Sunday, August 19, 2007

Ten Disabled Characters

For the next edition of the Disability Blog Carnival, host David has requested "top ten lists." I haven't slept for a few days (postoperative ornery kid), so forget careful selecting and ranking, and research is also, sadly, on hold. But I've got my bookshelves... so here are ten disabled characters in recentish novels on my fiction shelves (mostly). In no particular order:

1. Julia McNicholl Hansen in Vikram Seth's An Equal Music (Vintage International 1999) is a chamber musician, a pianist, with adult-onset, progressive hearing loss. By the time we meet her, she's taken lipreading classes and adjusted her performance habits to accommodate the difference; but she hasn't yet told any of her colleagues, afraid for what their reaction will be. So far, she's been able to rely on her experience of the non-audible ways musical quartets interact. The novel's narrator, her old lover and colleague Michael, is thunderstruck when he learns of Julia's impairment. He says "I would have expected more protest, more despair, more rage," and protests "You're taking it too lightly." To which Julia replies, "Well, Michael, it's for me to take. You would have managed somehow if this had happened to you. You might not think so, but you would have." (168-169)

2. Dick Musch in Molly Gloss's Wild Life (First Mariner Books 2001) is a very minor character--he has just one scene--but the history he reflects is important, and under-researched. The narrator, Charlotte, encounters Dick, "a boy with a wooden leg," living in a logging camp in the Pacific Northwest, around 1900:
I leant back and rested my elbows on the bench beside him and commented upon his wooden leg in a mild and roundabout way. 'I believe I've seen half a dozen crippled men in coming four blocks through town,' I said, which didn't seem to offend or surprise him.

'Donkey boilers blow up,' he said easily. 'People fall from flumes, band saws break, a tree walks, a leg gets caught in the bight of the donkey cable. I guess there is about a hundred ways to get killed or hurt in the woods and the mills.' (p. 85)
3. Francis-Xavier Martin in John Bailey's The Lost German Slave Girl (Grove Press 2003) was a real person--because this isn't a novel, but a narrative history of an unusual legal case in antebellum Louisiana. Martin (1762-1846) was an eminent jurist and historian. He presided over the Louisiana Supreme Court for many years, at least a decade of them after becoming blind in his seventies. "Most men would have seen this as a reason for retiring, but not so Martin. When he was no longer capable of writing opinions, he dictated them to an amanuensis; or when none was available, he placed guides at the edge of each page so that he would know when to move his hand down to commence writing a fresh line." (p. 200) If a novelist created a blind judge to hear an appeal about whether or not a slave woman was really white, that would seem too perfect... but sometimes history works like that.

4. Alice Beazley in Jennifer Vanderbes's Easter Island (Bantam Dell 2003) is the sister of Elsa, a main character in this historical novel, but her developmental disability is central to the plot, so she's no side character--we learn much of her interests, and skills, and feelings. Elsa apologizes for Alice a lot, and worries that Alice is a burden on a 1910s research expedition to Easter Island; Elsa's husband insists that Alice is no burden, for reasons of his own. In an early scene, Elsa remembers being scolded by her unusually enlightened father decades earlier, when there was talk of sending the young Alice to an asylum:
'Understand this,' he said. 'Alice does not need to be fixed. She needs to be cared for. And you will not now or ever refer to any of Alice's behavior as a problem or defect. Do I need to repeat myself?' (p. 40)
5. Auro in Nicholas Christopher's A Trip to the Stars (Simon & Schuster 2000) is first introduced as a nervous boy with echolalia--he cannot easily initiate his own words and sentences, but can speak back the words that others say. This echoing makes conversations frustrating, but in music his ability to repeat what he hears is useful, so he sticks to the drums, and becomes a successful jazz drummer by book's end. (By young adulthood, Auro has also begun carrying a notepad for smoother communication.) Auro's cousin describes him, "though his speech disability made it sound as if he had a constricted thought process, that was anything but the case." (p. 143)

6. Zaren Eboli, also in Nicholas Christopher's A Trip to the Stars (Simon & Schuster 2000), is Auro's mentor and bandmate, a jazz pianist with eight fingers (no pinkies), who's also an expert on spiders (eight fingers, eight legs, see?). A particular kind of spider bite that creates longterm neurological effects (hypersensitive hearing and heightened memory, for example) is part of the novel's complicated plot. There's also a Vegas billiards champion in the book, who has a hydraulic billiards table that adjusts to his wheelchair's height. So this book is full of disability themes.

