Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc

45010932._SY475_.jpg

Disability is not a monolith- every disabled person’s experience in the world is different, and the way that we all navigate the world is likewise varied and complex. 

This is one of the most beautiful books I have read in years. Fairy-tales are a part of our lives, serving as a model for modern day stories, often as lessons in morality, a warning, a guiding tale that even smacks of those early after school specials my generation was so fond of. Then there are the romances, a foundation on which so many little girls have built their castles, with a Prince waiting to save them. Beautiful girls, at least. What exactly is the measure of beauty? In nearly all of the well known tales, it certainly isn’t any character who has a disability, unless of course it is conquered, all that spell breaking, true love’s kiss, shucking off the ‘deformity’ or ‘madness’ or ‘disfigurement’. Disfigurement is only enchanting if it is has a use for the ‘able bodied’ narrative, and it’s often not something the ‘able-bodied’ think about. Amanda Leduc dissects many of the familiar fairy tales, and lesser known ones, to shed light on how the disabled are used, abused, or downright invisible in such stories. It’s eye opening, and disheartening. Growing up with Cerebral Palsy, Amanda certainly didn’t see any stories about little girls with her hospital stays, operations, struggles. Princesses only twirled with balletic perfection, they sure weren’t in wheel chairs, and if any characters had a disease or deformity, they were either evil, cursed, or imbeciles who are lucky to be mentioned at all. The goal is often landing the Prince or taking one’s rightful place on the throne, but it is always about golden beauty because anything less won’t procure a happy ending. How could anyone have a happy ending if they have a chronic illness, a disease, a disability, and don’t get me started on mental health? Happy endings while deformed? The horror of it!

While this book explores the theme of disability in fairy tales,  it is Leduc sharing how she has felt, and feels now, about her place in the world as defined by others, and herself. A child can have the most loving parents, but that child still must go out into the world, and face condescending attitudes, pity, cruelty even in our current time of awareness, (it is still half-assed awareness, though). Often, the person who has a disability or illness is meant to feel like it’s a special boon to be offered the same treatment the able-bodied receive. Maybe there are teaching moments, but does anyone you know want to be a poster child every waking moment of their life, or feel like a curiosity? For their body to be a horror story for another, one they just could’t survive if they had to reside in it? A big moment that hit me like a gut punch in the book is the idea that only in overcoming, ignoring everything from mental illness to very real pain and obstacles makes someone worthy because damn, it’s only a good life if the curse of sickness or imperfection is lifted! How is that for reality? Why should the world accommodate you, don’t you want to be just like the rest of us? Why are you so different? It is true, people equate disease, illness, disability, disfigurement as weak. Try harder! Rally around yourself! Go out in the sunshine! Sure…

My son grew up under the umbrella of autism, he didn’t look like he had struggles (what does that mean) and a label didn’t help as much as it should have, in fact often once educators knew how to define him, well he was no longer an individual, just an autistic. Some people meant well, others not so much. There were kind children, well meaning adults but attitudes tended to shift in the negative, with mocking,  laughter, and  exclusion, a forced feeling of isolation. Amanda’s story about her school journal made me heartsick, a violation as brutal as the wing scene in Maleficent. These things stick, we carry them with us. There are still hard times, he graduated college but still has obstacles, in real life unlike in fairy tales, there isn’t some spell that collecting the right ingredients will break, nor a quest that will allow some god or fairy to shine their benevolence upon him anymore than on the people who face each day of their life with their disability, illness. They aren’t asking for a gold star, special treatment, is it special treatment to be afforded dignity, accessibility, to be heard when speaking, understanding beyond a parking space or a toilet stall (that, let’s face it, more often than not is occupied by able-bodied folks)?

Disfigured is one of the most provocative books on disability I have read and I admit ignorance, there were connections I never thought about in the same light as Amanda. We are moving forward though at a snail’s crawl. I remember a commercial recently for a store selling Halloween costumes for children in wheel chairs, and I thought that is fantastic and yet ‘long overdue’. I fell the same about commercials serving as campaigns for acceptance showing skin with scars, freckles, vitiligo and how my daughter would have benefited from that when she was a little girl and at school was harassed by one constant question, ‘what is wrong with your skin.’  Inclusion is still a fight, resources are incredibly lacking in the school system alone, training isn’t always available, some schools push you to keep your kid separated not because it’s easier for the student but easier on everyone else, you think the adult world of disability is better? Amanda Leduc is right, who has fought more for everything they have? Why can’t they be represented in stories that children can look up to, beyond being a curse that love can fix, only of value when the disability or disfigurement is no more? Maybe with more voices being heard, the world can change, rather than push conformity.

This is a book everyone should read. Positive affirmations have their place, say if you have a cold, but this grin and bear it nonsense aimed towards people coping with obstacles so many of us cannot fathom just minimizes many lives, reduces real flesh and blood people. There is no shame in disability, different isn’t a tragedy and certainly our stories should include all of humanity. Happy endings, if we’re honest, don’t end in broken curses. Life is ups and downs, ill health, good health, loss and gains. There is no shame in needing medication, mobility aids, therapy… the shame is that it has been circulated as a tragedy, a horror story, a lesson in badness, evilness or that beauty is only one thing, ‘able-bodied’. My review does not do justice to the insights Amanda Leduc shares, absolutely read this book!

Publication Date: February 4, 2020

Coming soon

Coach House Books

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo

37638211.jpg

It was in early summer of my eighteenth year that my destiny arrived, and despite my fancy for premonitions he took me quite by surprise.

This is the story of Katrina Van Tassel, who falls in love with the Sleepy Hollow’s new school master Ichabod Crane. Katrina is delighted when she learns of Mr. Crane’s love for music, and that her father has engaged his services of singing lessons, for her. So begins a love affair that can only lead to doom and gloom with a legendary headless horseman running amok.

