Tag Archives: bibliotherapy

Type L For Live

At least once a year, I take down a certain book and read it through, though I know it well enough that I can start from any point. And then, if I can, I give it away. The gap in my bookshelf makes me happy; it feels right to pass along this book. But it comes with a sense of regret, too, and not a little awe. I don’t think anyone will write anything like William Horwood‘s Skallagrigg again.

Published in 1987, it seems both timeless and brave as a product of its time; Horwood’s winding prose is gentle, but spares you nothing. It begins in 1927 with Arthur, a boy with cerebral palsy abandoned in a squalid institution, where he loses even his name. He begins to tell his fellow patients of the Skallagrigg, a mysterious figure who he prays will take him home–over a fence and into a field of poppies, where someday he will run. Skallagrigg becomes a legend among the patients, a protector amid neglect and brutality. For years, disabled people pass down Skallagrigg stories all over England–with eyes, feet, symbols, speech–until Arthur becomes legendary too.

In the 1970s onward, the stories reach Esther Marquand. Privileged, clever, and contrary, she too is tangled in her body. She’s not always likable, but she is appealing. With more to say than she’s able, Esther reveals the workings of her mind in subtle ways. Every twist of a limb matters; every “Nah” or “Yeh” has an inflection. Emerging technology reveals her quick reasoning as well as foreshadows the freedom computers would bring to many disabled people. When Esther scans the letter grid of a Possum typewriter or chords Speedwords on a Microwriter-esque keyboard, you’re in her head where time passes in letters per minute, then words; you know exactly how much effort it takes her to communicate, and how elegant numbers and logic can be. Esther begins to believe the Skallagrigg stories are real, programming them into a labyrinthine interactive fiction game as she searches for the only person who knows who or what the Skallagrigg is. Along the way, she leaves an “Easter egg” especially for our narrator, who’s telling the story against Esther’s father’s wishes in 2019.

None of this does it justice; I don’t think I can. It’s a hell of a quest novel, where the mazes are library stacks and hospital corridors, and the battles are spiritual and personal as well as physical. Today it’s also a little bit of nostalgia for people who remember things like BASIC, Pong, and such vexing lines as “You are in a twisty little maze of passages, all different.” But if that were all, it wouldn’t have become its own Skallagrigg story. Out of print (but available through WorldCat), it circulates now through word of mouth and gifts of secondhand copies. Often the recipient is another disabled person, but always it’s only someone who would understand.

Skallagrigg is an epic act of empathy; I haven’t read anything so broad and painstakingly detailed before or since. This is worldbuilding–but what Horwood recreates is the everyday history, language, love stories and struggles of people like his own daughter as well as himself. His daughter has CP; the novel was partly his coming to terms with their relationship. But Esther’s is not the only quest, nor the only disability. Here, disability is also loneliness and estrangement and the inability to help the people we love. There is an ache throughout this book, and we follow the thoughts of each character as they slowly make their way to the people who might ease it.

Horwood returns often to the characters’ relationships, sometimes mentioning each with their complement in a refrain, as if they’re dancing. Relationships are everything in this novel, their mutual exchange and dialogue essential for the characters’ survival. In their bonds I find an apt line of poetry attributed to Roy Croft: “I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.”

Disabled people may be rooted in their bodies, but the spirit of disability is also fluid–shaped by whom you’re with and where you are. Some people drag down hard at your bones and render you helpless, strangling your voice worse than disability could by shouting over your words until hopelessness and tension make you mute. With others, your limbs ease and you can breathe and participate and laugh. Expansive and forgiving, granting the whole human spectrum of emotion to mutually imperfect minds, Skallagrigg is a testament to the people who help you over barriers when you’re bruised and scraped against them–who give you glimpses of poppies and the sky between the trees.

It’s an intense and sometimes dramatic read, but it is also fiercely beautiful. The effect of reading the characters’ journeys in such exhaustive detail is greater than the sum of its parts, generating an amazement that’s distinct from the book itself–a mix of peace and joy and sadness and rightness so deep it’s almost a presence. The Skallagrigg, perhaps.

photo of bright orange poppies, taken by Rebecca O'Connell

Bright orange poppies, taken by Rebecca O’Connell. All rights reserved.

Related reading:

Under the Eye of the Clock, by Christopher Nolan

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, et. al.

Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper

Petey, by Ben Mikaelsen

William Horwood’s site

–Amy R.

 

 

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Hungry Like the Games

Unless you’ve been living on the moon, you’ve heard that there was this little movie, The Hunger Games, that opened over the weekend. Having read the book it was based on at break-neck speed when it was first released, I made sure I went to see Katniss’s struggles writ large on the screen as soon as I could pencil it into my hectic schedule of shushing noisy patrons and badgering small children for overdue book fees.

This may or may not have been a good idea. I spent half the film sitting on the edge of my seat with a pounding heart, and the other half trying not to sniffle too loudly at sad plot points. Given that I already knew what was going to happen, and that it disturbed me anyway, it bodes ill for anyone who sees the movie without reading the books; then again, perhaps other people are made of sterner stuff than I (you can tell I am a fragile soul because I routinely use phrases like “writ large,” “bodes ill,” and “made of sterner stuff” in my blog posts).

But, tenderhearted lass that I am, I still love a good literary catharsis; given that the Hunger Games movie earned $155 million in its opening weekend, I’m guessing a lot of other people do, too. If you enjoyed reading and watching Katniss’s struggle to survive in the arenas of Panem, you might appreciate these other works of fiction, which feature young women battling restrictive governments, each in her own particular fashion.

Matched, Ally Condie. The Society decides which career you should have, how long you should live, and even whom you should marry.  So when Cassia is matched for marriage with her best friend, Xander, she’s relieved not to have to worry about her future…that is, until her neighbor Ky’s face shows up on her match disk, too. Is following The Society’s orders everything it’s cracked up to be? Or will Cassia have some hard decisions to make?  If you like this book, proceed immediately to the sequel, Crossed.

Divergent, Veronica Roth. Beatrice lives in a world where society is organized into five clans, each dedicated to a particular virtue.  If you feel you don’t fit in your clan, you can change when you’re sixteen, and Beatrice eagerly jumps at the chance. However, her new clan is a source of challenge, change, intrigue, danger…and, oh yeah, just a hint of government conspiracy-esque social engineering. The sequel is supposedly under contract, so find out now why it’s dangerous to be Divergent.

Delirium, Lauren Oliver. The government has found the cure for falling in love: one shot when you’re eighteen, and you’re guaranteed a tranquil, drama-free life. Lana is looking forward to getting her shot and avoiding the “disease” called amor deliria nervosa…until 95 days before her eighteenth birthday, when she falls in love. More heavily grounded in romance, but no less nightmarish in its ramifications, Delirium and its sequel, Pandemonium, are ideal for readers who liked the “Team Peeta / Team Gale” aspect of The Hunger Games.

Your turn:  did you read / see The Hunger Games?  What have you read since then that reminded you of the series?

Leigh Anne

who is also indulging in some bibliotherapy with Jennifer Brown’s Hate List

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