Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1147

"She say bad spirit in your house," said the boy in the skeleton T-shirt.

Dom shivered in spite of himself. At home, a remark about spirits wouldn't have bothered him. But here in Thailand, in this strange, shadowy house, what the boy said made him very uneasy.

In this passage...

(The entire section contains 1147 words.)

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  • Characters
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"She say bad spirit in your house," said the boy in the skeleton T-shirt.

Dom shivered in spite of himself. At home, a remark about spirits wouldn't have bothered him. But here in Thailand, in this strange, shadowy house, what the boy said made him very uneasy.

In this passage the novel's unifying theme of the stranger is announced. Dom is an American who has already learned a little about Thailand and who can even speak some simple Thai phrases, but he is largely ignorant of the subtleties of Thai life, thinking that "Anything seemed possible here." When Dom finds himself in a strange house crowded with customs which include profound spiritual beliefs alien to him, his character is severely tried. His first impulse is to retreat into his computer, and this tells us a little about him—that he tends to try to escape his problems; but Sleator cuts off this retreat by having the hard disk crash, perhaps under the malevolent influence of a spirit. Dom is thus at the mercy of not only Thai spirits but Thai culture, finding that he has little choice but to try to remove the curse on his family.

Authors frequently place major characters under great stress in order to reveal their most important personal traits. In the case of Dom, this testing stress reveals his ability to make friends—Lek—and his fortitude— venturing by himself among the crowds of Bangkok. Dom's pressure-laden situation also allows Sleator to introduce another theme, the dangers of ignorance. From getting lost on Bangkok's streets to failing to show proper respect to people, Dom spends the novel putting himself in deadly danger because he does not know what he is doing. His ignorance could get him killed. This theme sets up its mirror image, the theme of the value of learning. As Dom acquires knowledge of his environment, he puts it to good use, pleasing Thais with his willingness to speak their language and using it to help himself navigate among the many spirits that are everyday parts of Thai life.

This multiplicity of themes may make Dangerous Wishes seem like a complex novel and, in fact, it is. But Sleator is a master storyteller at the height of his powers, and the narrative moves so smoothly that the themes do not call attention to themselves—instead, they are intimately bound to the action, requiring no pauses for exposition because the action expresses everything that needs to be said about them. The principal characters Dom and Lek may seem simple compared to these interwoven themes but they also have their subtleties.

Lek at first seems like a mere function of the plot, helping to set up the perilous situation for Dom. He tells the Kamen family that their maid is afraid of a bad spirit in their house, noting "More like-like bad spirit come with you," which hints at a malevolence directed specifically at the Kamens rather than just anyone who might occupy the house. Lek also helps advance the stranger theme by pointing out that Dom and family are "falangs," a not necessarily complimentary term for outsiders. He also helps build suspense with "'But I didn't wish for anything,' Lek was thinking. 'All I did was tell them where the house was.'" What wish would he be thinking about?

It turns out that his wishes are dangerous and that he is troubled by them. He has "a battered old pocket computer" that was given to him by Duan, a good woman who had helped Lek learn English but who was murdered by Cambodian guerrillas. When he wishes upon the pocket computer something good happens for him, but at the cost of something bad happening to someone else. For instance, he was able to purchase a good food cart cheaply because the cart had rolled over and killed its previous owner and therefore no one else would buy it. Some of Lek's good heart is revealed because he chooses to stop wishing on the pocket computer; some of the pain of his existence is revealed because he hangs on to the dangerous object because it was a gift from someone who had been kind to him. As his character develops, he becomes more than a dangerous wisher whose presence pushes Dom into the plot, he becomes an individualized human being. Although the focus is on Dom as the stranger, Lek becomes equally bound to the themes of Dangerous Wishes. He becomes not just the facilitator of Dom's education in Thai ways, but he also becomes a learner himself; his adventure with Dom is a journey of self-discovery in which he uncovers the capacity to be a good friend, to appreciate the qualities of someone unlike himself, and to realize that he has the capacity to help himself without Dangerous Wishes.

Dom is a many-faceted figure who defies stereotyping. He appears to be a computer nerd, but he has a venturesome temperament and physical courage not associated with the stereotypical computer geek. He is a young man of action taking chances in a harrowing quest, yet he is thoughtful and sensitive to the feelings of others, qualities not associated with the conventional action hero. Instead of being a character type, he is all fifteen-yearold with the slips of mind, changes in mood, and unfettered impulsiveness often found at that age, but with these common traits modified by his interest in learning, his ability to accept Lek as an equal (much to Lek's surprise), and his good heart. That he occasionally does something stupid such as placing Lek's pocket computer in the wrong pocket after secretly wishing on it is not annoying because it adds another defining quality which makes him seem even more a real person with a unique combination of faults and virtues.

What the themes and characters add up to is an especially satisfying story of action, suspense, and growth of personality. Dom and Lek are pleasing individuals who grow in their capacities to care about other people and to take action on their own or others' behalf. As they experience an intense adventure, with danger at every turn, not just from living people but from spirits that can be anywhere, they invite readers to share their experiences. In the case of Dom, the sharing includes learning about a complex, deeply interesting culture. For instance, his learning Thai words such as jai rawn and jai yen not only serve to show something of the language Dom tries to learn, but tells us about Thai cultural views. Jai rawn is hot heart, and jai yen is cool heart, meaning, Lek says, "Think first, then do." Dom is impulsive by nature but he can learn to behave better by absorbing some of Thailand's cultural wisdom, and in the process readers also can learn a little about a fascinating and faraway people.

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