Category: DBC

DBC February: Living with Chronic Illness

DBC February: Living with Chronic Illness

The Diverse Books Club theme for February was Living with Chronic Illness. The selections were a middle-grade novel about a boy with cystic fibrosis, Caleb and Kit, and Left Neglected, a book about a women who has it all and is doing it all until an accident leaves her with a traumatic brain injury. I enjoyed the middle-grade option this month more than the adult pick, though the adult pick had the unfortunate luck of being measured against Still Alice, an earlier book the author wrote.

Caleb and Kit
I looked up to the branches of the huge trees above me. Two long, thick trunks soared straight to the sky and then curved away from each other. I had heard once about trees that do that—live side by side but bend away to share the sun. They are buddies. They could stick close, but if they do, eventually one will struggle to tower over the other, keeping the weaker, unluckier one in the shade. Instead if they’re really friends, they’ll bend apart. I wondered if it hurt, twisting away from your friend like that.

Synopsis
Caleb is twelve years old and he’s just about had it with being treated like a baby or like a walking, talking illness. His father’s gone, distanced himself from the day-to-day trouble of addressing and treating Caleb’s cystic fibrosis while his mother has taken the opposite tack and hovers constantly, sunscreen in one hand and a snack in the other. As if that weren’t bad enough, Caleb’s older brother’s perfection hovers like a storm cloud—not only is Patrick healthy but he gets straight As, plays the violin like a virtuoso, and is so good he choses to spend his summer fundraising for cystic fibrosis charities. Having cystic fibrosis has limited Caleb’s universe of friends somewhat, leaving him feeling left out until, one day, he meets Kit in the woods. Kit doesn’t treat him like he’s about to break, she takes his limits in stride—pushing him at times to move past them without ever commenting on them or treating them like they are limiting her or their fun. As Caleb escapes into Kit’s fairy world, forgoing the summer camp he should be at, Caleb starts to see things about Kit’s life that don’t make sense. That maybe aren’t safe.

People First
In Caleb and Kit, while Caleb’s CF is a big part of the story, it ultimately isn’t the main point. This isn’t a story about a boy with CF whose family learns to stop babying him or who learns his own limitations. The heart of the story, the unknown that drives the book forward, is Kit. As an adult reader I could quickly put two and two together and see that Kit is being alternately neglected and physically abused by her mother. This is why she’s frantic to escape in fairytale, nearly always hungry, and seems to be living for days at a time in the woods with no food or real shelter. The book is about Caleb recognizing what’s happening and what he does about it once he knows.

I loved Vrabel’s choice to structure her book this way. I work with people with disabilities (mostly intellectual disabilities and/or mental illness) and there has been a movement for many years to use people first language—a person with mental illness, a person who uses a wheelchair, and person with autism. The idea is that the disability doesn’t define you and you’re a person first. Vrabel’s structuring her book around a non-disability plot and having a character who has a disability as a main character felt like people-first writing. I loved the unassuming message this sends to the child readers the book is aimed at about kids with disabilities being kids first, kids who have their own lives and things going on, kids who are to be included albeit with some minor modifications to activities.

Recommended
Caleb and Kit is a book I whole-heartedly recommend for middle-grade readers (or adults who enjoy middle-grade themselves). I can sometimes struggle with middle grade, to care what is happening next—in contrast Caleb and Kit was engaging and well written. I had no problem picking it up and wanting to keep reading. The characters are well developed and you really feel Caleb’s frustration at the ways his life has limited him. He makes some bad choices and is disobedient; however, those choices largely catch up to him with natural consequences that make the point that his choices were bad without it getting as intense as a book like Bridge to Terebithia, a book the forest scenes in Caleb and Kit called to mind. The themes and action are appropriate for younger middle-grade readers, so long as the adult is prepared to discuss the existence of child abuse (nothing graphic).