Then there is Brom Van Brunt (oh how I love these old names)  nicknamed ‘Brom Bones’ for his large frame,  the town’s beloved favored son,  and bully (when he isn’t leaving sighing women in his wake) who is sure Katrina is his destiny. They are all hung up on their destiny here! Brom is adamant Katrina will be his, has known this since childhood as they were once a tight trio including her best friend Charlotte (of strange gifts). They spent their youth inventing their own mischief until he turned sour, cruel to Charlotte for something she did (which is his fault, really). Now he seems to spend most of his time sniffing around Katrina and informing her that she will ‘come around’ to loving him, to being his wife. It’s only a matter of time, and a lot of harassment. He may have been her first kiss, but she’ll be damned if he’s her last.

Even the most progressive parents weren’t likely to welcome a terrible match for their child. Her father certainly isn’t going to support his daughter’s love for someone like Ichabod, well read and musical talents aside, wealth speaks louder than character when it comes to your precious, privileged child. Is Brom so awful? I mean, really Katrina, the whole town loves him, he is popular and handsome, full of brawn and… well he looks good on paper and that’s what mattered then. Alliances aren’t often made between the pillars of society and the penniless, better the promise of Brom or someone of his ilk. Maybe Charlotte can use her ‘magical talents’, reading tarot cards to see if there is even a slim chance of happiness and a future as Mrs. Crane. Charlotte does seem to have her uses.

Charlotte spends much of the novel giving warnings, or herbs to solve other inconveniences for Katrina. She has ‘feelings’, some of us may just call this intuition, others a wild imagination, depends on who you ask. Katrina isn’t immune to visions herself, in her nightmares of the headless horseman she keeps seeing ominous warnings but he isn’t real!!!! Something is brewing, but is her love for Ichabod truly doomed? Not even the terror of a legend can keep the lusty lovers out of the woods, and each other’s arms.

Circumstances push her to conform to society and it’s demands when Ichabod seems to have disappeared on All Hallows Eve, life becomes its own special hell. Will she ever be reunited with her lover? Or will she have to go to extreme measures to keep herself, and maybe someone else, safe?

It does have a pinch of feminism with Katrina, whose spirit won’t be tamed, who wants to love where she will and thwarts society, maybe even has to resort to manipulations here and there. Herbs as a safeguard against unwanted pregnancy isn’t something new, though it was forbidden (such witchery), even when she is reduced to accepting the turn her life takes, she still tries to hold some sway over her own destiny. My only beef was, I expected more terror beyond the occasional nightmare. Though to be fair, human beings are ugly enough themselves without a headless horseman lurking about and they don’t fail to be so here. I wished for more magic and spells, I mean love can be a spell I suppose or a curse. No? With Spellbook is in the title, I admit I was holding out for witches and spells, all sorts of spooky but I have high demands.

It was fun to visit Spooky Hollow again but came off more as a romance. More seduction than nightmare. Charlotte’s reputation is dangerously ruined by Brom early on, no one takes kindly to any whispers of evil, dangerous accusations, couldn’t the novel have backed up these threats with more than her seeing into the future? Too bad she couldn’t conjure some spell against Brom, but take heart, he seems hellbent on defeating himself half the time.  If you like romance with an old spooky legend thrown in, this will be perfect for you. Just in time for pumpkin patches, and headless men, out in October.

Publication Date: October 2, 2018

St. Martin’s Press

St. Griffin

The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

36596712

Yet it was his eye, or both of them, that attracted the most notice and gossip- their unnerving brilliance. It was hungry and restless; and it earned him his nickname.

In this fairytale for grownups, an American schoolteacher (spinster, nay old maid)  Miss Eva Williams, falls under the spell of the Hawkman, Mr. Michael Evan Sheehan. Sheehan is suffering from the torments of the war, including his time of imprisonment. His vagabond ways have damned him as an outcast, and his yellowing, ‘hungry and restless’ eyes make him more birdlike than human. Mrs. Sheehan knows there is more to the man, tormented by children’s taunts, rocks and even attempts at poisoning. He is more than a scavenger, certainly not a threat when he doesn’t fight back, though the children’s cruelty would deserve a firm punishment in a better world. She herself is a misfit in England, a foreigner, teaching at a lady’s college, horror of all horrors she is on the shelf and unmarrie, progressive (never a welcome trait in a woman bygone times). He becomes her cause.

Lord Thornton wants nothing more than his world to return to the normality of before the war. The Hawkman is a reminder, a constant stench of war and all its horrors. To make his village safe and ‘clean’ for it’s young ladies seems to be his sole purpose, ridding it of such scavengers as Sheehan. The villagers, especially his son Christopher( recovering after his own war wounds) are in compliance to Lord Thornton’s plans, but not Miss Williams. Even Thornton’s wife, Lady Margaret wants nothing more than to be ‘ride’ of the Hawkman. Miss Williams has a far better understanding of the ‘protagonist’ of various countries and sees in the Hawkman no difference. Sifting through the fears and myths, she sees past the ‘filth’ and reclusive behaviors for what they are the reactions of a broken, damaged man.

Eyes wide open, Eva invites Mr. Sheehan into her world with empathy and compassion. She goes gently with him, as one might a wounded animal. She sees the man, not the myth. Hiding him in the cottage won’t last, but she will not be cowed or bullied into giving up on him. When she comes to need him, one wonders just who needs salvation. With war weaved into the story, it is a unique twist on modern fairy tales and the true shame and horror is that people always find ways to invent monsters, to condemn those who need the most help to the shadows.

A quiet, yet moving tale.

Publication Date: June 5, 2018

Amberjack Publishing