Care in the community
These two novels about young girls coming to terms with extreme disability demonstrate two contrasting approaches. In one, the author shows the child's upbringing suffused with love. The other author offers a victimised heroine enduring life in a rural community which seethes with hate.
In Melvin Burgess' ironically entitled Loving April, the old myth of the benignly tolerated village idiot is revealed for the sham it always was. The village is claustrophobic, and its cruel inhabitants more concerned with reputation and keeping up appearances than with charity towards the daft deaf- mute in their midst. April is despised by the vicar, publicly beaten by her mother, leered at by the grocer and, with the implicit approval of the village elders, taunted day and night by the boys. Poor April, is "desperate to find a way into the grown-up world. But there was no school, no social life, no training, nothing. The village had made it clear that she could never become like one of them".
Curiously, perhaps because her kisses taste like liquorice, a public schoolboy, temporarily on hard times, falls in love with her, and discovers how her strange silent world has given her an inner eye on the beauties of nature and a love of captured animals, especially swans, one of which she takes for walks on a lead. But even the affection of an upper class toff doesn't protect her from being sexually assaulted by a gang of the lads. and anyway, as soon as her boyfriend's prospects improve, he moves off to a nicer village.
In The Baby and Fly-Pie, Burgess went for the totally unequivocal, brutalist ending. This time, he plays safe with a soft cop-out: everything comes right - April is rescued by the bicycle-shop owner and sent off to deaf school learn her three Rs.
What elevates this above mawkish melodrama is the portrayal of April, not a dumb halfwit but a complex and gloriously eccentric teenager. At moments, such as a marvellous episode about cooking soup from discarded fish-heads, only to end up with quantities of super-efficient wallpaper glue which the girl uses to stick twigs and stones onto the walls, the narrative teeters on the brink of a black comedy.
Mine for Keeps, originally published in 1962, is set in a small Canadian town where the grownups are warm and concerned. Doc carefully explains cerebral palsy to younger siblings, and teacher shows extreme consideration for a new pupil with rigid braces on her legs, crutches under her arms and a huge chip on her shoulder.
Sal doesn't want to be in this loving environment. She preferred the safe world of the residential home where she'd been placed five years ago. Unfortunately, her family have had a change of heart about segregated education, have resolved to integrate her into mainstream school.
Integration into the "normal" world is tough. However, there are some nice pets in the story and learning to overcome a fear of dogs is shown to be just as important an aspect of being whole as managing your own mobility.
This topic will surely bring cheers from the Integrated Alliance currently campaigning to end all compulsory segregation in the British education system. Clearly, the Canadians back in the early sixties were far more advanced than us in their thinking about the welfare of disabled children. Mine for Keeps is a sweet tale of overcoming adversity. Loving April, though less polished and probably less "disability-correct", makes for the more dangerous and demanding read.