Notes
Published: September 12, 2017
Author: Beth Vrabel (@authorbethvrabel)
Date read: February 6, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Left Neglected

The first step in my recovery is to become aware of my unawareness…

Synopsis
Sarah Nickerson is living life at break-neck speed, working eighty-hour work weeks and mothering three children. Until suddenly the multitasking catches up to her, causing an accident that leaves Sarah with “left neglect”—a brain injury that causes her to entirely forget her left side even exists. As Sarah trains her brain to pay attention to a part of herself she’s never had to focus deliberate energy on, she is also forced to reckon with other areas of her life left long neglected, including her relationship with her mother.

Kind of a Niche Author
I was explaining the plot of Left Neglected to a coworker I talk books with and was explaining the general plots of some of Genova’s other books, including Still Alice. He commented that writing fiction books that center around brain disorders is sort of a weird niche. Admittedly, this hadn’t really occurred to me—I read a lot of Lurlene McDaniel tragedy-porn as a teenager so having an author write only about people with cognitive-related disorders didn’t strike me as terribly strange. My coworker’s comment prompted me to look up Lisa Genova—interestingly, she has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard. Her other books have featured characters with early-onset Alzheimer’s, Autism, Huntington’s, and (in March) ALS.

This background certainly informs her writing—the science of her books seems well researched and not gimmicky (she doesn’t go for the rare but more “exciting” complications for the sake of plot). Her writing hits a spot between being scientifically authoritative and devastatingly human. I still remember picking up Still Alice one night at 10pm thinking I’d read a few chapters and be lights out by 10:30. Come 3am, I’m awake and sobbing as I finish the last chapters. Genova’s characters in Still Alice and Left Neglected (her two that I’ve read) feel like people I know or, even, people who could be me. While I felt that part of the power of Genova’s writing is the strong sense of identification I had with her characters, I should say here that in these two books, the main characters are high achieving, Ivy-League educated white women so it was fairly easy for me to identify with them. I have no way to know this for sure, but I suspect her characters may not seem as relatable to others and I don’t want to suggest that everyone should be able to see themselves in these characters. Regardless, I do think that even if you cannot see yourself in Genova’s characters, she sets up their back stories with sufficient detail that you can see the devastation the Alzheimer’s and then the traumatic brain injury has on each of these women and their lives such that you can grieve with them for what they lost.

“Happy” Ending (only very vague spoilers)
Looking at Genova’s other work (and omitting the book with the character with autism because I have no idea how she handled that topic, having not read the book), Genova’s books are ones that can rarely end happily—Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and ALS are all progressive and fatal, robbing the person of memories and/or bodily control. These stories can end peacefully but almost certainly not with something that would be considered a “happy” ending. The finality of those diseases constrains the ending of the books.

This isn’t true for a traumatic brain injury and this may be why the ending suffered the way it did for me. You’d think that having to end a book with a terminal disease would be more limiting; however, it seemed to me that being forced to end a book happily—not in the middle, not as tragedy, but with a redemptive note—was more limiting on Genova’s writing.

I don’t disagree with the way Genova ended her book—I think she did the right thing by having an ending that demonstrated that people with TBIs can still have fulfilling and happy lives. This ending though, can be seen from a mile away. Genova sets up Sarah’s “having it all life” complete with eighty-hour work weeks and three kids –a life incompatible with a traumatic brain injury that leaves her with permanent deficits. Sarah’s life before is an almost textbook example of what it means to be a working woman—an archetype so established in her extremes that you see the injury coming because there’s no way this woman is going to be able to keep up this pace. After the injury as Sarah begins to find ways to live around her limits, here too, you see the end coming a mile away. Genova can’t end this book with Sarah being depressed and never getting off the couch again. And yet, setting up the foundation for the life Sarah will learn to find fulfilling and enough when the book ends requires some sign posts that are so obvious as to be marquees for the resolution.

