Sunday, October 6, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: A Life in the Woods

Current events having proved yet again this week that fiction writers are hampered, as real life is not, by the necessity of making the behavior of characters believable, let's haul out the good old Fortean Times for another excursion into the land of Free Fiction Ideas, that only need to be toned down and fleshed out a bit in order to use them.

I am on page 10 of issue 306 before I find it, but there it is, big as life and twice as natural: Father and son hermits are 'rescued.' A Vietnamese man went a little wonky after his home was bombed and his mother and two oldest sons killed in 1972. He dropped out of the North Vietnamese military, assaulted his wife, and then carried his one-yer-old son into the jungle. He came back a few days later and his neighbors lied to him, saying his wife and youngest son had died, and he returned to the jungle.

This summer, two local people went 25 miles into a forest in the Tay Tra district of Quang Ngai province, apparently in search of firewood. (This is puzzling to me in and of itself, but if everybody in Vietnam accepts it, who am I to quibble?) These firewood-gatherers did not see or speak to the pair themselves, but saw their tree house and reported it to authorities, presumably suspecting that anyone building houses in trees this far from anywhere was probably doing something illegal. The two men, 82 and 41 years old respectively, were "rescued," the old man being carried out on a stretcher to be treated for malnutrition. They wore bark loincloths and had a number of homemade tools, including an ax and a two-chord fiddle. In addition to hunting and trapping small game and farming a good variety of food crops, they made wooden statues, had saffron and citronella for spice, and cultivated luxuries like tobacco and tea. They had bamboo plumbing, a stockade of sharp stakes to deter predators, and a little copper bell used in religious rites.

This was not the first time they were ever discovered. Someone at some point appears to have given them the seeds for the saffron and citronella; and the youngest son, having been told about his father and older brother on his mother's deathbed, actually went looking for and found them twenty years ago; but could not persuade them to come out of the forest.

The son, Ho Van Lang, can apparently speak only a few words of his family's minority group's dialect, and the father no longer speaks at all. The father was placed in a medical center for treatment of malnutrition, and the son is living with his nephew, who says he doesn't want to eat or even drink water and is clearly looking to escape back to the familiar forest. And after forty years, this is not surprising.

Feral children always tickle the brain. In real life they challenge our collective human identity, as after a certain point they are never able to adjust to normal society or behave in ways we find fully, convincingly human. But Ho Van Lang is not a feral child. He was raised by another human, with almost all the necessary human environmental factors - technology, religion, a parent, work; even language, art, music, and luxuries. All he lacked was society. He had no peer group, no elders, no one younger to take care of; no one to love or trust, or compete with, or learn from, but his father, who apparently was unstable and capable of violence.

If his father had died of sickness or disease before the youngest son came looking for them, would he have chosen to go with his brother to explore the world outside, and found his place in it?

What exactly did his father tell him about the world?

It is easy to project fantasies into a life like that, and in order to make a satisfactory work of fiction you'd probably have to. If nothing else, his contact with the outside world would need to be at a younger, more flexible age, in order to render his interior states and behavior sufficiently familiar for the reader to identify with. The Robinsonade elements - homemade plumbing in a treehouse! - make it a particularly appealing framework on which to erect a coming-of-age rebellion story aimed at adolescent boys.

Which also makes it easy to turn into a pale imitation of Gary Paulsen's immortal Hatchet, or a silly macho fantasy of self-reliance, or something equally unsatisfactory. But with research and awareness, it could be a nuanced exploration of human development, too, without losing the Robinsonade.

You know what strikes me most strongly?

The neighbors. They were sufficiently afraid that the father'd hurt his wife and youngest son to lie to him about them; but they made no attempt to follow him and rescue the one-year-old. The father got the seeds he cultivated from somewhere. Society could have found them out and extracted the boy at either of those points. But they did not. Why not?

And what was the practical affect of the war in all this?

That's where I'd start. If it were me.

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