Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Book notes: Twink, by John Neufeld (also published as Touching)

The junior high that I attended took in students from various grade schools scattered around town and out in the country. Junior high in that respect was quite an experience, because suddenly you had to deal with a whole lot of people you didn't already know. By sixth grade, of course, you could begin to feel that you knew what was what. Junior high is where you found out that your circle didn't constitute an accurate reflection of the whole, wide world, like you thought it did.

Junior high was where I first ran into Robin, a girl whose mother had taken that fertility drug that became infamous for causing birth defects. Robin had the trademark problem. Instead of two arms, she had an arm on one side, and two odd fingers attached to her shoulder on the other.

I probably shouldn't have freaked out. I have some birth defects of my own, notably some partially fused toes which I'd used at various times in my childhood to gross out other children and the occasional adult. (Ordinarily I was a very polite and considerate child, but I, ahem, had my lesser moments...) I went to grade school with a boy who had had polio and was a bit twisted and couldn't walk without crutches. It's not like I didn't know that people were subject to physical distortions. All I had to do was look at my own two feet, for pity's sake.

But no one had told me about the sort of drastic deformity that Robin had, and I wasn't prepared for it, and I didn't handle it very well at first. (More frank version: I felt physically sick.)

I went through various stages with Robin. I avoided her at first. (I was a kid, OK?) Then we became friends. I was embarrassed that I'd been sick when I first saw her. She told me everybody got sick when they first saw her, and I shouldn't feel bad about it. Then I felt sorry for her. And she told me to cut it out, that she didn't feel sorry for herself. And she sure didn't seem to. Robin had her act together better than just about anybody else I knew. She was still a kid, and I'm not claiming she was perfect, but as I remember it her resolve and cheerfulness and her ability to take people how they were and to forgive them their shortcomings and move on were head and shoulders above what I could do. She came across as surprisingly comfortable inside her own skin. I came to admire not only her courage but her compassion, too.

It seemed a supremely upside down way for the world to be. She was the one with the huge, obvious problems, right? So why was it that more often than not she was the one comforting me?

I haven't seen or heard from Robin in years and years. For that matter, it's probably been years since I thought about her. Shame on me, but I've left school days long behind me now, for the most part.

But yesterday I stumbled across a paperback book called Twink, by John Neufeld, c. 1970. The cover and inside copy say it was formerly released as Touching. The back cover copy starts:

A tender, haunting novel about a brave and wonderful girl who taught others the meaning of being human and the joy of being alive.

Even with that, I didn't think of Robin until I got to the second page, where a sixteen year old boy home from boarding school meets his new, severely handicapped stepsister for the first time, and his first reaction is to feel sick.

Oh, oh. Been there. Done that. I'm not proud of it, but it definitely happened like that... That's when I remembered Robin, who forgave me for it and insisted I move past all that. Robin, who was joyful about being alive, and didn't feel sorry for herself.

I sat down and read the book. It's a short book. I read it in one evening, easy.

I'm not familiar with the author, John Neufeld, but throughout this book I couldn't shake the feeling that this wasn't a novel, but an account of real people, with the names changed. Something more like Death Be Not Proud than the normal run of fiction. It felt autobiographical, whether it is or not.

This book is one I'm going to recommend, but conditionally.

The first part is written from the stepbrother Harry's viewpoint, in the first person, about his first visit to the institution where "Twink" lives along with other people with cerebral palsy. The second part is where he (and readers) get filled in on Twink's life, the ups and downs, the difficulties for her family, the differences between the institutions where she's lived, the treatments, the hopes, the naysayers versus the folks who won't give up. The filling in is done by another new stepsister, aged 22, who stays up past bedtime showing Harry pictures and pages from diaries, and chatting. Along the way, we meet people around Twink, particularly others with CP. The name Twink, by the way, is a nickname, a shortened form of Twinkle. That's the good stuff.

But it is a very 1960s/70s book, in the bad sense. Harry, age 16, smokes when gets nervous, hoping to look cool, and the adults around him either make token protests or ask him for a light. At home, after his father drifts off, Harry pours himself a drink, and the stepsister just asks for one for herself. There is talk between the stepsister and Harry about dropping acid and smoking grass -- neither one admitting to actually doing it, but the stepsister is coy and seems to want to make her stepbrother wonder if she might be doing it, along with other things. The parents just mosey off to bed and leave the 16-year-old boy and his flashy, flirty older stepsister to stay up and get to know each other, in the room stocked with drinks on the sideboard (to which, as I've already said, the kids nonchalantly help themselves). So, OK, I'm trying to say this is not exactly a parenting manual for people who want to keep their kids out of trouble ;-).

There is a lot about courage, and hope, and seeing the human beings who are inside disabled bodies; good stuff for starting nice discussions about the value of human beings regardless of what they look like and/or can't do, not to mention the virtue of not letting circumstances defeat you. But it does have that baggage from the era in which it was published, which might call for a different brand of discussion.

It's your call, of course, but I wouldn't want kids taking the wrong messages away from this book, when there are so many nice ones to glean from it, in addition to the adventure of just going along for the ride on a 16-year-old's very long, rather rattling, life-changing day. And the ending's one of the better ones I've come across in a while, at least the last few lines. That last paragraph is a haunter as well as a gotcha, I think... (Don't peek. It's a short book. You'll get there fast enough.)

The reading level code for this book, for those of you who can decipher such things (I'm not sure I can), is RL 5/IL 6+.

1 comment:

Sherry said...

I read this one a long time ago, but I had forgotten it. Neufeld was one of the first young adult "problem book" authors I ever read. He also wrote Lisa, Bright and Dark about a girl with schizophrenia and Edgar Allan (I think that's the title) about a white family who adopt a black child. You're right; the books all very 60's/70's. However, I really liked them when I was in the 60's/70's.