Take It or Leave It
I loved Still Alice and would recommend it to anyone that is in a place where they can read about Alzheimer’s. (It’s not a book for anyone currently going through it with a loved one or someone recently diagnosed). Left Neglected keeps this same style and attention to detail. It did feel like it dragged a bit for me and I and the rest of Goodreads saw the ending coming. Those flaws aren’t deal breakers though. Left Neglected has Genova’s impeccable writing and a strong female character that I enjoyed meeting and spending some time with. It’s not a book I felt wasted my time; however, it’s not going to make my best-of list any time soon.

Notes
Published: January 4, 2011
Author: Lisa Genova (@authorlisagenova)
Date read: February 1, 2018
Rating: 3 stars

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom….

Summary
In Cora’s world, the Underground Railroad is not merely a network, but an actual railroad running from the slave states of the south to the perceived freedom of the north. Cora, an outsider even among the slaves on the plantation where she grew up and orphaned by a mother who ran north years before, has never had a good enough reason to run until a few days after our book begins. In The Underground Railroad, as Cora flees Georgia, each geographical state she passes through represents one of the states, forms, or ideas of how to address Black Americans in the 1800s. In many ways, vestiges of these “solutions” remain alive today.

Interspersed with the state chapters are vignettes of minor characters including the man who runs with Cora, the slave catcher chagrinned with having never caught Cora’s mother and obsessed with catching Cora, and even (lastly) Cora’s mother. The timeline presented is loosely linear as time bounces around a bit with Cora’s remembrances and the flashback vignettes, adding to the reader’s overall sense of being detached from time. This detachment adds to the sense that much of what is happening could be happening today.

Time & Timeliness
The Underground Railroad is, like Beartown, a book I read before I was blogging but that I wanted to revisit and write about. Other books had been published more recently and always seemed to be more urgent to write about (“urgent” being relative and, in this case, entirely self-defined and imposed). And yet, just two weeks ago there was discussion on Facebook of a University of Alabama student expelled for saying she “hates N-words” and can use that word as much as she wants. The President of the United States is talking about immigrants from shithole countries. Here we are. 2018. While slavery of African Americans is officially eradicated in the United States, the states through which Cora and her companions traveled are still alive and well in America today.

Georgia
In Georgia (where our book starts) is brutal slavery—Cora lives on the Randall plantation, owned by two brothers, each representing one of the extremes of slaveholding. James is the “kinder” slaveholder, a bit more reticent to punish, not unnecessarily harsh (ignoring, of course, that the idea of owning another person is of itself automatically unnecessary and harsh). Terrence is the opposite; the slaves are there for his amusement and his amusement includes rape and beatings. While one of these treatments is preferable to the other in the day-to-day, both are slavery. Both are predicated on ideas of supremacy and values of human life that change based on the color of ones skin. Even “benevolence” is brutal.

As expected, Whitehead does not shy away from the brutality of slavery—Cora witnesses beatings and is herself beaten and raped. These events are described (though not gratuitously—Whitehead hits the right balance here), including the one that served as the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and sent Cora running. The only part about the Georgia chapters that were surprising to me was the cruelty she experienced at the hands of her fellow slaves before she left. My surprise at this was obviously my ignorance and failure to question other portrayals of slaves in other works—slaves who were loyal to each other, all family, all united with no dissent. Of course, enslaved African Americans were humans like any other—there were some who were selfless and others who were selfish. While they’re often portrayed as only selfless and helping of others in fiction and movies, this “magical negro” variant is unhelpful. Anything that removes ones humanity—be it degradation or overwrought elevation is harmful. Whitehead avoids this by portraying his black characters throughout as well-rounded, representative human beings, including black wrongdoers.

South Carolina
In South Carolina, Cora initially thinks she has come to someplace wonderful. She’s given a job and lessons. She is housed in a dormitory with a proper bed and shown signs of respect, including having white people nod to her and look her in the eye. After the brutality of the plantation and the overwhelming fear attendant to her flight, South Carolina originally seems like a peaceful place to be.

