Thursday, March 22, 2007

Three Ninety Eight Thursdays Will Be Shown In Its Regular Time Slot Next Week

Johnson, Harriet McBryde. Accidents of Nature. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2006.

As Jules points out on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, we shouldn't feel tied to only reviewing books on a certain day or month. Normally, I review folktales on Thursdays, hence the "Three Ninety Eight Thursdays" entries (according to the Dewey Decimal System, folktales are housed in the 398 section). Although I could review two folktales today since I presented two Irish folktales for my March Write Away program, I wanted to tell you about a book I recently read. Irish folktales can keep for another day.

Have you recently read a book that's so engaging, so powerful, and so unlike anything you have read in a while that it stays in your thoughts even when you are not reading it? We have an excellent children's and young adult collection, so there's always something new and "new to me" to discover and read. I've read some very fine children's and young adult books recently, but none of them have really been absorbed in my brain until I picked up Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBryde Johnson.

Not that I read it to the exclusion of all other books. In fact, I would occasionally have to put it away in order to absorb what I had read. But I thought about it to and from my walks to work. When I was preparing materials for a craft, it didn't take long before the characters and events seeped back into my consciousness. I was faced with a dilemma. I wanted to keep reading so that I could find out more about the characters and what was going to happen to them next, and also so that I could blog about it here. On the other hand, I didn't want it to end.

Last night, I reluctantly turned the last page. The book didn't end in a tidy conclusion, with all the loose ends wrapped up. I knew I wanted to tell as many people as I could about this book...but I was at a loss as to explain it within a review.

You've read young adult literature involving disabilities.

You haven't read a young adult book like this.

Accidents of Nature takes place at Camp Courage, a summer sleep away camp for teenagers with physical and mental disabilities in the 1970s. It's an era before the Americans With Disabilities Act, but just around the time disability activism and awareness changed course and became much more multifaceted. This change is reflected within the characters of Jean and Sara, two campers from very different backgrounds who meet at Camp Courage.

Jean is the typical kid featured in "uplifting" newspaper articles and telethon features. Due to complications at birth, Jean has cerebral palsy. From the get go, her parents were determined to parent her as a "normal child" since, as her mother explained on one telethon, they didn't know any other way to treat her. Jean has always attended local schools instead of a regional school for special needs children, participates in as much school life as possible, and none of her friends have disabilities. In fact, this summer is the first time she's spent a lot of time with other people with disabilities. She gets chosen to lead community parades and was a poster child when she was younger. People who know her remark on how well she "fits in" (as someone notes later in the book, if people comment on how well you fit in, then you really don't fit in).

Sara, who has muscular dystrophy, attends a school for children with special needs. She is sharply aware of the pity, the sentimentality, and cluelessness expressed by many "normal" people, including the counselors, as they are called in the book (one counselor admits that she is aware of her inability to truly understand the campers' lives and situations). She quotes Marxist theory to the bewilderment of her fellow campers. Her friendship with Jean causes Jean to question her life, her attitude about her disability, and frankly, her entire world.

This is definitely a young adult book. In fact, it could be marketed as adult fiction without anyone being the wiser. Language is one factor. The other is the time period in which the book is set. Although the time period is essential for the storyline, this being before the dawn of a stronger disability rights community, several pop culture references may fly over the heads of young adult readers. One camper has an obsession with Johnny Carson, and someone is described as having a "Laurie Petrie" haircut. Older readers may instantly get that someone in the 70s having a "Laurie Petrie" (as in the character played by Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke show) haircut has an outdated and conservative hairstyle, but teen readers may not make that connection. Ultimately, not getting these references will not hamper the reader (as you'll read in the Publishers Weekly interview linked at the end of the post, Johnson did not specifically write the book for the young adult market).

There are deeper issues within the story, one being the frankly sexual harassment of some campers by counselors, namely at a camp dance (inappropriate dancing, sitting on laps, conversation, etc). Sexual harassment of people with disabilities, as well as the sexuality of people with disabilities, remains a taboo subject within our culture. Even though most people know it exists, it's not something that is normally out in the open, until a sensational case erupts in the media. The dance scene, as well as a comment made to Jean by a counselor at a ball game, shocks and disturbs the reader, even though we know that such things occurred and continue to occur.

The sentimentality shown toward people with disabilities is a much bigger theme that is woven throughout the story. A visiting chorale group sings "The Impossible Dream" to the campers, to the disgust and mockery of Sara and her friends, which results in one of the most memorable scenes in the book ("You'll Never Walk Alone" is also a song that brings much mockery later in the story, which is also a "telethon favorite."). A Marx Brothers movie is replaced with a showing of Pollyanna. Sara cajoles her friends into performing a mock telethon (to seek a cure for "normalcy") at the camp's talent show, which draws the wrath of the camp director and the befuddlement of visiting camp donors.

This is not a book about the bravery of people with disabilities, who keep on smiling through the tough times. This is about teenagers who are well tuned into people's perception of them, who see the frozen smiles and glazed eyes of those who don't know quite what to do when faced with disfigurement and wheelchairs. Mainly, it's about two teenage girls who are changed by the camp experience and who change each other.

Amazing is such an overused and fake word that I hate to use it, but this book is indeed amazing. It is an honest and powerful book that you shouldn't miss. It's a book that just may force you to confront your own attitudes and assumptions toward people with disabilities, even if you think you have an enlightened attitude and awareness. Please, please, please read this book.

Publisher's Weekly interview with Harriet McBryde Johnson

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