“All children, except one, grow up.”
Well, no. Not these days. In modern fiction characters who actually grow up–that is, transition from one stage of life to another–are the exception rather than the rule.
Recently I listened to two classics with young first person narrators, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Charles Portis’ True Grit.
The books are quite similar in basic outline. In both a young protagonist loses a father and shortly thereafter embarks on a dangerous quest. The relationships between Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn in the one and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver in the other share the common characteristic of being relationships in transition, for all that the particulars are different.
Cogburn and Silver are both men on the borderlands of the wild, men whose natures are suited to an untamed, violent world. (They are also both maimed, Cogburn with his one eye and Silver with his one leg. They have literally purchased their experience in these worlds at the cost of their own flesh.)
Hawkins and Ross, on the other hand, are both from small towns, and are each naive in their own ways, with unrealistic ideas about the wider world. They are teenagers, and both are described as being slight and delicate in appearance.
Unsurprisingly, both protagonists are seen as children at the first meeting with their guides. (Cogburn is more honest about his contempt, Silver treats Hawkins with a predatory condescension.)
Over the course of both novels, though, the relationship changes. The mentor characters (and, yes, I classify Silver as a mentor, for all that he was the villain of the piece. Hawkins ends up rejecting the morality Silver tries to teach him, but accepts much of the technical knowledge) change in their perception of the protagonists. The young characters face hardship and challenges and rise to meet them. They “earn their spurs” and in the end of both books are accepted as adults–not fully as equals, but as apprentices who can be trusted with basic tasks rather than children to be cared for. At the end of Treasure Island Silver doesn’t try to simply order Hawkins, he bargains with him, man to man.
This validation from an experienced warrior marks a change in the nature of the protagonists, and also marks an end to that particular story arc. This is a significant issue because it means that you can’t have a sequel in the traditional sense. New stories could be written about Ross or Hawkins, but they would have to be different kinds of stories. You can’t become an adult twice.
Off the top of my head the only sequel to a coming of age novel that featured the original protagonist as an adult is Black House, King and Straub’s followup to their original collaboration, The Talisman. My mother also brought up Anne Of Green Gables and its sequels, but I haven’t read those.
In my opinion the current market pressure to write series rather than single novels hamstrings the traditional Coming Of Age story arc. Instead of transitioning from child to adult as a result of their experiences, characters remain in a perpetual adolescence, fighting the same battles in story after story without ever being allowed to win any lasting respect from their mentors.
Frequently, this involves the death of the mentor (Obi-wan Kenobi, I’m looking at you here) or there simply not being any adult characters worthy of the title (The Hunger Games comes to mind.) In other series the adult authority figures (cough, cough, Dumbledore) refuse to acknowledge the adulthood of the protagonist no matter what happens.
The point to all this is that I believe that Coming Of Age stories need to be limited. They need closure, a definite end where the characters are no longer boys and girls but become men and women. (And, no, the “Fifteen Years Later” epilogue at the end of The Deathly Hallows doesn’t count.)