And yet shortly after Cora settles into her new life in South Carolina, little flags start to raise themselves. She is given a thorough and invasive physical exam including a rough gynecological exam. A seemingly crazy woman is dragged away yelling that these (“respectful”) white people are taking her babies. Shortly after, Cora finds her job reassigned, removed from being a nanny (reminiscent of the care of white children by African Americans that continued for more than one hundred years after the official end of slavery) and instead made part of a living history museum. Yet as Cora “reenacts” the highly sanitized version of slavery presented at the “history” museum for white children, she begins to see that South Carolina may not be the haven it seemed. History is still being told by the ones in power and the ones in power are all white. Even when life is better here, there is still an inviolable power dynamic that is not changed by the occasional handshake—there are simply different strings that still serve to tie blacks firmly down into their places.

Almost too late, Cora discovers what is really behind the courtesies and medical examinations in South Carolina and barely makes it out, catching a maintenance cart to a station that should be closed in North Carolina.

North Carolina
North Carolina is a new hell—the whites have solved the “black problem” by eliminating all blacks and those who attempted to help them. There are weekly hangings of any that have been rooted out, with the bodies left on the ironically, grotesquely named “Freedom Trail.” (“Freedom” being defined by the whites as being free altogether of African Americans.) In some ways similar to South Carolina, the “solution” is North Carolina is presented as the logical, thought-out conclusion to the “problem.”

Here Cora is forced to impose upon a couple that finds her but doesn’t want her. Martin feels obligated to fulfill his father’s legacy and take her in where Ethel resents the danger Cora has forced upon her family. Cora is forced into what is essentially an attic crawl space. Here Whitehead’s descriptions made me feel as if the walls and ceilings were closing in on me, in a space that feels more and more like it could become Cora’s coffin. From Cora’s perch in hiding, she has one view—the view of the square where the weekly hangings are. Because life in a coffin isn’t bad enough, she must constantly be reminded of what is outside the coffin. When the family is betrayed, Cora is again on the move.

Tennessee
Cora next finds herself in Tennessee. It is nearly impossible to write much further about the events in Tennessee without providing significant spoilers, so there is less here that I can say. A handful of characters appear in Tennessee serving as allegories of larger issues and ideas in the history of the treatment of African Americans in this country. In Tennessee we first meet a black child who has so internalized the racism that he has voluntarily taken up with slave catchers and helps them to catch other African Americans. We also meet a group of black freemen with significantly different ideas about the use of violence in the struggle for black freedom, ideas reminiscent of the debates between adherents of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophies and those embraced by Malcolm X.

Indiana
Cora next finds herself on Valentine farm, a haven in the north for freemen and women. While whites are not banned, few of them find their way there—and these are typically whites that were involved with the stops on the Underground Railroad and so must seek refuge themselves. But even here, the haven cannot be a paradise. The farm has grown large enough that they are attracting attention and hatred from the white farmers whose lands bound the farm. There are discussions about whether to close their doors to any further fugitives. Whether they should be concerned with maintaining only their own freedom or whether they owe a duty to those still running to be the haven they will need in the weeks and months to come.

“We can’t save everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing’s going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers.
“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without a yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick—yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary….
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are….”

Ultimately, the whites cannot let this haven be untouched. No place of Black freedom and prosperity, even now, can thrive without jealousy and a white, entitled sense of the reversal of the order of things.

Recommended
The Underground Railroad was timely when it was published more than a year ago and remains so today. Neo-nazis are not new; however, it seems that in the last two years they have been emboldened into no longer feeling they have to hide. They’ve lost the sense that as a society we will reject them—largely because we haven’t. There is always work I can and should be doing, as a possessor of almost all of the privileges—white, cis-gendered, and able-bodied. I find books like The Underground Railroad to be helpful in making me think through my privilege in different ways, to connect what happened back then with what is still very much happening now. While the book does have some brutal depictions of slavery, it is never gratuitous and so is a book I recommend (particularly for white readers) without hesitation.

