Rachel Simon captivates in Beautiful Girl
Article first published on blogcritics.org.
The Story of Beautiful Girl was released in May 2011 by Grand Central Publishing, a division of the Hatchett Group. Within two weeks, the book hit the New York Times best seller list.
How does society deal with those of us who cope with disabilities? How would you want to be treated if you had a disability? The Story of Beautiful Girl forces us to address these questions. More importantly, it gives us a glimpse into the innermost thoughts of those treated as “feeble-minded” in an uncaring, ignorant society. Both captivating and heartbreaking, the book is meant to be savored, not merely read. Adeptly nuanced and originally wrought, the book explores our compassion and intolerance toward people different than ourselves.
In 1968, Martha, an elderly widow, answers a knock on her farmhouse door. On her doorstep are two escapees from the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. Lynnie, a white woman with a developmental disability has just given birth to a baby girl. Protecting them is Homan, a deaf African American man. Lynnie is recaptured by the authorities, and Homan escapes. Lynnie whispers to Martha, “Hide her.” Those two words launch us into the forty-year story of characters whose love surpasses the insurmountable obstacles they face. Although Beautiful Girl and Homan live apart for decades, the author masterfully intertwines their life stories, inner thoughts and the hope that sustains them.
Life returns to normal for no one in this thought-provoking book. Martha, whose telephone rings only on December 24, when her former students call to arrange a visit on Christmas day, finds her life changed as she cares for baby, Julia. The child draws people into Martha’s life and gives her newfound purpose. Her life flourishes as she raises Julia as her own granddaughter.
Rachel Simon, a nationally known public speaker, is the author of the critically acclaimed bestseller, Riding the Bus with My Sister. The memoir chronicles the year Ms. Simon spent accompanying her sister Beth, who is afflicted with an intellectual disability, on joyful bus rides through a city in Pennsylvania. Though this experience, the author gleaned an understanding of the inner life of the developmentally disabled. Haunted for years by the story of an unidentified, deaf African American man found wandering the streets in Chicago, Ms. Simons captures the essence of both in the novel she says, “Burst out of me like nothing before.”
This reader (who has a physical disability) believes the feelings of those with disabilities remain a mystery to those outside of our sphere. Ms. Rosen convinces otherwise. The author’s sensitivity to the world of the disabled comes from the personal experience of her sibling as well as interviews with people who had been wrongfully institutionalized and professionals who staff group homes. The book’s dedication reads, “For those who were put away.” Although Ms. Simon’s awareness of the institutional life forms a backbone for the book, it is her insight into the indomitable spirit of the human soul that infuses The Story of Beautiful Girl with brilliance and honesty.
The book jacket brilliantly captures the bond between the characters. We see a silhouette of “Beautiful Girl, Lynnie” on the book cover. Feathers are imprinted on the inside cover. When Lynnie and Homan were together, she drew the night skies and “feather” was the name of a constellation he taught her. At their coming together in the cornfield a flying bird dropped a red feather, which they pressed together between their chests. “Red feathers are rare,” says Lynnie’s sister with whom she is ultimately reunited. “If you find one, you should keep it forever.” On the back cover, a child’s hand reaches for a feather, perhaps symbolic of a long-awaited reunion.
Reading The Story of Beautiful Girl will change your perception of those whose challenges differ from your own. This book will move you to a better place. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont