Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Novel That Tells it Like it Was, and Is

Writing About What You Know

Harriet McBryde Johnson is the author of a new novel, Accidents of Nature. It is categorized as a Young Adult Novel, but like many YA books, it is a fine adult read. In fact, if I could afford it, I would buy copies for every uninitiated, clueless do-gooder for the disabled that I meet and/or work with.

Like me, Harriet McBryde Johnson grew up with a disability. Like me, she was in “special ed” until the age of 13, and went to “crip camp”. I only went to crip camp once; if one can extrapolate from the novel, it sounds like Harriet had a better time than I did, because she went to crip camp more than once.

Accidents of Nature is about crip camp circa 1970, the first year that the narrator of the novel, Jean, goes to camp. Jean is a “spaz” with CP who uses a wheelchair. The pivotal character of the novel – based upon, one guesses, the author – is Sara, who is a camp veteran and also uses a wheelchair.

The plot is a simple one of coming of age, coming to grips and coming to terms, if you will. It is a quick read, and for me, was like reading a personal parallel history. (Isn’t there an old line about, “We went to different schools together”?)

This novel confirms the answers I’ve come to about some of the more difficult questions about disability and disability politics and the crip experience:

* It really is us (“crips”) against them (“norms”); very, very few of the non-crip do-gooders really get it, even now

* Children with visible disabilities, perhaps severe disabilities, whose parents convince them that they are “just like everyone else” are doing those children a grave disservice in the sense that those children are in a for a rude awakening the minute they are out of the protected zone of family and the familiar

* Telling disabled children that they are all winners in competitions or athletic events – even rigging the game to give truth to the lie – is a patronizing ploy done for the benefit of the adults

* Many (not all) of the people in the “helping professions” are using us (“the crips”) to work out their issues

HMJ uses politically incorrect jargon for different disability types that resonates loud and clear and true to me.

One thing I thought she skirted around a little was cross-disability tensions, particularly in groups of children/young adults with vastly different cognitive abilities. Her depiction of a baseball game and other activities in which each individual with a disability uses the abilities they do have to benefit the group overall was dead on.

Harriet McBryde Johnson is also the author of a memoir, Too Late to Die Young, which I also highly recommend.

The first time I heard the expression, “chick lit”, I thought they said, “crip lit”. There’s definitely room for both.