Notes
Published: August 2 2016 by Doubleday (@doubledaybooks)
Author: Colson Whitehead (@thecolsonwhitehead)
Date read: September 16, 2017
Rating: 4 ¾ stars

Review: Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Review: Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

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“I’m not allowed to use the internet without an adult,” I say
“Right, I remember,” says Larry. “Why won’t your parents let you?”
“Because Gloria is on the internet.”
“Who’s Gloria?”
“Gloria is my Birth Mom. I used to live with her.”
Then I stop talking.
“Is she easy to find?” says Larry.
I shake my head. “No,” I say. “I tried to find her three times on the internet when I was in different Forever Homes but I kept getting interrupted.”
“What’s her name again?” says Larry….
I lean forward and look at him sideways over the top of my glasses. I push my hair out of my face but it falls back. I wish I had a scrunchie. “Gloria LeBlanc,” I say. It’s been a long time since I said the name LeBlanc with my mouth. Because that is what my name used to be. It’s like I left the original me behind when I came to live with my new Forever Parents. With Brian and Maura Moon. My name is Ginny Moon now but there are still parts of the original me left.

Synopsis
Ginny Moon is a 14 year-old girl with autism, adopted by her Forever Parents after being removed from Gloria, her Birth Mother who neglected her. No one seems to care that when Ginny was removed from Gloria, her Baby Doll was left behind and Ginny needs to care for her Baby Doll. When no one will help her find her Baby Doll, Ginny has no choice but to try to find her herself. Unfortunately, Ginny’s search for her Baby Doll means she has to make some choices that are Not Safe, risking her place in her Forever Family’s home.

Representation & Characters
I loved Ginny. This book is written to make you root for her, even when she is making what seem to be awful choices. In my experience, Ludwig’s sensitive portrayal of Ginny’s autism is fairly accurate. She isn’t presented as representative of all individuals with autism and she isn’t a Rain Man-esque savant. She is simply concrete and literal, though Ludwig gives you Ginny’s interior voice so you know why she is making the choices she is making. Knowing the why and how she got from point A to point B in her thinking made it so that I could identify with her, even though I’m not a person that the autism spectrum myself.

Along with the concrete thinking, she keeps the rules that make logical sense and violates the ones that don’t. She doesn’t abide by many social conventions—not because she doesn’t value the people involved but simply because the conventions don’t make sense in light of Ginny’s end game. I particularly appreciated that Ludwig portrayed a girl with autism, since the majority of the stories that seem to be out there with characters with autism feature boys.

Ginny’s Forever Mom and Forever Dad raised Big Feelings for me. Forever Dad is trying his best. While even he does not take the time or consider the source of Ginny’s anxiety over her Baby Doll, he is willing to spend more energy and time accommodating and meeting Ginny’s needs. Forever Mom on the other hand, was infuriating. Admittedly, her suggestions of institutionalizing Ginny may have made me hate her more than was directly called for—part of my job is working to get people out of institutions and set up with the services and supports they need to be successful in their communities. I’m sure Maura was frustrated and Ginny did do things that, when you didn’t understand the full context (as Forever Mom didn’t) seemed like Ginny didn’t care about her Forever Family and wouldn’t be safe around the baby who was on the way. But Forever Mom also refused to listen to the counselor and wanted to send Ginny away. So I still feel ok about disliking her as a person.

While he is a minor character, I also want to mention Ginny’s friend Larry. I loved that Ludwig included Larry—that he cares for Ginny, that he is a friend for Ginny, and that he even seems to have a crush on Ginny. People with disabilities are far too often presented as if they are asexual or unable to be the objects of real desire and so just presenting a teenager with a crush on a girl with autism made me want to stand up and cheer.

Mood
I can honestly say that never before has a book inspired such feelings of anxiety. I listened to Ginny Moon on audiobook and the feeling of growing tension about choices Ginny is making filled me with dread and anxiety the further I went into the book. As the reader, you can see the train wreck that’s building—Ginny reaches out to Gloria. Gloria begins to contact Ginny. Ginny makes choices to try to get back to Gloria and her Baby Doll. Each of the series of choices Ginny makes has worse possible consequences than the one before and you’re cringing as you read, waiting to see what will happen, hoping something will interrupt the coming course of events.

