New York City, 2003
People all over the United States, but especially people in New York City, came together after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, showing the strength of the human spirit and all that inspirational jazz. But it's human nature to drift apart, even after a tragedy such as this one, and by 2003, New York City has been returning to the way it was before the attacks: people constantly moving and minding their own business, thank you very much.
Oskar changes that a bit. Even though he thinks he's just looking for a lock, his journey ends up bringing people together, changing routines, getting people out into the city, and just generally shaking things up. Oskar loves the Beatles, so it's only appropriate that he helps people come together once again.
New York's a sprawling city of millions of people of all classes and races, and buildings and neighborhoods and bridges and tunnels. By venturing out into the city, Oskar literally and figuratively broadens his horizons. He doesn't really even need the key.
The Sixth Borough
New York City's kind of a mythical place. It's one of the most populated and diverse cities on the world, filled with arts and culture. But to people living there, it's just home. Oskar's only nine, so he hasn't had a lot of opportunities to hunt down Banksy in Chelsea or find the Naked Cowboy in Times Square. Dad helps to foster Oskar's appreciation for the city through his fable about New York's Sixth Borough. It doesn't have a name: just the Sixth Borough.
People lived and loved there, but one day it started to float away. The citizens of New York tried to save it, so they grabbed Central Park and moved it to Manhattan before the Sixth Borough completely disappeared. The moral of the story is this: Explore something as much as you can while it's there. Cherish it while you have it. When it leaves, you can keep a little piece of it, but you have to let it go.
Dresden, Germany, 1945
Oskar's grandparents grew up in Dresden, Germany and lived through its bombing by the US and Great Britain near the end of WWII. (Did they know Kurt Vonnegut?) This was a controversial action, since many people felt that Dresden was not an important military target but rather a center of art and culture in Germany.
This additional setting, along with Oskar's show-and-tell presentation about Hiroshima, puts September 11 into a larger historical context as well as showing very personal stories about the aftermath of all the attacks. Both Dresden and Hiroshima experienced extreme destruction and terror, massive loss of life, and long-lasting consequences. The grandfather's description of the bombing universalizes the themes of loss and trauma.