- Switching Tracks:Where Author and Critic Meet
At the May 1986 Conference of the Children's Literature Association at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, Dean Hughes, former English professor turned fulltime writer for children and young adults, was a featured speaker. Dean and I are old acquaintances from ChLA Conferences and enjoy (along with our mutual interest in children's books and respect for each other's expertise) a rather bantering relationship. This time our bantering turned into challenge and a decision to focus on a single book, Dean's young adult novel, Switching Tracks (Atheneum, 1982), and each write separate studies of it, his from the point of view of author, mine from the point of view of critic. We wanted to see how these studies would support, differ from, contradict and/or complement each other. LRK
- The Twain Shall Meet:Dean Hughes's Switching Tracks
Unrealistic in its representation of the novel, Ronald Himler's dust-cover illustration for Dean Hughes's young adult novel, Switching Tracks, is nevertheless symbolically appropriate. The only railway featured in the novel's plot is the model railway system built by 80-year old Willard, who persuades 13-year old Mark Austin to help him renovate it. However, the central cover picture shows a youth approaching us, walking on a railway track, about to pass an elderly man walking away from us. This cover may be seen as emblematic of a deeper level of the story where a dying old man and a troubled young adolescent cross each other's path at an important transitional moment in both their lives. Supported by a third-person narrative stance that permits the reader to see not only the protagonist's internal suffering but also the concern of those who care for him, the intra-generational nature of the relationship between the man and the boy makes Hughes's book a complex and balanced "adolescent novel." Both children and adults are treated empathetically. Such double empathy is somewhat unusual in works for this age group where, by and large, old is old and young is young and never the twain shall meet. [End Page 154]
The world view of Switching Tracks contrasts with those of two famous exemplars of the adolescent tradition, Salinger's seminal Catcher in the Rye and Cormier's The Chocolate War. Yet the novel resembles both books in certain important ways. Like Holden Caulfield, Mark Austin is on his way to a breakdown. Like Jerry Renault, he is pitted against school bullies with whom he must eventually have a showdown. But in avoiding the solipsism that is often a product of first-person narration of the Salinger-type, Hughes places the protagonist in a world that is neither the projection of his mental state nor totally responsible for it. Mark's inability to cope with his guilt over an angry challenge flung at his abusive and infantile father—just before the latter drove his car over a cliff—develops in a wider context. Like Mark, the major adults in the novel are attempting to deal with circumstances beyond their control, to live with their own mistakes, and to choose ways of acting and relating to others that will satisfy their own inner needs. The adolescent context is not as fully realized as the adult because of Mark's alienation from his ninth-grade contemporaries in his new school in Denver, but his confrontation with the bully, Whittington, and his cohort, Anders, is not imbued with the Satanic significance which Cormier gives to like encounters. Sympathetic contemporaries resist Whittington and Anders and make some attempts to break through Mark's barriers, only to meet the same resistance as would adults.
No one in the world of Switching Tracks is preternaturally innocent, by virtue of being a child: Mark's younger brother Ronnie has his own axe to grind. No one is preternaturally corrupt in being adult. Adolescents are much like everyone else, not a separate breed caught between childhood innocence and adult corruption in a world they never made. All have their own agendas. Even institutions and their representatives...