I found myself torn between not being able to stop listening, needing to know what came next and pausing the book because I couldn’t handle the tension and oh my god, Ginny this is a bad idea and why aren’t you listening to what Ginny is saying! If you would listen to Ginny, she wouldn’t be making unsafe choices. THIS IS UNSAFE.

With that said, this was the Diverse Books Club pick last year when we were looking at disabilities and I know more than one Highly-Sensitive Person who read and thought this book was amazing.   Don’t let the anxiety it produces scare you away from reading it. Just know ahead of time that it is a book that you may need to take breaks from if you’re an HSP. And if you’ll pardon the spoiler, Ginny is alive and healthy at the end of the book, in case knowing that makes it easier to read.

Minor Criticism
The only detail that really threw me off was the inclusion of Larry in the SpEd classroom. Unless I missed something, Ginny’s friend Larry has a physical disability that requires him to use crutches but does not have any kind of cognitive deficits associated with his disability. While many schools do not treat the SpEd kids well or provide all needed services; in my experience, a kid with solely physical disabilities wouldn’t be put into the self-contained classroom like this. There would be no reason Larry can’t participate in a mainstream classroom, with physical accommodations like seating closer to a door and more time to get to class. The inclusion of Larry in Ginny’s class was necessary for him to be able to aid and abet her in things like using the internet; however, it felt odd throughout for me that he was in the classroom at all.

Recommended
Ginny Moon is well-written with a distinct narrator that makes the book an anxiety-producing joy to read. It’s a book that will draw Big Feelings from you and is a book that would do well with a book club since Ginny’s choices, as well as those of her family, would make good fodder for discussion. (At least some of the reviews on Goodreads are pretty negative—while I disagree with these, the best kind of book club books are the ones people disagree about.)

The themes and reading level of the book, while aimed at adults, are well within the grasp of older teens and so this would also be a book I recommend for young adults that enjoy some non-YA fiction. Indeed, reading well-written books with diverse characters, including characters with disabilities, can only be beneficial. I honestly believe that one of the ways I’ve developed into a more empathetic person over time (besides having a close friend who got a degree in counseling) is by fiction that presents a diversity of voices and viewpoints. Everyone is equal at the library checkout counter.

Notes
Published: May 1, 2017 by Park Row Books
Author: Benjamin Ludwig
Date read: November 17, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

DBC January Theme: Foster Care & Adoption

DBC January Theme: Foster Care & Adoption

This month’s focus for the Diverse Books Club* was foster care and adoption. While foster care and adoption can be beautiful things, there can also be heartbreak and difficulty for all involved—birth parents, children, and adoptive parents. Too often, the hard reality of adoption isn’t discussed or portrayed when we speak of these things. Adoptive parents are saviors, the children are lucky to get out, and the fairy tale ends with the judge’s gavel pronouncing the creation of a forever family. But adoption is not a fairy tale for most. It is, quite often, simply a necessary evil.

As an attorney, I have seen parents with disabilities who needed temporary help lose their children entirely to the machine that is the child welfare system. I’ve also seen children who needed help far sooner, but even once the State intervened stood little chance of getting what they needed. The failures are typically not for lack of care on the part of the people involved, but rather a function of a behemoth grown too large to manage with perpetually underfunded staff and resources. The end result is that while individual caseworkers, attorneys, and judges may very well care, the system doesn’t. And it is the system that swallows parents and children whole.

