The Fear Place
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Interest Level, Middle Grade, (4-6)
Publisher: Aladdin (paperback) 1996
Paperback: 128 pages
Review by Terry Northcutt, Ph.D.
Sibling rivalry, an encounter with a cougar, a boy paralyzed with fear on a narrow ledge of a rock face with a six hundred foot drop to the gorge below, the same boy knowing he needs to navigate this rock ledge he calls the Fear Place to rescue a brother who may be injured. These are some of the plot elements in The Fear Place by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor that create the tension, conflict, and suspense that engage readers of adventure and survival books. But the author of this book goes beyond these elements to bring readers into the experience of the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that we all recognize as part of the experience of facing our worst fears. More important, she illustrates the struggle to cope with that fear. And in an email conversation she shared the fear about her own two boys that compelled her to write the novel.
The book begins with a family trip to Estes Park in Colorado where the parents will conduct research for their fifth and final year. On the flight to Denver and the trek to the campground, the reader is introduced to Doug and his older brother Gordon (referred to as Gordie). The story is Doug’s story. It is a story about two brothers who are competitive; it is a story about a younger brother who feels that his older brother always gets the best and the most of everything; it is about two boys who have said and done hurtful things to each other for so long, they interpret every gesture and every word as a preconceived plan to win, to hurt, to get even.
And it is this conflict between the brothers that causes Gordie to leave his brother at the base camp and climb the rock face with the narrow ledge in the Comanche Wilderness area when his parents are called away to an uncle’s funeral. On his own in the High Meadow, Doug encounters a cougar. From this moment to the end of the book, Doug will be engaged in a full time endeavor to manage fear—fear that the cougar will attack, fear that his parents who have not returned as scheduled have been in a plane crash, fear that his brother who has not returned to the base camp is injured.
On his first encounter with the cougar, Doug learns how quickly fear spirals out of control with one terrifying thought generating another and another and another:
“He would be killed—his body mangled and mauled right here on the path. His face half eaten, Then Gordie would come back and the cougar would kill him, too. Mom and Dad would return to find both of their sons dead.”
While climbing the rock face in search of his brother, Doug learns to manage the avalanche of terrifying thoughts that fear constantly sets in motion. Sometimes he uses distraction. He keeps his mind busy thinking about the elk and the snowshoe rabbit and the marten that he had seen in the High Meadow. Other times he focuses on the here and now. Climbing the rock face he gives full attention to where his feet are and what his hands can grasp to hold onto rather than obsessing about the narrow ledge he will inevitably need to climb.
He works hard to put his fear into perspective by remembering the harrowing stories his father told the family about his escape from Cuba. He repeatedly asks himself if what he is facing is as bad as that. Most of the time he concludes that it is not. He also compares the current climb to past climbs and knows that he has successfully climbed worse.
His mother had taught him to stay optimistic, to assume the best, and not to borrow trouble. She had taught him the difference between possibilities and probabilities-- anything was possible but not everything was probable. And he began to consider that it was more likely that Gordon was just fine.
Doug does successfully navigate the narrow ledge and rescue his brother who has a broken leg. The trip down the rock face is as filled with suspense as the encounter with the cougar and the climb up the rock face. Phyllis Naylor has created an engaging novel and one that is also rich in its depiction of fear and coping with fear.
Social Emotional Learning: Coping with Fear
So what do readers take away from this novel about fear and coping with fear?
Fear can be so consuming it paralyzes body and mind, preventing any constructive action.
The more someone allows their mind to focus on their terrifying thoughts, the more frightened they become and the more terrible scenarios their mind generates. As Doug states when he encountered the cougar: “Fear begat fear.”
Distraction, focusing on what you need to do, and focusing on what you are doing in the here and now prevents an avalanche of terrifying thoughts.
Putting events into perspective by comparing them to past experiences generates confidence by providing proof of past competence which can be relied on in the present difficulty.
Putting events into perspective by comparing them to the experiences of others who have successfully faced more difficult circumstances provides a sense that the current situation is manageable.
Don’t borrow trouble. Anything is possible, but not everything is probable. Our worst fears are always possible, but in most circumstances they are highly unlikely to happen.
The Story behind the Book
Because the novel had such a ring of emotional truth, I emailed Phyliss Naylor asking her to share the story behind this book. She indicated that the story was conceived on the day her two sons (both young men at that time) decided to climb Longs Peak in the Rockies. In her email she wrote:
“I was terrified, half out of my mind…I knew I could not, and should not, try to stop them. I also knew this would be one of the worst days of my life, and the only way I could keep from worrying about them constantly was to start a new book. So I spent the day writing the first plot that came to mind—two boys in the Rockies, when one is hurt, and YES! YES! YES! the boy who is most frightened of heights has to rescue him.”
She indicated that she was able to enter Doug’s thoughts and feelings because when she was quite young, she had an experience that left her afraid of high places. Additionally, she indicated that as she writes she “calls on every physical and mental aide possible—the things she would tell herself.” Her ability to nail the coping mechanisms Doug manifests are the product of a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and her experiences in therapy to process a time in her life when she was married to a man who developed paranoid schizophrenia.
During her therapy, the Psychiatrist suggested that she tended to live in a “what if” world of things that might happen, instead of handling things when they happened. “What if… is the question that starts an avalanche of terrifying thoughts that escalate fear. But “what if…” is also the storyteller’s question, the question that summons imagination to weave a story that will engage, entertain, and at its best help us understand ourselves and others. In The Fear Place Naylor has used the question to weave an engaging story that children will enjoy, but also to present a nuanced study of fear that children can vicariously absorb because there is absolutely no preaching, lecturing, or other didactic maneuvers.
Thinking about the story behind this book, I think Naylor has also provided a guide for parents who find themselves in the “what if” world of worry when their children take risks, Most parents probably won’t decide to write a book to distract themselves; but being busy with something that occupies the mind or focusing on what needs to be done and then committing mind and body to the task can help. Parents can also review their child’s previous successes and build confidence that he or she will manage the current situation well. Finally they can recognize that they have provided the knowledge and skills their child needs and no matter how many times their child seemed to ignore them, they were heard and all that they have said and done will be there for their child to lean on in a moment of crisis.