The Forgotten Door: Alexander Key
September 17, 2008
Book: The Forgotten Door
Author: Alexander Key
Age Range: 8-12
Do you know how it is when you LOVE a book? When you're reading it just to revisit, and not to find out what happened? That is how it is for me with The Forgotten Door. So when Jenny from Jenny's Wonderland of Books issued a call for Carnival of Children's Literature entries about "history of children's books or favorite old books", I naturally thought of The Forgotten Door.
The Forgotten Door is a middle grade science fiction novel, published in 1965. The author is Alexander Key, who also wrote Escape to Witch Mountain. It has been one of my very favorite books for as long as I can remember. The Forgotten Door is the story of a young boy from a far distant and highly evolved planet who accidentally falls through a hidden doorway. He winds up in a cave in the mountains on Earth, with amnesia from his fall. He remembers that his name is Jon, and he can recognize that certain things, like books, are familiar, while others, like cars, are not. He doesn't speak English, but he does read minds, and that helps him to find his way.
Jon is taken in by a kind family, the Beans, who gradually figure out (and help Jon to figure out) that he's from another planet. While the Beans are eager to help Jon, others from their rural community are much more suspicious, and conflict ensues. As Jon tries to recover his memory, he and Beans find themselves in danger.
I can't objectively tell you why I love this book so much. When I read it now, part of my experience of the book is an echo of my first reading, as I, with the Bean family, figured out that Jon wasn't human. I was charmed when he learned English in two days, refused to eat meat or wear leather, and knew how to communicate with animals. I was touched by the Bean family's unquestioning decision to help Jon, even when it put their own lives at risk. I cried at the end. You can't, as a reviewer, put aside an affection like that, and objectively review a book.
I can see, on reading the book now, that the characters are a bit black and white. There are good guys and bad guys, with only some minor background on why some of the bad guys became bad. And I can see the implausibility of a boy from a far distant planet and finding that, appearance-wise, he fits in pretty well with humans (though some explanation is provided for this). I can even see that the book moralizes a bit -- Jon is shocked at the concepts of money, war, and greed, because these things don't exist in his more advanced world.
But none of that matters. I still adore The Forgotten Door. Jon is a very likable character. In the first chapter, despite disorientation from the fall, he is resolute in moving forward. He puts himself in danger to protect a deer. And once he recovers a little, he displays a sense of humor. Here's one of the earliest scenes:
"Where was he? How did he get here? He pondered these questions, but no answers came. He felt as if he had fallen. Only -- where could he have fallen from? The rocky walls met overhead, sloping outward into a tangle of leafy branches.
There was another question his mind carefully tiptoed around, because it was more upsetting than the others. Whenever he approached it, it caused a dull aching in his forehead. Finally, however, he gave his head a small shake and faced it squarely.
Who am I?" (Chapter 1)
The Beans are great, too. They don't have a television set, because they've been using their extra money for books, but they hope to have one someday. And they struggle when they have to explain to Jon that sometimes it's necessary to tell a lie (like about where he's from).
The Forgotten Door is fast-paced, with the tension mounting right up to the book's climax, and a very quick read. I think that Key did a great job with atmosphere, from Jon's initial walk through countryside that looks inexplicably unfamiliar to the kitchen table at the Bean's cozy farmhouse. A quick Internet search reveals that many people who grew up in the 60s have strong memories of this book.
More than any of these things, I think that what moves me about The Forgotten Door is the idea behind it - that there could be civilizations so advanced that a boy would be baffled to ever encounter anyone who wished him harm. While The Forgotten Door offers a pretty clear indictment of our civilization in the 1960s, I think that the existence of Jon's world is a message of hope. Alexander Key makes this clear in the book's dedication:
"To all those who like the
starlight, and wonder about
other places and other people."
So, I really can't tell you if you or your children would like this book now on a first reading. I think that you would. But I can't be sure. What I can be sure of is that I'll be re-reading The Forgotten Door every couple of years for the rest of my life. Thanks, Jenny, for inspiring me to re-read it today. And I will add that the fact that this book is still in print means that there are other people out there who love it, too.
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
Publication Date: Originally, 1965 (original cover shown above). The 1986 paperback edition is still in print, and is the one that I have linked to at Amazon.
Source of Book: Bought it, many years ago, at a used bookstore
Other Blog Reviews: Boys Rule, Boys Read, The One Minute Critic. See also an interesting discussion about the book at Blue Wren.
Author Interviews: None (he died in 1979), but Homeschool Kid Lit did a feature on Alexander Key last year.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.