provide for and to protect his family, yet he also has the strong and often self-centered sexual desires of any normal adolescent, desires that pull him away from his family and into the adult world of sensuality. Callie, who has an affair with him, feels both a strong obligation to her family and the powerful desire to satisfy her sexual needs with a younger, more virile man. These contending forces lead to ecstatic pleasure and shocking violence.

Perhaps the largest, most overarching theme is the self against society. The young feel injustice more strongly because it is new to them; adults must become somewhat jaded in order to survive and be happy. Harley is stung by every arrow of misfortune, and there is usually someone, often an adult authority figure, to...

(The entire section is 851 words.)