I was grateful, therefore, to see that there are mainstream, accessible books that tackle some of these issues and that DBC selected this as a theme to explore.

forever, or a long, long time
The first DBC book I read this month, and my favorite of the two, was forever, or a long, long time—a middle grade book written by Caela Carter. This book was a pleasant surprise to me since I rarely really get into middle grade books. I’m not a teacher and don’t have children, so I don’t have a reason to ever pick them up outside of a book club selection and they’re usual hit or miss for me. I went ahead and got this one but assumed I might be quitting after a chapter or so. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Summary // Foster Care Damage
Forever is told from the point of view of fourth grader Flora who, along with her younger brother Julian has been adopted into what is supposed to be their forever home.   You quickly come to realize that due to some neglect faced by these two children before landing where they are, Flora struggles with processing language—she understands but has trouble putting her thoughts into words and speaking. Julian hoards food, even though he now receives plenty at the table everyday. For children who have been through at least four placements and “entered care” very young, these disabilities and issues are not terribly surprising. Language delays can be common in children who were neglected or otherwise not engaged at a young age. Similarly, hoarding is a common aftereffect of serious neglect where access to food was limited. Long after the neglect has ended, the psychological remains of this neglect stays—rooting this out and filling in the hole left can take far longer. Nor is it surprising that Flora self-sabotages in school, torn between wanting to do well and please her mom and teacher and not wanting to have to transition away from the teacher and classroom she knows and loves.

Though Flora’s and Julian’s new mom and dad do everything they can and show remarkable patience, the adoption is still hard. Adoption did not make Flora speak overnight or keep her from self-sabotaging. It doesn’t keep Julian from hiding moldy chicken nuggets tucked in the folds of his khakis in his closet. Nor does having a mom and dad keep the children from wondering about their first mom and dad, or where they came from. Since no one seems to be able to tell them, Flora and Julian have created a heartbreaking little game, where they come up with theories of where they came from—they formed on the bottom of the sea, they stepped fully grown from a television, etc.

Adding to the mix is the blended family—Dad had a family before and so adoption comes with a half-sister. Though the adults don’t use the “half” or designate the status/worth of their children by differentiating between those acquired by birth and adoption, you can bet the children do themselves. There is a pervading cloud of otherness that hangs over Flora and Julian, despite the efforts of their parents, teachers, and therapist. No one (except maybe dad’s ex-wife) is to blame and everyone is trying their best.

The final piece of the chaos is the loss of Flora and Julian’s files. No one—not Mom, not the agency—knows where the files are. And so, the family embarks on a quest to find where Flora and Julian came from, tracing back one placement by one placement. On this journey, hard truths come out about where Flora and Julian were placed, what motives some of the placements had, failures of the system that resulted in Flora and Julian losing a loving home that was ready and available for them many years before they stopped bouncing around the system. And they find the home where Flora and Julian were taken right after their emergency removal—the home that left me with the solid feeling that they may have been in trouble before, but the home they were thrust into was far worse.

Along the way are all the people—the loving foster home that Flora and Julian lost. The foster-farm parent who takes in large numbers of kids and gives them the bare minimum. The parent who was more concerned about herself than keeping Flora and Julian together. The caseworker who tried her best but still probably failed. And the forever mom, the forever dad, and the forever siblings. All of these people are real people in the system that makes the foster-adoption process the flawed, hot mess with sometimes happy endings that it is.

Recommended
Having written all of this out, Forever admittedly sounds like a bummer of a book. And yet, it was hopeful. It was hard but, as is age appropriate, it ends well for Flora and Julian. They have their forever family. Forever presents an accurate portrayal of what foster care and adoption can look like for one family in an accessible and age appropriate way. There is nothing graphic or scary; however, this is a book that will spark conversation about the fact that not every family is safe. Not every child is well taken care of. And that kid in class who seems kind of weird and doesn’t look like their family—may be one of the best people to get to know. Because not every family looks alike and that’s more than okay.

Forever is a beautiful book that I’m glad I read and will be recommending for friends with kids. Even those who aren’t involved in foster care or adoption should pick up this book for their children and begin exploring these topics so that when Flora and Julian shows up next to them in class, they have a head start on being kind.

Notes
Published: March 7, 2017 by HarperCollins (harpercollinsus)
Author: Caela Carter
Read: January 5, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Secret Daughter
Admittedly, I was a little less jazzed about Secret Daughter. I think we’ve pretty well established that I’m a book-snob and my tastes, with some exceptions, veer more LitFic than WomansFic. I don’t love the mass market paperback but give me the snobby book nominated for the Man Booker and talked about on NPR. I want to read and re-read a paragraph just to appreciate the cadence of the words. Secret Daughter is definitely more in the WomansFic class.

