As you know, I love books. In fact, I’ve got stacks camping out on my floor right now thanks to a mishap during spring cleaning that resulted in a broken bookcase (one of those cheap things you find at Wal-Mart that was more than a little flimsy, anyway). These days, my literature choices are geared mostly toward adults, but I still adore adolescent literature. I have a whole wish list on amazon.com that I plan to make into a “student library” if I go back to teaching in any capacity.
One clever adolescent book I’ve read in recent years is called No More Dead Dogs, by humorous author Gordon Korman. The book concerns protagonist Wallace Wallace (yes, his real name; his parents must’ve either really liked it or been irrevocably stuck), a middle school student who has a problem with being brutally honest. I mean brutal, to the point that he tells a neighbor her cake tastes like vacuum cleaner fuzz, and that his cousin’s clarinet playing resembles someone strangling a duck. Yes, this tendency gets him into trouble, but never more than when he writes an honest review of Old Shep, My Pal for English class. Turns out, Wallace is sick of the dead dog motif that the illustrious novel keeps alive. (Yes, Shep dies). “Pick out any book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover,” he challenges his English teacher. “Trust me, that dog is going down.” His classmates get in on the act, citing famous examples like Old Yeller, Sounder, and Where the Red Fern Grows (wherein TWO dogs die; no offense to Wilson Rawls, but he must’ve been desperate for a Newberry Medal. And I never much cared for that book, either). Unfortunately, Wallace’s teacher doesn’t really get it. Turns out Old Shep, My Pal is the guy’s favorite book, so he assigns Wallace detention until he writes an “acceptable” review.
Now, without getting into all the flaws of public education and biased teaching that that presents, and with apologies to Gordon Korman, I’d like to apply his premise to another well-established literary trope. Heck, the trope is known in movies and TV, too, such that the TV Tropes and Idioms section on Wikipedia calls it Bury Your Disabled. You got it: literature in which a character with a disability dies, and seems to exist only to die at the end. But I’m not just going to give you examples of death here. I’ve noticed that in a lot of literature–not every book, but a lot–if there is a main character with a disability, he or she serves one of three purposes: to get Cured or Killed Off, or to serve as a Morality Compass. Let’s look at several examples, shall we? (Note: in no way am I saying I don’t like the literature presented. Some of it is actually quite good. But it has a fatal flaw that we’re going to expose and discuss).
The Secret Garden, Francis Hogsdon Burnett. One of my absolute childhood favorites; I read it until the cover threatened to rebel and fall off. But let’s be real here. Character with disability: Colin Craven (whose last name, unfortunately, means “coward.”) Not only does Colin spend the entire book acting like a spoiled brat and telling everyone he’s going to grow a hunchback and die, the other characters, except Mary and Dickon, totally buy into this. It is only when Colin is ostensibly Cured of his disability (physical and arguably emotional/behavioral) by learning to walk again, that he becomes a character that readers can truly cheer for. Yes, in his time with Dickon and Mary, he becomes less spoiled and unpleasant, but to that point, it’s a slow process.
Heidi. Johanna Spyri. Again, a childhood favorite, and again, the author was working off perceptions of disability in her day. But again: Klara Sessaman. Paralyzed, portrayed as fragile and somewhat helpless in the book, and portrayed, again, as a spoiled brat in the movie adaptations. In the 1993 film in particular, meeting Heidi changes Klara’s life, but she refuses to see the other girl as a person with her own needs. In the Shirley Temple version, Klara (Marcia Mae Jones) goes so far as to demand to be able to “keep” Heidi, as if she were a pet. What happens to Klara? She gets Cured, again, by regaining walking ability, and begins to grow up.
Pollyanna. Eleanor H. Porter. Porter somewhat ducks the trope because Pollyanna Whittier wasn’t born with a disability, but what’s the major turning point for her? Right–she falls out of a tree, nearly gets Killed Off, and goes into a depression until she is promised a Curing operation. Enough said.
Freak the Mighty. Rodman Philbrick. Two-for-one: Kevin Dillon has a physical disability known as Murqio Syndrome, and Max Kane has severe reading disabilities. But Kevin (who is known throughout the book as Freak) (???!!!), teaches Max to read, so Max’s disabilities kind of get forgotten. Whereas Kevin, you got it, is Killed Off at the end of the book. The film adaptation accompanies his death with an eerie letitmotif, snow, and Max screaming and running crazily all over town.
Handle with Care. Jodi Picoult. Willow, Amelia’s physically disabled little sister, dies at the end, after a long court battle over whether her birth was wrongful to begin with. I’m going to leave this one at that.
A Prayer for Owen Meany/Simon Birch. John Irving. I prefer the film adaptation, actually, but in either case, the kid with a disability dies.
Of Mice and Men. John Steinbeck. Poor, mentally disabled Lenny, gets shot in the head at the end. Both the attitudes toward Lenny, and the reason for his death, disgust me.
Little Men and Jo’s Boys Louisa May Alcott. Not to disparage her writing, but really. Double whammy–one death of a kid with a physical disability, one death of a kid with a mental one.
Even Survivor did it, when contestant Vic Thatcher died in a house fire (he used a wheelchair). I guess people with disabilities aren’t meant to be survivors, huh? What a crock.
I’m sure you’re getting the picture. The trope may have died out in later decades (no pun intended), but in my humble opinion, it still happens way too much. Even if a character with a disability doesn’t die or get cured in the course of a story, they often serve as a morality compass for other characters (check out My Sister’s Keeper, where Kate Fitzgerald both serves as this AND dies, Just Call Me Stupid, wherein the main character, Patrick, decimates his own self-esteem, and Bad Helen, wherein the main plot concerns the character acting out, finding out her poor behavior stems from frustration with dyslexia, and boom, shaping up). This is just a sampling; there are plenty of others out there, such as Rules, where Catherine’s autistic little brother David serves as her compass, so she can learn there is no such thing as “normal” and David is okay the way he is. Or Out of My Mind, where Melody Brooks, who has severe CP, ends up shaming her classmates when they doubt her ability to be on a school quiz team, accuse her of cheating, and then leave her behind when the team goes to state–on purpose.
Again, not to disparage all these books and movies. Some are enjoyable, and in actuality, without them, we might not have the portrayals of disability we do at all, because a lot of people, especially those in the entertainment and book industries, would like to pretend disability doesn’t exist. They seem to think the real world is bad enough; why inject realistic disability stories into it? Better that the characters come on the scene, deliver their semi-holy messages, and die off or get cured like good cripples. Right?
Why don’t we see more realistic portrayals of disability? You know what I mean–regular kids, with regular friends, regular parents and siblings who drive them up the wall, and problems that can be solved without cures, death, or an Aesop-style moral? Yes, I know this is improving, and for that, I thank the people making it happen. But we could still do better. So the next time you see a character with a disability in fiction, ask yourself: what purpose does this person serve here? And if it’s a purpose like the ones outlined here, challenge that. Who knows? Maybe you could start writing yourself, and create new characters with real lives and purposes. I know I am.
*Note: Apologies for the typo–the book I referred to as Bad Helen is called Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You. The main character’s nickname is Bad Helen, which carries unfortunate implications in itself.