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A Journey of Bonding
by Reg Harris
[2015 Note: Fly Away Home (1996) may be dated, but it still works well in the classroom. Other excellent films with strong, young female heroes are Whale Rider and Bend It Like Beckham. Like Fly Away Home, they focus on one character’s journey, but the plots intertwine several journeys and include cultural and traditional challenges to the hero’s journey. ]
Over the years, one of the difficulties we have had in applying the hero’s journey pattern in the classroom is finding good literature and film with strong female heroes, especially young female heroes.
Several years ago, a 10th grade teacher using the hero’s journey pattern told us about a film called Fly Away Home, which she said worked well in her classes. The film has many of the qualities which would make it an excellent addition to a 9th or 10th grade curriculum.
The story, which takes place in the province of Ontario, Canada, is about 13-year-old Amy Alden. When she was very young, her father and mother split up, with mother and daughter moving to New Zealand.
The film opens when Amy and her mother are involved in an auto accident. The accident kills her mother and injures Amy. Thomas, the father, comes to New Zealand to be with his daughter and to take her back home with him. Thus begins Amy’s journey to come to terms with her mother’s death, to reconcile with her eccentric father, and to find her own place in a new world.
But Amy isn’t the only one on a journey. When his daughter reenters his life, Tom must learn to become a “good father.” This involves learning to be more responsible, responsive and caring. As is often the case for men on a hero’s journey, the “union with the goddess” plays a critical role, in this case Tom’s stalled relationship with Susan Barnes. Susan subtly mentors Tom and Amy through their journeys and their reconciliation.
Amy’s first morning on the farm she wanders into her father’s workshop. Tom is sculpting a metal dragon (see note on symbolism below) and he tells Amy that he will be very busy. “I’m not a baby,” Amy tells him. “You don’t have to hold my hand.” Of course, that is exactly what she needs from her remaining parent. Later, when Amy meets Susan, she resents her immediately, possibly because she feels Susan might try to replace her mother.
Reconciliation begins when developers move into the land adjacent to Tom’s farm and destroy a grove of trees which had been the nesting place for a flock of Canada geese. Amy finds several abandoned eggs, which she takes back to the barn to raise.
The geese bond with Amy and follow her everywhere. Soon, however, she learns that without their parents the geese they will never learn to migrate and could cause problems, so their wings must be clipped. Everyone rejects this idea, but there seems to be no other solution.
One day, as Tom is watching the geese follow Amy, he has an idea. “Our problem,” he tells Amy, “is that your birds don’t have anybody to show them the way.” (Isn’t this the nature of all Journeys?) His plan? By using an ultra-light airplane, he can lead the geese south to teach them how to migrate. After some initial resistance and the realization Amy must lead the geese in the ultra-light, not Tom, everyone buys into the plan.
From then on, father, daughter, girlfriend, uncle and friend join in a quest to help the geese. They overcome numerous failures, an interfering (though well-meaning) ranger, and mechanical and logistical challenges to make their dream a reality.
The Film’s Value in the Classroom
First, it lends itself well to teaching and discussing symbolism. There is, of course, the dragon imagery. The dragon is the creature which unites the eagle (the symbol of the sun and eternity) with the serpent (the symbol of the moon and temporal life). The dragon represents a reconciliation of polar opposites, reminding us that while poles may be opposite, they are not separate entities but two sides of the same system.
The film also uses a number of feather images: the geese (obviously), a pair of earrings Susan gives to Amy, the feather which triggers Tom’s idea, and several others. The feathers represent flight and freedom, which are the characteristics of growth and maturity, elements which come out in both father and daughter. The image of Amy flying in a “feathered” ultralight also emphasizes her “migration” toward a new level of understanding and awareness.
Another element which makes the film good is that it involves more than one journey. Students should learn that they are part of the lives of others, and though they may be focused on a journey of their own, they may also need to play parts in the journeys of others. Tom, for example, plays the mentor (and “uninvited god”) for Amy, while Amy becomes a helper and the focus for Tom’s growth. Both of them are thrown into journeys they didn’t choose and, though they battle in the beginning, they eventually help each other successfully complete their journeys.
Good vocabulary opportunities
Finally, the film offers a number of opportunities for vocabulary development. Words such as imprinting, eccentric, migration and reconciliation give you the opportunity to discuss some important Latin prefixes and roots. For example, you can compare “in-” (from imprinting) with “ex-” (from eccentric). Using reconciliation, you can teach prefixes “re-” (back or again) and “con-” (with or together).
You teach the root centr (center) from eccentric and show how it is parts of words like “concentric,” thereby reinforcing the prefix “con-“.
The Film’s other Qualities
The film also has other qualities going for it. It has wonderful music and is beautifully photographed. It is subtle and suggestive, with opportunities for in-depth discussion, such as the barn being place of birth (the geese), creativity (Tom’s sculpting) and life/rebirth (the light and the swing).
We think the film would work best with 8th through 10th graders, although it might be a good exercise in studying symbolism, tone and motif with older classes. It is certainly worth considering.
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