Recipient of a 2007 Myers Outstanding Book Award and finalist for a Lambda Prize, Kenny Fries' memoir The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory finds a new framework for both the genre and for disability narrative. In essence, it breaks the rules.
While a bit of traditional structure is deployed to establish the author's disability and childhood experiences with surgeries meant to reduce pain and accommodate the absence of certain bones in both legs, Fries liberates himself from expected sequential narrative constructs that often reinforce ableist hegemony. Through his network of short chapters that leap from the nineteenth century to the author's past and present, Fries opens memoir to the suggestive possibility of associational links. In so doing he conjures connections and juxtapositions that long hover in the reader's mind and resonate throughout the book.
A telling example occurs in the placement of a chapter about Darwin's first expedition to the Galapagos Islands followed by a chapter that begins in a YMCA swimming pool. Darwin observes the marine iguana's slow locomotion on land in comparison to its swift elegance when swimming. The image is striking. Fries goes on to describe some of Darwin's comparative observations between marine and land iguanas, noting their variety. In the next chapter entitled "Bodies of Water," the author dips into a pool being used by another lone swimmer whose body reflects ideal male beauty. In water Fries finds freedom of movement and speed: "swimming, back stretched, no pressure on my legs, the water neutralizing weight, is easier for me than walking"(21). Without being at all obvious, he points out, simply through images and proximity, the similarity between the marine iguana and the narrator. The author then turns to desire and our hierarchies of beauty, the comparisons we make between bodies, much like Darwin's comparison of two similar creatures that thrive differently. After a man rejects Fries at a bar once he stands up and displays his shorter legs and five foot frame, the author turns desire to an examination of the concept of disabling — that any choice in attraction is one that disables another. The naming of disabled bodies is universalized and brought to another meditative level, one that brings the discussion to questions of natural selection.
Central to the memoir is the notion of "survival of the fittest," a phrase Fries recalls from his third grade teacher's lecture on Charles Darwin: "At her mention of this phrase, sharp to my skin as a surgeon's knife, I instinctively reach beneath my desk and clutch my legs, protectively lifting them so my shoe-clad feet rest against the edge of my chair" (2). The book then investigates, through biographical descriptions of Charles Darwin and the self-taught naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace adjacent to his own stories, just what is meant by "fittest." This question guides the author through a well-constructed fugue of voices that ultimately converge in the recognition of empathy and adaptation to our environments as the elements necessary for survival.
One of the adaptations that allows the narrator to survive well is his specially crafted custom orthotic shoes. But as his feet and legs change shape over time, pain in his back and legs magnifies. As the memoir unfolds its two multi-faceted narratives, Fries comes to the understanding that his body, his feet, his shoes, are subject to the same laws that determine evolution: "How much longer will shoes enable me to walk? How many earthquakes did it take to change the world's surface?" (14).
The author's journeys around the world echo and revitalize the explorations of Darwin and Wallace through Fries' physical experience, memory, and lyric impulse. At a reintroduction center for the endangered Bali starling, Fries recognizes his own survival in infancy in the white starling's incubated offspring. His identification with that starling resurfaces throughout the book. Other animals, such as the Galapagos' blue-footed booby, become extensions of the narrator's physical identity.
After some discussion of his partner's Attention Deficit Disorder, Fries observes that what in our contemporary moment is observed as disorder is a set of hunter traits — ever ready, scanning the environment, ever curious. We witness a scene in which Ian's ADD is crucial, when scanning the landscape for black monkeys in Bali. "The hunter helps the starling" (139) find what he came to see. And we find strength and necessity in disability. Through accumulation of such narratives in association with the history of the world's development, Fries reconfigures common notions of disability into new fluid shapes, necessary and universal.
It is for this reason, a disability memoir breaking free of a single body and pouring into others, that The History of My Shoes truly becomes the history of all bodies. This book would make a great addition to any Disability Studies course, and would work beautifully as a guide for nonfiction workshops and composition classrooms.