Monday, October 15, 2007

Prue, Ruby and Rose

I'm reeling a bit. I've just finished two books in a row that have people with disabilities, differences as not only primary characters, but as narrators. I read them, accidentally, in probably the best order though I'm not sure it matters. What's astonishing about the books is that they were written in different centuries but document the social phenomenon of disphobia and disablism - occurring in much the same fashion.

Both books have female leads and both books treat their subjects with kindness but not reverence. They are fully formed people, all of them, they react to their disabilities in similar ways and they grow wary of a world that cannot see them as fully human. They stand apart, and this perspective allows them to comment on the human condition in bold new ways. I'm being very cautious in what I say because I hate when I read spoilers that give away plot points.

I hereby challenge those readers of Chewing the Fat who are up to it, to take on both books and then give commentary. I'd love to hear your opinions. Here are the books:

Precious Bane by Mary Webb first published in 1924

An amazing story but a difficult read. I wouldn't have made it through the book if I hadn't fallen head over heels in love with Prue Sarn the primary character. Prue was borne with a 'hare lip' and as such was deemed an outsider, a witch, the devils consort. But the book really focuses on her relationship with her brother and mother and then her falling for a beautiful man, a weaver. The story documents her longing to be held and touched by this man, her knowing it wasn't possible, that the mark of difference on her face kept her from beauty - thus desirability. What makes this book hard to read is that it's written in the language of the times and the patois of North Shropshire in England. The spelling is difficult, it took me awhile to figure out the 'enow' was 'enough' and there are hundreds of these words. But by the host of heaven, the story did catch me and I had to find out what happened to Prue.

The book has an introduction by then Prime Minister of England, Stanley Baldwin. I beg you not to read this till the end. I read it part way through and was horrified to find that Balwin gives away a huge bit of the story - I was furious and warn you off the introduction.

The Girls by Lori Lansens published 2006

This is the story of two sisters, conjoined twins. The book is written primarily by the character of Rose but with chapters from Ruby. It's impossible to read this book and remember that it's fiction. The characters are so whole, so rich and so complex. There are several 'put the book down and swoon' moments, which I'd love to tell you but I'm using that restraint the doctor always suggests that I use more often. The overlap with Prue's story, in descriptions of public reaction are disturbing, this is almost a century later. Surely we'd learn. Surely.

The girls were adopted by an amazing couple and their mother told them that in every ordinary life is an extraordinary story. What's amazing here is to find that in an extraordinary life is an ordinary story. These women, though attached, become separate in your mind. These women, though different, become singularly human.

These books represent the best of what can be found in 'disability literature' if there is such a thing. The characters are not used by the author's they are served by them. Each book ends beautifully. I will always remember the last line of Precious Bane. It chills me and warms me even at the mention of it here.

I am truly grateful to have found these books, truly grateful to have had the opportuntity to meet and spend time with Prue, Ruby and Rose.


Penny L. Richards said...

I'm reading The Girls right now, and it's all you say.

Have you seen the TV version of Precious Bane? It's worth a peek.

Another blogger recently mentioned The Girls, here's the link:

Dave Hingsburger said...

Hey Penny, first off congrats on the first year anniversary of the disability blog carnival! Second, glad you are liking 'The Girls' and third, how can I get to see the TV version of Precious Bane. I've searched the web for it ... even EBay doesn't have it. I really loved the book and would really like to see how it translated to the screen. Any ideas of how to track it down?

Anonymous said...

In an earlier blog, you wrote about Elizabeth Moon's "The Speed of Dark." I got it and although the book jacket description made it seem like a retelling of "Flowers for Algernon," I read it. It was compelling, thought-provoking and much more. I'm going to check out your two latest recommendations. Have you read "Moving Violations" by John Hockenberry?

Dave Hingsburger said...

The Speed of Dark is a deeply disturbing book but I'm glad I read it ... and was part of a book club about it ... I've not read Moving Violations but it is on my list. I have two more disability books waiting. A Doris Lessing book and a Gail Bowen book. I'm sussing out as many as I can and am trying to track down a copy of Skalligrigg.

Belinda said...

Wow, I'm making notes of the books. You made me want to read them both! They should be paying you commission. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm determined to read Precious bane as my son was born with a cleft palate. Must admit my hackles might rise with every reference to "hare lip" but I must keep reminding myself it is a book of the times lol

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

I've been reading your blog now for several months but I'm a lurker, not a commentator, so this is my first comment.

You have spoken several times at my agency in Michigan - you were here on 9/11. I always enjoy what have you have to say because you are so challenging, compassionate, and transparent. I use your blog as a touchstone for how I treat others.

Another aspect of your blog that I appreciate is your sharing of your experiences with newly acquired disability. I am in that boat as well. 2 things amaze me: I realize now that I thought I was magically immune from disability due to my chosen work (stupid, I know). The second point is that as much as I knew about living with disability before I acquired mine, I now understand so much more. Like the saying goes, gotta walk a mile in someone's shoes.

So anyway, I'm using this post about suggested books as an excuse to stop by and tell you to keep up the excellent work (as long as you're inclined)and that your blog does make a difference, at least to me.

And now I'm off to track down those books.

-missy in michigan

Dave Hingsburger said...

I paused for a long time before writing 'hare lip' in this blog but, as you say, it was the language of the time and how Prue described herself. Thankyou for understanding that. I'd really be interested in what you thought of the book when you've read it.

Penny L. Richards said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Penny L. Richards said...

Man, Dave, I'm sorry, I thought it would be out there on video--VHS at least--but apparently Precious Bane is one of those TV movies everyone WANTS to get on video but it's never been available. It was produced by the BBC, and starred Janet McTeer as Prue, and CLIVE OWEN as Gideon Sarn--you'd think that would be enough to get it issued or reissued, wouldn't you? I saw it when it aired on PBS in 1989, and I remember it as a lovely adaptation.

Thanks for the congrats on the Carnival--that's a whole year of community, and I hope we'll have many more to come.

Rosemary said...

I just loved The Girls. I , too, had to keep telling myself that it was fiction. This book really moved me. I am going to look for Precious Bane. Thank you, Dave.