Re-reading The Forgotten Door was a gift to my third-grade self. It’s the first book of any length that I remember reading, and the cover was still lodged in my brain after all of these years, not that I would judge a book that way, no. I remembered the barest bones of the story: a boy falls through a hidden and forgotten door from his planet to Earth; he is in danger here, but finds some people who help him; he can “make his feet light” and leap as if wearing seven-league boots; I thought that maybe he had some other extraordinary abilities as well. I did not remember exactly how it turned out, but I was fairly certain there was a happy ending.
I had already noticed a wintertime slowness to my reading this year, and that was before one death and another medical emergency in the extended family, to say nothing of the global pandemic. Picking up The Forgotten Door was a way to begin again at the beginning and see whether memory matched the material. I hoped that the Suck Fairy had not paid a visit.
The bare bones of the story that had stayed with me all that time were right, and sturdy bones they were for Key’s quick narrative. Little Jon gets distracted watching a meteor shower, takes a wrong step backwards and — “It happened so quickly, so unexpectedly, that Little Jon’s cry was almost instantly cut short as the blackness closed over him. No one knew the hole was there. It hadn’t been there the day before, and in the twilight no one had noticed it.” (Ch. 1) — falls to Earth. He hits his head as he falls, loses consciousness, and with it much of his memory.
He starts to make his way out of the narrow cleft where he wakes up, lost, unable to remember who he is, and everything around him subtly wrong. “He had never seen trees quite like the ones around him. Many of the smaller trees were in bloom, covered with showers of white blossoms — these were almost familiar, as were the ferns and lichens on the rocks. But there was a difference. But what the difference was, he was unable to tell.” (Ch. 1) Soon he uses the other ability that I had forgotten. “And there were the hesitant steps of wild creatures that came pleasantly to his sharp ears. Without quite realizing his ability, which was as natural as breathing, his mind reached toward them and found nothing strange in them – except that they were afraid. Afraid of him!” (Ch. 1)
Little Jon follows a doe and her fawn down the mountain trail, inadvertently wandering into a farmer’s field. A farmer with a rifle who was hiding near the edge of the stream. Little Jon warns the doe, but not soon enough, and he can sense the pain where the bullet grazes her flank. The hunting farmer is furious and comes shouting at the boy. “Little Jon could make nothing of the words. The language was strange, but the hate-driven thoughts behind it were clear enough. For a moment he stood incredulous, his mind trying to fight through the shock of what had happened. Surely the man approaching was a being like himself. But why the intent to kill another creature? Why the sudden hate? How could anyone ever, ever…” (Ch. 1)
Little Jon tries to run away, but he knows as little of barbed wire as he does of rifles, and soon his coat is caught in a fence. The farmer catches him. The farmer’s wife soon arrives, and starts shouting questions at him too. She slaps him, and as Little Jon rolls with the force, the farmer loses his grip. This time Little Jon does manage to make his feet light and despite an injured ankle bounds away faster than any deer. What a welcome to Earth!
Hurt, frightened, lost, increasingly hungry and uncertain about encroaching night, Little Jon heads downward, eventually finding a road. Now wary, he reaches out with his mind from a safe distance as occasional traffic passes on the road. The first chapter, “He Is Lost and Found,” ends like this:
“It was nearly dark when he heard the final motor. This time, aware of the friendliness of its occupants — and something beyond friendliness — he did not hesitate. It was a small truck, and as it swung around the bend in the road, he slipped quickly down the bank to meet it.”
Each of the chapter titles follows the the same form, hinting at the key development and keeping Jon at the center of the story. “He Gains a Home,” “He Learns a New Language,” “He Remembers Something.” The people in the small truck are the Bean family, parents Thomas and Mary, children Sally and Brooks. They take him in and care for him, and begin to unravel what has happened. They are kind, and they do not flinch from the inevitable conclusion about Jon’s origins, though their instinct is to keep that to themselves.
The Beans want to help Jon, ideally to help him return home. Other people have their own ideas. The farmer who first saw Jon starts telling tales all around the county about a “wild boy,” and soon the stories take on a life of their own, attributing to Jon the ability to leap a hundred feet and much more. The Beans have come up with a cover story, but even in the best circumstances it won’t hold up long. When the local deputy takes an interest in Jon because of a reported break-in on the weekend that he appeared, the best circumstances start to seem far away.
“He Is Recognized,” “He Is Accused,” “He Is Summoned.” Most of the characters, it turns out, were introduced in the first chapter, even if a reader will only recognize them in hindsight. Key has told a story of two worlds, but one of them is very small, tucked away in the southern reaches of the Appalachian mountains. People there can be clannish, and hostile to outsiders, but they can also be like the Beans, welcoming strangers and helping those in need. Some of the later developments turn on what a community is like when people have known each other for a long time, and what kind of person can exercise authority in that type of place.
All of which is to say that there’s a lot going on in a book that once upon a time a third-grader fell in love with. The fast action story is still there, but there is some sharp observation and a sure knowledge of place, too. Key sketches in the briefest picture of the utopia of Little Jon’s home world — “There are not too many of us, but we have great knowledge, and we’ve made life so simple that we don’t have laws or even leaders, for they aren’t needed any more than money is needed. I think we make things — everything — with our hands, and that life is a great joy, for we have time for so much…” (Ch. 12) — and lets readers fill in the details with their hearts’ desires.
The Forgotten Door was published in 1965, and the book shows Thomas Bean as a wounded veteran of the conflict in Korea, but the book feels closer to timeless than to a period piece. Key is sparing with physical descriptions, though all of the characters read as white to me. Of course, the mountains near the Georgia-North Carolina border (characters mention reading newspapers from Asheville and Atlanta as well as their unnamed local papers) are a very white part of the United States. There’s no hint of sex or even romance in the book, though one presumes that all of the children came about in the usual way. Key has focused on Jon’s plight, the people who want to help him, the people who want to use him, and the most dangerous ones of all, the people who are afraid of him.
The ending is a happy one, of course. Anyone worried could skip to the final chapter title: “He Escapes.” Key handles it brilliantly, and the remains of the story after he escapes even more brilliantly. No wonder it stuck with me for years and years and years.