I absolutely loved this children’s book about a girl from a Cuban-Jewish family living in New York who is seriously injured in a car accident and ends up in a full body cast. It’s a perfect book for children in about 3rd-4th grade who have ever felt left out – and what kid hasn’t?
I read this for one of my reading challenges because it won the 2018 Pura Belpre Award, which honors Latino/a authors and illustrators whose work best portrays, affirms and celebrates their cultural experience in children’s books.
Behar was ten in the mid-70s, when her family’s car is hit by a group of teenagers. Ruthie breaks her leg, but because of the severity of the injury, and her age, she’s put into a full body cast. Her doctor is worried that given her age, one leg will grow faster than the other. Anyone who fears immobility will be as horrified as I was by how long Ruthie has to spend in bed without moving. I’m sure today there are much better treatments, but in the 70s I suppose this was the best they could do. This is semi-autobiographical, based on the author’s actual experience. And it’s not just a sad story, or even a story about how strong Ruthie is. It’s a story about what she learns about herself while she’s stuck in bed.
I liked everything about this book, but that’s partly because I seriously identified with what happens to Ruthie. My experience was a lot better than Ruthie’s, but if it had been ten years earlier or I’d been ten instead of 14, who knows? I was hit by a car when I was 14. I woke up in the hospital about a day later, not remembering anything. My right arm and leg were in casts, and I wouldn’t be on my feet for a while because my pelvic bone was broken. My leg wasn’t a clean break; there were screws and plates holding it together and I’d have multiple surgeries on it. I was in the hospital two weeks and home for about six weeks after that. I missed most of the school term and like Ruthie had a home tutor.
I’ll be honest and tell you there were things about this experience that I loved, even if that sounds terrible. As a middle child, I loved the attention. I loved having a story to tell. And I loved spending hours and hours reading. I wasn’t an active kid before it happened, and I didn’t have a lot of friends. I didn’t like school so missing it was rather nice. And unlike Ruthie I was able to get around in a wheelchair so I was far from immobile.
But like Ruthie I learned a lot about myself, things I’ve taken into adulthood (in addition to a healthy fear of crossing streets). I learned what it’s like to be wheelchair-bound, for one thing, though of course it’s different when it’s temporary. And I’ve never forgotten the experience of having to learn to walk again, which was surprisingly difficult and very similar to Ruthie’s experience. People have no idea how much thinking goes into walking, until you have to re-learn how to do it. Maybe that’s why today I love to walk so much, and why I’m so fascinated by how our brains work.
This story is etched into my physiology, my nerves, and my many fears. It’s what they call trauma. All those who have been wounded know what I mean. Maybe all who’ve been wounded are told, as I was, “it could have been worse.” In other words, don’t ask for too much sympathy. I remember feeling as a child that it was wrong to talk about my pain. Wrong to feel any pain. I buried the pain inside, where only I could feel it piercing me.
Like Ruthie (and like Maggie O’Farrell in the excellent I Am, I Am, I Am), I wrestled with the idea of being lucky. I was told I was lucky to be alive. Lucky I could walk. Lucky I had no brain damage. It’s both a gift and a burden. You’re supposed to be grateful, but what does it mean? I don’t know any more today than I did at 14.
As immigrants, Ruthie’s family faces many challenges that my family didn’t, like language barriers for her parents. But both of us were lucky to have medical care over a long period of time that our families couldn’t possibly have afforded if we weren’t insured.
In a way, this is a story about how Ruth Behar comes to follow the career path she does. I won’t tell you any more, only that this book was lovely and inspiring and at times frightening. Maybe most people won’t identify with it in the same way I did, but I think it’s a great read for every child. And a good one for adults too.