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  • Writer's pictureNoah Cain

Cormac McCarthy, The Road, and Risk in the Wake of Trauma

Photo of Cormac McCarthy in front of a bookshelf.

Great American author Cormac McCarthy died this week.

My favourite section in any of his books is in The Road, his terrifying novel about a father and son surviving in the aftermath of a mass-extinction event. It’s such a powerful depiction of bravery in the wake of trauma.

The section begins when the father and son, desperate for food, find a trapdoor in the floor of what they believe to be an abandoned house. They break the lock and go down to the secret cellar. Horrifyingly, the cellar holds, not canned goods, but chained human beings, a living source of food. The man and boy make their escape, terrified, pursued by cannibals, barely making it.

This scene is incredibly graphic and shocking. I am haunted by it. It is also shocking and haunting for the boy, who spends the next section of the novel in catatonic stillness.

Shortly thereafter, hungrier and more desperate, they come across a very similar trapdoor in a farmer’s field. When the father explains that they need to check it out, the boy becomes inconsolable. Here McCarthy presents the challenge of living with trauma. Humans learn through experience. The boy’s experience with trapdoors like this one elicit a physical refusal, a loud and resounding HELL NO.

A still from The Road (2009) in which the boy stands at the top of an opened bunker.

The man needs to convince the boy to try again. He does so slowly and gently: “This door looks like the other door. But it’s not […] This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.”

When he is ready, they open the trap door. He trembles down the stairs, holding his father, and together they find a bountiful supply of food, clean water, and other luxuries to fuel the next leg of their journey.

The last time I taught this part of The Road, we discussed the necessity of trying again even when we’ve been hurt. We acknowledged the bravery needed to open the door that looks like the other door. To open the door is to make yourself vulnerable, to take a risk, to maybe be hurt again. It may take time and talk and tears, but, despite the risk and the fear, you need to keep to trying. While you could get hurt again, the alternative is walking the cold, grey waste of cynicism and fearful insincerity.

Rest in peace, Cormac McCarthy—a true legend.

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