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Robyn Joy Leff’s story ”Burn Your Maps” takes a few interesting and confusing twists and turns. In this lesson we’ll break it down and summarize the events.

Dive in to find out what the story is all about.

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Burn Your Maps

The short story ”Burn Your Maps” by Robyn Joy Leff follows the journey of a family as they cope with their son’s odd behavior, a possible blossoming affair, and a nagging health issue. This story reflects real life in that not all of these issues are resolved. Let’s take a look at the events in the story.

Halloween Leftovers

”Burn Your Maps” starts off by describing how the narrator’s son, Wes, is still wearing his Halloween costume even though it’s six days past the holiday. The costume is that of a Mongolian nomad.

The narrator, Alise, is only somewhat worried, while Wes’s father, Connor, is pretty annoyed by the situation and starts to get angry. Alise explains to Connor that ”a fledgling imagination is at stake here” and they ”can’t just crush it.” Connor tells her to ask one of her ”freaky child-psych friends” about it. Our narrator responds by saying that her brother thought he was Spiderman for a month before breaking his leg and realizing he wasn’t.


The two go back and forth about who is to blame for their son’s behavior, and then the narrator heads to work. She is an English as a Second Language teacher.

She reflects on how she has burnt out in the past few years, but this year she has a favorite student: a man named Ismail from Pakistan. At the beginning of the year, she asked her students to write advice to new immigrants. There were silly answers, and then there was Ismail’s writing. His advice was to ”Throw out all maps.

Rip them from your books. Rip them from your heart.’ At the end of his response, he writes ”Throw out all your maps. Burn them.” This response stops the narrator in her tracks.Alise makes some time to speak with Ismail and finds that he wants to open a coffee shop in America.

The two begin to talk more often, and Alise evens tells him about Wes and Connor. She doesn’t press him about his own family though. Eventually she asks him about them, and he says that he has kids but that they don’t live with him. She explains the Mongolian problem with Wes and that her husband is mad. The two laugh about it. Alise wonders if their relationship isn’t ”some previously undiscovered form of love.

The Costume Continues

Later on, Alise heads home and decides to indulge Wes in some of his Mongolia play. She asks him how it was in Mongolia today and explains that Mongolians live on the Steppe–not the steps of a house which is where Wes asks to sleep for the night. Later on, Alise and Connor have an argument in bed with Alise saying that Wes is much like Connor’s father because he likes to tell stories. Connor doesn’t seem to want to talk about his dad. Alise gets emotional and thinks about how distant she feels from her husband and from the world.

The next morning, Wes is still dressed like a Mongolian, and Connor is still angry. Alise heads to school to meet with students who scheduled a meeting with her. She assumes Ismail will be there waiting.

A Close Call

When he doesn’t show up, she thinks about how life never turns out as expected and also worries about how her husband has lost weight and been having stomach problems.

When Ismail does show up, he is upset because his son has been arrested in Pakistan. The two have a flirty fight where they throw small items at each other and then embrace one another but do not go further than that.

The Fight Continues

Connor comes and picks Alise up, and then they go to pick up Wes. He is still dressed like a Mongolian. In the evening, Connor goes to his kickboxing class and comes back looking ill.

Alise asks if Connor’s stomach is bothering him today, but he brushes the answer off. Connor says that they can all go see a movie at the theater provided that Wes take off the Mongolian clothes. He refuses, and the argument escalates until Connor says ”I want to have a loving wife and a sane son, but you can’t always get what you want.” Wes tells his dad to take it back. When he doesn’t, Wes storms away out the front door. Alise follows and finds different articles of clothing strewn across the neighborhood.

The Ragged Circle of Wool

Alise finds her son huddled under a bush, and she holds his almost naked and freezing cold body.

Connor comes up next and huddles with them under a wool coat he brought. They stay huddled under the bush for a while and then walk home. Alise feels relieved when she gets home but realizes that she doesn’t feel like she quite belongs anywhere except ”in this ragged circle of wool.”

Lesson Summary

”Burn Your Maps” focuses on a woman named Alise, her husband Connor, and their son Wes. Wes has been wearing his Mongolian Halloween costume days past Halloween. His dad is angry about it while his mom tries to keep the peace. Alise is an English as a Second Language teacher and has an attraction to one of her adult students.

When she gets home from work one day, the costume issue comes to a head with Connor insulting his family and Wes running out in the freezing weather and stripping off his clothes. Alise finds her son, and then Connor finds both of them. They walk home together, leaving the reader wondering what will happen to them in the future.

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