Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


A Non-Neutral Review

Lois Keith
Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, London
E-mail: loiskeith@globalnet.co.uk

If you are a writer who is a also a reviewer, you hope for two things when a new book lands on your desk: You hope that you'll like it because it's much easier to review a good book than a poor one, and you hope that you won't like it too much, for reasons of that particularly lively species of green eyed monster; writers' jealousy. Rarely, you are sent a book which prompts such strong feelings that you hardly know how to begin writing about it. The "young adult" novel Stuck in Neutral by American writer Terry Trueman was, for me, one of these.

I knew from the start that many other reviewers would see it through different eyes. "No doubt, others will call this a brave and moving account or something similar" I wrote in my review, "but I would be reluctant to put this book into the hands of young readers just as I would not give them a racist book or one which told how terrible it is to grow up gay or lesbian." This is very strong stuff, a review that has almost nothing good to say about the book and I didn't enjoy doing it. I rang the editor of Books for Keeps (BfK) to tell him that although I had submitted my review, he may well prefer not to publish it. He put it in, and, as expected, people began to object. In an interview posted on www.achuka.co.uk, the writer himself spoke of how angry and upset he was at my comments, and how misguided I was in my understanding of his novel and some of BfK's usually mild mannered readers wrote in to say they had never disagreed with any review so much.

To backtrack a little: Stuck in Neutral is the story of fourteen year old Shawn who has cerebral palsy and is unable to communicate his thoughts in any way. He describes himself as a kind of genius with perfect, total recall, although to the rest of the world he is a "retard", totally dependent on others for his care. His frequent seizures provide a rather clichéd metaphor for freedom. They allow him to "soar" and "fly free" to release him from the "prison" of his body. The "voice" in the story is sparky and clever but almost from the start I was worried by what seemed to me to be a clear justification for the killing of disabled children. We're hardly into the book (p15) when Shawn says, "I'm pretty sure that my dad is planning to kill me. The good news is that he'd be doing this out of his love for me. The bad news is that whatever the wonderfulness of his motives, I'll be dead." Sydney McDaniel, Shawn's father in the story is a journalist and writer who left the family home years earlier. On an Oprah Winfrey type TV programme, McDaniel defends another father, Earl Detraux, who smothered his two year old disabled son. Detraux, we are asked to believe, murdered his child because he loved him too much to watch him suffer any more. At the end of the book, McDaniel bluffs his way into the house by sweet talking the babysitter and sits by Shawn's bedside with a pillow in his hand, telling his son for the first time, that he loves him. We do not know whether he is about to use it to smother his son, but we are asked to believe that Shawn will happily accept whatever is to come. Feeling the "crackle, crackle" of a seizure about to begin, Shawn says. "I can't tell what is going to happen next. What will my dad do? Whatever it is, in another moment I'll be flying free. Either way, whatever he does, I'll be soaring".

Perhaps the difference of opinion over this book comes down to the ending, not just how you see it, but whether you notice it at all. For reviewers who commented on it, the ending gave the book a "clever, unresolved, thriller-like element". For me, it presented the deeply disturbing idea that because we do not always know what someone like Shawn might be thinking, it is reasonable to assume that he might be happy to go along with the father's idea that his life is too "damaged" to be worth living.

In the Author's Note at the end of the book, Trueman tells the reader: "While I invented Shawn's world and made up all the things that happen, I also based what I wrote on my being the parent of a kid like Shawn, my son Henry Sheehan Trueman". This, together with the knowledge that Trueman (like his character Sydney McDaniel) does not live with his son, helped me to understand more clearly the false note that I feel runs throughout Stuck in Neutral and to see that a more honest story might have been one written from the point of view of what it is like to be the father of a child who has been diagnosed as "profoundly developmentally delayed" and from whom you are estranged. Perhaps this is the story Terry Trueman needed to write.

Thinking and writing about books seems to me to come down to a matter of what questions you want to ask about them. As a disabled person, I look at the world differently and there are questions I want to ask about Stuck in Neutral which are apparently irrelevant to other reviewers; issues and ideas which are crucial to me, but apparently insignificant to them. I want to ask why, when this character is portrayed as being so intelligent and so well loved, has nobody found a way to communicate with him? Why, right from the start of the book, does the writer create a father who justifies killing disabled children, without creating another adult voice to mediate this argument? Why, at the end of the story are we asked to believe that (as seems likely because he is standing over him with a pillow in his hand) the father is about to kill his own son, and to believe that Shawn is happy with this, because he has at last been told that he is loved?

Here are excerpts from some other reviews of Stuck in Neutral, from Amazon.com and private correspondence.

The story develops into an extraordinary journey into the landscape of somebody else's mind...This is a seriously good book that cuts to the heart of issues concerning disability, but never in a stodgy way.

While Shawn appears—to his father's increasing distress—to be unconscious of the world around him, the author imagines that he is fully aware. His life is one of silent observation, 'borrowed' experiences and frequent misunderstandings as he records everything with his exceptional memory. A moving and extremely thought provoking book.

The 'fault' is portrayed as resting with the boy for being so severely disabled, rather than ours for failing to find a way that we can converse with him.

Why do disabled characters in fiction always have to have some stunning compensatory ability? Why can't they be allowed to get past the last page?

Although the topic is very controversial the author handles it tactfully and provides an insightful look into the life of a physically handicapped teenager.

I think the book is fatally marred from both a literary and emotional point of view by the inconclusive ending. The issue of whether the boy is going to be killed by his father is so fundamental that leaving it up in the air is seriously damaging to the book.

What can we make of this? Is it really so simple as to say that in the matter of reading and reviewing stories with disabled characters, there are just two kinds of readers; those who are disabled themselves and therefore ask a certain set of questions, and those who are not? Are there only these two ways of looking at the world? Readers must decide for themselves.

References:

Trueman, Terry. 2001 Stuck in Neutral, Hodder Children's Books, London.

Books for Keeps (BfK) is a children's book magazine, Tel: 020 8852 4953, email: booksforkeeps@btinternet.com

Biographical note for Lois Keith are at the end of her essay "What Writers Did Next" in this journal.





Copyright (c) 2004 Lois Keith



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