At the core of The Wanderer is an exploration of family relationships—particularly the father-son relationship between Mo and Cody and the relationship Sophie has with her foster family. The book explores how individuals—particularly Sophie and Cody—partly form their identities based on the relationships they have with their family.
Though Sophie’s life seems to be at the core of the book, Cody’s log entries also feature prominently throughout. One of the main topics Cody’s entries focus on is his relationship with his father. Mo and Cody’s relationship starts out pretty rocky. Mo is constantly criticizing Cody for goofing off and not taking things very seriously. Compared to the seriousness of Brian, Cody’s casual and joking attitude about the crew’s voyage comes off as carefree and lacking in commitment to the hard work sailing requires. Throughout the book, though, Mo begins to view and treat Cody differently, and vice-versa.
For example, after the Wanderer is struck by a wave that nearly spells the whole crew’s death, Mo begins to be less critical of his son. He starts to appreciate the fragility of life, and realizes that he has been taking his relationship with his son for granted. Cody writes about this change in his father’s attitude with amazement—he’s simply not used to being treated so kindly by his dad. Cody also realizes just how little he knows about his father—he says he comes to see Mo in a totally different way. He views his father as another human being, and not some brooding, inhuman figure of authority.
Sophie’s relationship with her family is also complicated, because she technically has two of them—her old deceased parents, and her new foster family. Her relationship with her foster grandfather, Bompie, evolves throughout the story and has complications as well. In a way, The Wanderer is not just about a trip across the ocean—it’s about how its crewmembers navigate their own personal problems (which, in the book, largely have to do with an individual’s relationship to his or her family) in a vast sea of chance and possible danger. Sophie is certainly no exception to such family issues. She’s lost the memory of her old parents from her conscious mind, forgetting their tragic death and thereby believing herself to be an original member of her new family. Her journey to England results in her unraveling the truth of her own family history.
At the beginning of the book, Sophie says that the sea is calling her—though she doesn’t know exactly why. The call just feels instinctual. Yet, by the end of the book, we find out that Sophie’s voyage across the ocean was a way for her to relive the trauma of her parents’ death and come to terms with it. Sophie’s understanding of her relationship with her foster family comes full circle: she realizes, at least to an extent she hasn’t before, that her original parents died in an accident at sea. While it’s not clear whether Sophie finally understands that “the little kid” she talks about is actually herself, she nonetheless starts on the path to forming a truer relationship with her past and with her current family—Sophie starts to realize her true identity.
The Wanderer therefore explores the dimension of family life in its characters’ psyches, and how a sense of being in a family and related to others is at the very core of our identities.
Family and Personal Identity ThemeTracker
Family and Personal Identity Quotes in The Wanderer
Sophie talks about my aunt and uncle as if they are her real parents, even though they are only her adopted parents and she’s only been with them three years. Brian says Sophie lives in a dream world, but I think it’s kind of neat that she does that. At least she isn’t sitting around moping about being an orphan.
Here we are, well out in the big blue, rolling, rolling, sailing on to England. Out here, I feel as if the ocean is alive, as if it is living and breathing, and moody, oh so moody! Sometimes it is calm and smooth, as if it were asleep; and sometimes it is playful, splashing and rolling; and sometimes it is angry and knocks us about. It’s as if the ocean has many sides, like me.
I feel as if there were things inside me that were safely tucked away, sort of like the bilge down there, hidden under the floorboards of The Wanderer. But it feels as if the boards were blown off by The Wave and things are floating around and I don’t know where to put them.
I am thinking about Bompie. At last I will see Bompie. Why am I scared?
There's a little kid. And the little kid doesn't know what is going on. The little kid is just cold or hungry or scared and wants Mommy and Daddy. And when other people tell the little kid that Mommy and Daddy have gone to heaven . . . the little kid feels bad and wonders why they didn't take their little kid with them . . .
And everywhere the little kid goes, people ask what the little kid remembers about the grown-ups, who have gone away to the beautiful place, but the little kid doesn’t want to remember that painful thing. . . . The little kid wants to be right here, right now . . . not back at those times the little kid got left behind.
But no matter what the little kid might want, something inside pushes the little kid ahead while something or someone pulls the little kid back.
I could understand what he was saying, but I wondered if the same was true of children, that sometimes you can’t control things and sometimes you have to let go. Maybe you even have to let go of your parents. But then I was all muddled in my head and I couldn’t make sense of anything, not even where I was or why I was there.
What I wonder is this: how come you don’t notice the time going by, and you don’t think you are changing in any way, but then all of a sudden you realize that what you are thinking today is different from what you thought yesterday and that you are different from what you were yesterday—or last week—or last month?
Everyone is talking about reaching Ireland, but I feel weird, as if we’re not really going to get there, or as if I’m not ready to be there. And what will happen with Sophie when we do reach Bompie? Maybe that’s part of the reason I don’t want to get there. I’m afraid for Sophie.
I reached across the bed and touched her hand. “Sophie,” I said. “Maybe that’s not Bompie’s story. Maybe that’s your story.”
Bompie whispered, “Sophie, he’s right. That’s your story, honey.”
Sophie stared at me and then at Bompie. She looked so scared and so little sitting there beside Bompie. And then she put her head down on Bompie’s chest and she cried and cried and cried.
It was strange reading the ones about the car in the river, and leaping off the train tracks, and Bompie’s baptism, and Bompie in the swimming hole, and Bompie at the ocean. Most of what Sophie had told us was pretty much the way he had told it to her in his letters, except for the parts about struggling in the water. He was in the water all those times, but he hadn’t written about struggling in it.
Those parts had come from Sophie.
Cody ripped off the wrapping. Inside was a pen-and-ink drawing of Cody juggling. He was standing on The Wanderer, and the boat was leaning way over, but Cody was perfectly balanced, and he was juggling not pretzels—or socks—but people. Each of us was a little wee tiny person up in the air, and Cody was juggling us.
I’ve been thinking about the little kid. I think that one day the little kid got lucky and she landed in a place where it was okay if she couldn’t remember all the time, and because it was okay if she couldn’t remember all the time, and because it was okay not to remember, she started to remember. And along with the painful things came the good things to remember and maybe she felt as if she’d found some things she’d lost.
I can tell that my now-parents are awfully relieved that I made it back in one piece. They keep coming into my room at night and sitting on the edge of my bed, and when I open my eyes, they say, “You okay? You need anything?” and I say, “I’m just fine.”