Summary
Secret Daughter follows two families beginning with the birth of their daughter in 1984 through 2009. Kavita is Usha/Asha’s birth mother, forced by circumstance to give her daughter up in order to literally save her life. Somer and Krishnan are Asha’s mixed-race parents in the States who adopt her as a very young child. As the book moves through time, you read about Kavita’s life—how she wonders about Asha, how her life slowly improves (at least on the surface) with her husband and her son she was allowed to keep, born about a year after Asha. You struggle with Somer over her infertility, her adoption of Asha, her sacrifice of much of her ambition in order to fit into her new role as Mom. And, when Asha grows old enough, you follow Asha as she wonders who she is and where she come from. Layered over this is the mixed-culture marriage of Somer and Krishnan. Krishnan was, with relatively little complaint from him, forced to assimilate to American culture when he came over many years ago for medical school. Somer, during short visits to India chafes against having to assimilate, even temporarily—leaving her with mostly negative feelings about the country of her child’s birth, even independent of any fears she has about Asha’s birth parents.

Verdict // Importance of books like these
I don’t have any major things I can point to about why I didn’t love this book—I think the problem is that I also don’t have anything I can point to that I loved. There were no paragraphs that I re-read to appreciate the writing, though I also never rolled my eyes at anything overwrought. (Secret Daughter is still head and shoulders above Lilac Girls.) I’d give it 3 ½ stars because it is an above-average book. It just isn’t the kind of book I gravitate to and I don’t want to rush to get back to it when I had to put it down.

While I didn’t love the book, after sitting with it for several days, I do think books like Secret Daughter fill an important role, much the way I think some Jodi Picoult books do. There are many readers who will not pick up a serious work on domestic violence or the recent unmasking of the rampant white supremacy around us and yet, these women will pick up Picture Perfect and Small Great Things. It is important that weighty topics not be limited to serious works but that mass-market fiction sold for $11 in Target also introduces these ideas.

Along these likes Secret Daughter raises points that are not highly talked about with international child adoption. Adoptive mom Somer feels she’s lost herself to give her daughter Asha a beautiful life in America—having, like many mothers, sacrificed her own dreams and ambitions for the sake of her child. For her part, Asha, though adopted as a very child, still wonders about her birth country and her birth family. Though Asha has everything she could want in America and two loving parents, there is still the very real urge to find where she came from and why her parents had to give her up.

Here to is where Secret Daughter raises important points, particularly about international adoption. Many if not most “orphans” in places like India, Haiti, and Ethiopia are not orphans. They are children of poverty whose families gave them up because it was the surest way to ensure they would have access to food and shelter. Or some other circumstances intervened to prevent their birth family from caring for them, but this doesn’t mean they are unloved, unwanted, or even actually orphaned. Even medical advances like the ultrasound and things like abortion access come into play in Secret Daughter as it’s a poorly kept secret that these things are used by some in countries like India for sex-selective abortion. The result in places like India and China is an imbalance where men outnumber women significantly by the time a generation reaches childbearing age.

Thematically, Secret Daughter isn’t a beachy read and yet, it kind of reads like one. The writing is straightforward, the characters easy to identify with. The plot has enough action to keep it moving at a decent clip. It’s not a book I plan to keep and I probably won’t recommend widely, though it is something I’d recommend to my mother since she camps pretty solidly in the Women’s Fiction section in her typical reading tastes. If you lean more Women’s Fic than LitFic this is a book you’d enjoy and I do think it a worthwhile use of your time.

If you do pick up Secret Daughter, make sure to read the author’s note about her inspiration to write the book and the real life facts behind Asha’s story.

Notes
Published: April 5, 2011 by William Morrow books (paperback) (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda (@shilpi_gowda)
Read: January 11, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars

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