Themes

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

Author Matt Richtel tells the interwoven stories of several families through the lens of one tragedy—a teenage boy’s mistake that killed Keith O’Dell and James Furfaro and immediately impacted four families. Centering on this individual case of a highway accident that 19-year-old Reggie Shaw caused by texting while driving, Richtel...

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Author Matt Richtel tells the interwoven stories of several families through the lens of one tragedy—a teenage boy’s mistake that killed Keith O’Dell and James Furfaro and immediately impacted four families. Centering on this individual case of a highway accident that 19-year-old Reggie Shaw caused by texting while driving, Richtel shows how that incident and its aftermath weave together multiple themes. One primary theme is arguably the most relevant to contemporary society: the consequences of the misuse of technology. But the book’s importance largely stems from the author’s effective exploration of other, more timeless themes, such as taking responsibility for one’s actions, and its close cousin, the relationship between guilt and redemption. A different kind of responsibility—that of science to keep up with social developments and conduct relevant research—is closely connected. As it recounts the changes that Reggie undergoes, the book can be read as a coming-of-age story, but it is not biographical. A Deadly Wandering effectively connects hard questions about adolescence and maturity with scientific and legal issues about cognitive development, technology, and justice (compared to punishment) when assigning responsibility and blame.

Reggie Shaw’s personal growth was one outcome of the tragedy and his pleading guilty to causing two deaths. It emerges as a key theme in part because it is one constant thread through the entire book’s fabric. A challenge that Richtel faced in writing this book was to keep the focus on the effects on O’Dell’s and Furfaro’s families while also telling the readers of some effects on the community he saw as positive. Beyond the court-mandated community service, Shaw educates about and advocates against distracted driving. The question remains open, however: can this be adequate atonement?

The relationship between nature and nurture and between humans and nature are raised primarily in the book’s science reporting. A central issue is the physiological effects of distraction of any kind and the addictive effects of repeated behavior. Do texting and similar technology-related behaviors actually cause addiction? If so, Richtel wants us to ask, does that addiction absolve the affected person’s negligence, even partially? The issues of upbringing, individual free will, and the function of a human’s moral compass may be more relevant. If Shaw had a choice in his actions, then he caused the accident—just as his prosecution argued, ultimately succeeding in getting Shaw to plead guilty.

In addition, Richtel does more than report on neuroscientific research into addiction. The theme of responsibility connects science to society as well. He situates that body of research, neuroscience, within the issue of objectivity compared to social usefulness or necessity. While scientists constantly add to our knowledge of brain function, technology moves faster than research. The tragic consequences of these kinds of distracted behavior, which seem likely to keep increasing, seem adequate grounds for increasing scientific research on these topics, but Richtel does leave the reader to ponder the scientific community’s right to select its own subjects.

Law versus justice is another persistent, important theme of this book. Richtel recounts the efforts of law enforcement and the Utah legal system for more serious charges, contrasting them to Shaw’s family’s exertions to keep him out of jail. The immediate effects, including the presiding judge’s invocation of Hugo’s Les Miserables, remind the reader of the humans involved in the case and the fact that no sentence can fulfill all parties’ expectations. Richtel also brings in the later passage of stiffer Utah legislation about distracted driving, in part to remind the reader that any single event can generate long-term damages and benefits.

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