Book review

Off the Road by Nina Bawden (1998)

Now, there's a fence in this book. It forms the boundary between the Urbs, that is urban communities where life is protected and safe, and the barbaric Outside. The fence, of course, is to keep all the Insiders safe from the 'barbarians and bandits, outlaws and outcasts; great hunting dogs with slavering jaws; trolls from the mountains; dragons with hot glaring eyes' and tricksy, wild trees. Fortunately, there are plenty of Trusties to check the defences, keep them all safe and hold back the Wild.

Tom's grandfather, Gandy, had been a Trusty, until he retired. Now, five years after his retirement he has been called to Nostalgia Block 95 where 'he will be gently and permanently cared for'. But with his connections, Gandy won't be turning up at Nostalgia Block 95. Stopping off at a motorway service station on the way Gandy nips in through the front door of the gents and straight out at the back, under a gap in the electrified fence and out into the wild wood. Fine plan, except that Tom thinks his grandfather has gone stark raving bonkers and chases after him to save him and bring him back! Brave Tom.

Well, maybe, Gandy left the back door open hoping that Tom might follow him. On the outside Tom discovers he has a huge extended family, headed by his grandfather's brother, all living and working at Owlbury Hall Farm somewhere on the Welsh border. Conditions are primitive. The children wash under the yard pump and help fetch the harvest in by hand. The little community is pestered by Dropouts who live wild in the hills and steal what they need from the farmsteads. But worse than that is the threat of disease and hunger. Life is harder than Tom had ever imagined, but he finds personal satisfaction in the work, something which he has never experienced on the Inside.

So here we have two conflicting ways of life and there are people on both sides of the fence who are not happy with their lot. Tom's great-aunt Tess took to her bed upstairs at Owlbury Hall twenty years ago and hasn't been out since, so great is her longing for Neighbours and Mars bars. But it is only when Tom applies to the Rangers for permission to stay Outside that he learns the full importance of the fence:

The gentle-voiced Ranger leaned forward. 'Let me explain, Mister Jacobs. Think what would happen if we let in too many! They would swamp us. They would have to be fed. They would want jobs and land. Or they might join up with our Dropouts and become even more of a nuisance.' He lowered his voice as if what he was about to say was the worst thing of all. 'If they haven't already been sterilized, they will start to breed.'
Tom listened, bewildered. He thought he must have misunderstood. He said, 'But the Wall is to keep us all safe inside it. Not to keep us locked out...'

What happens to Tom? Read on and find out.

I thoroughly enjoyed this extremely well-written book. There are a lot of interesting ideas. See what you think of them. It's worth thinking about because, after all, the future is in your hands.

What can I read next?

If you are interested in a different view of the future you might enjoy this one by Lois Lowry:

Or this fantasy by William Nicholson might catch your imagination:

Or if you just enjoyd the adventure, you could have a look at this war-time one by Martin Booth:

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