Study Guide

The Forest of Hands and Teeth Family

By Carrie Ryan

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If I could boil my life down to its essence it would be this: my head in my mother's lap, her hands in my hair as we sit in front of the fire and she tells me stories handed down by the women in our family about life before the Return. (1.43)

Indeed, these moments are what end up driving Mary's life. Without this memory of her mother and her stories, Mary would have ended up a very different woman in a very different place.

She is on her feet before I even know what's happening. She stares at me and for a moment all I can think is Mother and then she opens her mouth and my world shatters with her screams that fall off into moans as her vocal cords give way.

I cannot bear it and I start to move toward her, struggling under the weight of the Guardian's hand. (2.37-38)

Why does Mary move toward her? Perhaps she hopes her touch will trigger reality back into her mother's eyes; perhaps, for a moment, she wants to join her mother in her madness. But perhaps it's because turning away from her mother would feel like a betrayal.

I can't help but ache inside as I approach, knowing my mother is not there. Will never be there. I think about all of the memories trapped in the rough log walls, all of the warmth and laughter and dreams. (3.20)

What's that phrase? Home is wherever I'm with you? An old log house is just a shell when Mary knows her mother will never join her there again.

I imagine pushing open the heavy wooden door above me and slipping into the clearing. […] I imagine my mother waiting there on the other side. Her hands outstretched, ready for me. (11.53)

Sure her mom is a zombie, but that doesn't change the fact that she was a loving mother for the rest of Mary's life. It's hard to believe a mom would ever really go away for good. Maybe it would have been easier on Mary if her mother had died instead.

Never did I wonder what my mother believed. What sort of life my mother lived at my age. So acutely do I miss her at this moment that I want to crawl into myself with shame and longing. (13.19)

Sounds about right. How often do we think of our parents as kids? Or (gasp) our teachers as real people? Usually they just fall into the role we've given them in our lives, but guess what? Adults are people too—with feelings, dreams, and (get ready to have your mind blown) childhoods.

For a moment I fear he'll rebuff me. But then he sags against me. I am the only thing holding him standing and I finally feel as if we are brother and sister again. The bonds forged when we were children too tight to break. (20.5)

Not gonna lie: Jed's got some issues. He pretty much threw Mary to the dogs after their mom went all Unconsecrated, and then he attacked her when she spoke the truth about his precious Beth. But hey—she's still his little sister. Nothing can change that, especially when all he needs is a hug.

I have to turn my head away from the way Jed rocks Cass, my eyes stinging, longing for those days. When all I worried about were monsters in dreams. When my brother was always there to comfort me. (20.56)

What kinds of monsters did Mary dream about? Seriously—she's a kid trapped in a village surrounded by moaning flesh-eaters. What could possibly be scarier than that?

And while they have plenty of space if they want to spread out, it appears as though they prefer to stick together. All living under the same roof.

A happy family. Like the family in the photographs. (24.23-24)

Humans are social creatures, that's for sure. There're always a few who'd prefer to live out their lives alone, but those are few and far between. Sheesh—even Thoreau invited his friends up to his cabin and took jaunts into town from time to time. With other people comes safety, security, and of course, love.

"I only care about Jacob and making sure he has a full life. That he can grow up and find his way in this world. Jacob is like a son to me now and all I have ever wanted was a family." (30.36)

Family. For Cass that word means more than kooky relatives at a summer barbecue; she's a sucker for love, but she's a die-hard for safety too. She's even willing to head back to the village after the breach to find any survivors and seek out the safety and security she always knew there. For her, family means security and commitment, and that's why she clings so hard to Jacob—she wants to provide those things for him.

"Why did you come through the gate?" I ask.

"Because I'm your big brother." He smiles, then laughs. "And I want to believe in hope." (35.24-25)

Hope for what? Freedom? Love? A new life? Or maybe hope for redemption? Jed did some pretty nasty things to Mary, and following her into the Forest may be one way to make amends for those actions.

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