With her latest introspective novel, “Just a Regular Boy,” Catherine Ryan Hyde takes us on a journey that we’d never imagine taking ourselves — going with a survivalist and his five-year-old son into the wilds of northern Idaho to survive what he believes is a coming apocalypse. Remy’s father, Roy, plans to survive off the land, and he believes that he has everything they need to survive.
Watching vicariously as Roy drives Remy away from everything he’s ever known and loved, including his best friend Lester, we feel Remy’s fear, and our heart breaks for him. Remy is frustrated because he can’t call Lester—no cell service. He can’t write Lester—no mail boxes. So he asks his father what they do have at this place they are approaching. His father heartlessly explains, “Son, up there in our new home, we’ll have the most important thing a person can have: freedom.”
Apparently, that freedom extends to Remy not being treated as a child because soon his father says that he and Remy are equal, and Remy should not call him “Dad.” As most of us know, a five-year-old does not care about equality; a five-year-old wants, more than anything, to feel safe and loved. Remy feels neither of those essentials in this new place they are calling home. In the tiny cabin there is only room for bunk beds and a wood stove. The cabin is the size of a one-car garage. One room with one dirty window. After the long drive up there from their town in the southern part of Idaho, Remy asks where the bathroom is. He is stunned when his father indicates the world around them. There’s no toilet paper, just grass and leaves. And his father isn’t going out into the dangerous, frigid, dark night with Remy, so the boy tries unsuccessfully to hold it in all night. That’s just the first of one heartbreaking scene after another.
We quickly see that his father is basically a cruel man. When Remy is inspecting a creek near their home, watching the fish gliding in the icy water, he leans over to drink the water. His father frightens him, so he falls into the freezing water as his father laughs. That’s the beginning of Remy’s “instruction.” His father doesn’t teach him to read or write. He doesn’t teach him mathematics. He teaches Remy about the evil of man and that he should be afraid of all other people, because they will want to kill the five-year-old. “People are lethal,” he tells Remy. But Remy also sees that his father doesn’t know everything and hasn’t prepared for everything. Soon after their move, Remy outgrows his shoes. His father never thought to buy extras in larger sizes. So Remy goes barefoot. In the winter, he wears layers of socks with plastic bags over his feet, but even when his father does make a supply run in their early years there, he doesn’t buy Remy shoes. Yet he always seems to have cigarettes handy.
A year later, there is a wildfire, and the smoke causes Roy to believe that the “thing” he fears has begun. Remy walks to the road, which his father had told him not to do, and finds out it’s “only” a forest fire. We see that while Roy believes his paranoid fantasies, Remy isn’t quite sold on that idea. Another year or so later, we watch in horror as Remy falls from a tree, breaking his ribs, when trying to recover their last fishing hook. In spite of his extreme pain, he knows that he needs to buck up and hide his injuries from his father because his father won’t care. Even though they are running out of food, and have no fishing hooks left, his father refuses to go for supplies, claiming that there might not be supplies anywhere. Then his father disappears.
By now, Remy has spent years listening to his father tell him how dangerous strangers are. He believes that strangers will kill him, but he is also in danger of starving. There are difficult decisions that this child — he doesn’t know how old he is—perhaps eight or nine?—must make.
There is another important character in the story, although as the title might suggest, Remy is the center of the story. Through sections of the story titled “Remy” and “Anne,” we learn about each of these main characters. Anne is married and has two children, both former foster children she and her husband Chris adopted after fostering. Chris does not want more foster children, but Anne feels a need to help another child. Their marriage is rocky, and she starts to see a therapist about her frustration, her marriage, and questions she has about her childhood. When she hears about a possible foster child, but one who is literally living in the wild and not yet caught, she becomes determined to help that child.
Both Anne and Remy have trauma in their past that together they will begin to understand and overcome. At the same time, the whole family is forced to consider the fear that infects the survivalists, and wonder if that fear is perhaps not completely misplaced. How much weight do we put on our fears of the possibility of civil war in this country? That a crazed shooter will show up at our school, library, synagogue or church, or shopping center? That a new virus will kill us? Do we allow those fears to incapacitate us?
The story is beautifully conceived and executed and incredibly touching. As with all of Ryan Hyde’s characters, we really come to empathize with Remy and Anne. And as much as we want them to have a happily ever after, we’ve also been forced to confront the very real possibility that such a future is not for them. We do live in a world of mass shootings, of car crashes, of COVID and other possible pandemics, of other events that cause premature deaths—yet most of us live as if we will continue on. As Remy learns, we need other people, and we need to face our fears and still live our lives to the fullest. Because to do otherwise is unthinkable.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.