7. Frederick Law Olmsted in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City (Vintage 2003) is also a real person, and this is another narrative history rather than a novel. Larson tells of renowned landscape architect Olmsted's involvement with the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, but also of his dementia, which became apparent soon after the fair: "It has today, for the first time, become evident to me that my memory for recent occurrences is no longer to be trusted," he wrote to his son in May 1895. He said "anything but that" to the idea of being institutionalized, but in the end he was, anyway--at the McLean Asylum in Massachusetts, the grounds of which Olmsted himself had designed. (p. 379)

8. Crake (Glenn) in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (Doubleday 2003) is the villain of the piece--he wipes out the whole human race, more or less, with a virus he's personally engineered and distributed. He's also a character who identifies as having Asperger's--in fact one of the chapters is titled "Asperger's U.," and concerns the main character's visit to Crake at school, which Atwood describes using the usual stereotypes:
Watson-Crick was known to the students there as Asperger's U. because of the high percentage of brilliant weirdos that strolled and hopped and lurched through its corridors. Demi-autistic, genetically speaking; single-track tunnel-vision minds, a marked degree of social ineptitude--these were not your sharp dressers--and luckily for everyone there, a high tolerance for mildly deviant public behaviour. (193-194)
Hmm, David, why top TEN, anyway? Okay, okay, more:

9. Grace Dietrich in "Two Rivers," a novella in Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map (WW Norton & Co., 2002) first appears in the story as a deaf child living near the Ohio River in the 1820s, who uses her own gestural language or home sign, familiar to her family. "Grace lost her hearing when she was two," her sister Miriam explains to a visitor, "Most of our signs she invented, though we also use some she's picked up from her friends." (p. 148) With her sister and brother-in-law, Grace helps start an Academy for the Deaf in Ohio; the Dietrich sisters are also part of the brother-in-law's expeditions for fossils, with Grace drawing the detailed maps of their excavation sites.

10. Henry Day in Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child (Anchor Books 2006) is a hobgoblin who has taken over the life of a human boy in mid-20th-century America. Okay, being a hobgoblin is not exactly a disability under the ADA, but the "changeling myth" is an enduring story in disability studies (but see Goodey and Stainton 2001* on whether or not this story has firm historical basis). As a hobgoblin, Henry can imitate human form, but it's a constant effort; and likewise, he has to fake the memories and personality of the boy he's replaced. So there are commonalities with the experience of hidden disability and passing in Henry's story.

(*CF Goodey and Tim Stainton, "Intellectual Disability and the Myth of the Changeling Myth," Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 37(3)(July 2001): 233-240.)

Two final notes: (1) Inclusion in this list does not constitute an endorsement of the book or the characterization in question--in fact some of them are pretty problematic--but I figure it's still worth knowing they're out there; and (2) The reason these are mostly from 1999-2003 is that I buy a lot of my books secondhand.


girlfriday said...

I have often thought that E.B. White must have had someone in mind with a need for augmentative communication when he wrote "Trumpet of the Swan". The trumpeter swam in on a quest to find a communication device, having lost his own voice. I used to hand this book out to new teachers when my son Dustin was entering public schools.
For that matter, Charlotte , in CHarlotte's Web, being a good writer and a good friend, reminds me also of a number of very good writers who also have cerebral palsy.

Kay Olson said...

Yay! A book list! I've read Oryx and Crake and have The Stolen Child on my wishlist, but haven't read the others.

My wishlist grows. said...

There is a list of my Sweet Sixteen favorite movies with disability characters at come and check them out.

The main character in E.Sommerset Maum's Of Human Bondage had a profound affect on me. I was in art school I had a disability and was in love with an evil person. Too bad the setting of my story was not turn of the century Paris.

A favorite reference for film and literature is the book The Cinema Of Isolation (A History of Physical Disability in The Movies) by Martin F. Norden

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