Nina Bawden: Off the Road
Puffin Books 2000 (1998)
It is the near future — 12th June 2040, to be precise. Britain is divided, east and west: the civilised part, the Urbs, is separated from the barbarians in the west by a wall. Young Tom, an only child, is accompanying his parents and his grandfather north to a Memory Theme Park and they stop their journey to recharge their electric vehicle at a service station just by the Wall. And then 65-year-old James Makepeace Jacobs, like a human White Rabbit, disappears through an exit at the back of the toilets. Tom feels compelled to follow his grandfather, and we’re almost immediately propelled into the action of Nina Bawden’s dystopian children’s novel.
Tom’s world provides an ordered existence, with everything organised and in its place, and that includes humans. There’s a one-child policy strictly in force, so any reference to siblings, aunts or uncles is taboo. Workers cease working at 60 and have five years in retirement — until the call comes for their enrolment in a Nostalgia Block of the nearest Memory Theme Park. Here Oldies spend a couple of days with their family reliving the world their childhood in a kind of virtual reality before they are left to be “gently and permanently cared for”.
The author, clearly, is heavily hinting at a form of state euthanasia, but before young readers can fully assimilate this Tom’s grandfather is on the run with Tom in hot pursuit. With this dark beginning Nina Bawden takes us in unexpected directions, with an apt ending I didn’t see coming.