William Klein’s new YA novel takes a brave, young protagonist through the scary realities of refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. Knowledgeable on this timely topic, Klein vividly takes readers on his MC’s ride. I asked him about his concept of the character.
In your book, “Rising on the Road to Freedom,” your main character, Travis, is an adolescent who embodies many of the key elements of a well-drawn YA protagonist. Would you elaborate a bit on what factors went into his creation and development?
The book is a story about an American family who tries to help a Central American family escape political persecution by crossing the U.S. – Mexican border. Travis, a sixteen year old, inadvertently volunteers to deliver a message to the family to tell them that the way is not safe.
Travis is the protagonist, so we see the world of these refugees as we journey with him. He experiences their pain and sorrow, hopes and joys. We also get to know other characters his age, so those other characters will complement Travis throughout the book.
It’s the classic “hero’s journey.” But being a coming-of-age story, Travis is going to learn about the world and be challenged in ways he never even considered. By journeying into the unknown, he is going to face obstacles that will shape him for the rest of his life – good and bad. Travis is instrumental in helping and this poses problems, too. The very act of assisting someone in need creates a tension because he is going against the law to do it.
The first scene opens with Travis making his way through a tunnel his grandfather created. The reader learns that this young man gets more than he bargained for when he is confronted by a beast of prey. These first pages are important, because it establishes the opportunity for empathy. We see that an innocent task of delivering a message brings danger and circumstances that are beyond his control.
Travis will meet other characters along the way who will impact his life and the lives of others as a result of the world that has been created for them. The task of the writer is to help people understand the character in unique ways. That opening is critical in inviting others to join in the journey.
My own experience working with refugees helped me in crafting this book. Some of the stories we encounter in the book are based on real experiences of refugees and the adversity they face coming to a new country.
I have friends who are refugees from Syria. I met them through Catholic Refugee services and have served as a friend to help them acclimate to the U.S. It has been an eye-opening experience for me.
I feel Travis is an important character for our time to help us see who we are and what we can be. The characters in this book will bring out the best and worst in him. Those basic survival instincts Travis relies on are our own instincts of survival as we journey with him.