Sunday, September 21, 2014

Blind. A Novel by Rachel DeWoskin

Blind is novel that explores one teen's journey as she tries to cope with a life-changing injury that leaves her permanently blind.

Emma Sasha Silver has lost her eyesight as a result of a terrible fireworks accident  on July 4 of the previous year. She missed half of grade nine and spent the remainder at Briarly School for the Blind were she learned to  read braille and navigate the world as a blind person. This summer she continued at Briarly continuing to develop her skills using a white cane and the old Perkins Brailler.

Now she's back at her old school, entering grade ten at Lake Main with her best friend Logan. Emma will have a paraprofessional who will read the blackboard to her. Although life at home for Emma and her six siblings, Sarah, Leah, Naomi, Jenna, Benji and Baby Lily are seems to be heading towards some kind of normal, Emma begins to fully realize what being blind will now mean.

Emma's narrative about her present day life with her six siblings at home, attending her regular school, Lake Main, and her visits with her therapist Dr. Sassoman is punctuated with flashbacks that recounts her journey over the past year struggling to come to terms with her loss of sight.

In the present, with best friend Logan at her side and her K9 buddy Spark, Emma begins the new school year feeling she is a freak and wondering how her fellow students will relate to her. The start of school is further marred by the discovery of the body of classmate and friend, Claire Montgomery in Lake Brainch. Emma is met with a mixed reaction that includes those who are too traumatized about Claire to care much about Emma, others who are angry at her and others who are curious.
Emma is greeted by Coltrane Wilson, a super smart, cute guy in her class who is nice to everyone.

Assembly at school reveals nothing about what happened to Claire and only that grief counselors are available. As Emma leaves her first day of school she wonders about her dark future. "I just want to stop thinking about forever in the dark and my endless, claustrophobic tunnel of a future. Because I'll never drive or get a job, or get married or lose my virginity. Maybe I'll never even kiss anyone."


At this point, Emma narrates what happened to her a little over a year ago, during the summer. Emma's life took a sharp turn when she was injured in a fireworks accident. She awoke in hospital to discover her head heavily bandaged and to learn that her eyesight had been permanently lost. Dr. Sassoman began to slowly help Emma come to terms with what had happened, although Emma spent weeks crying and screaming over what had happened to her. Logan came to visit Emma six times a week despite her parents going through a break up. After she left the hospital, Emma refused all her mother's attempts to get her to get her to go out and she told Logan she would never return to Lake Main. But the arrival of Spark, her K9 buddy helps Emma begin to come out of her funk.

In October, Emma's mobility coach, Mr. Otis, arrives and begins the long process of helping Emma develop strategies that allow her to function in everyday life, like organizing her clothing, use her white cane, walking on the sidewalk and using her phone. Emma must relearn everything because of her blindess. "The work was a choking, incessant reminders that I was back at zero flatter than any baby starts at...It was all a matter of survival, even though it was literally stuff like learning to walk down the sidewalk or across the street."

After Mr. Otis leaves, Emma continues to struggle to see a future. She is certain that many things most people take for granted in their lives will now never be possible for her, including getting a job, making enough money to support herself, attending school, walking, running or even falling in love.


So that she can practice the skills that Mr. Otis taught her and eventually re-integrated back into a regular school, Emma is sent to Briarly. At Briarly Emma meets a boy, Sebastian Metropole, who is a year older than her. Seb tries to help Emma, accepting the rocking that she does to comfort herself but telling her she needs to stop it, encouraging her to try skiing despite being blind. Seb tells her that Briarly will help rid her of  the PBK (poor blind kid) vibe. Emma attended Briarly until the following June but it was Seb that gave her her first glimmer of hope - something Emma only begins to realize five months later when she is back at Lake Main.

Now during the current school year, Emma is beginning to settle into Lake Main again, although some things she concedes will never be the same. She won't return to playing the piano, and she might even consider skipping classes. When Seb from Briarly attempts to contact her, Emma does not return his calls being both afraid and ashamed. She can't face Seb at this time.

An autopsy reveals that Claire had numerous drugs in her system before she died. Emma is concerned that no one is really talking about what happened to Claire. Emma want to understand why Claire was alone taking drugs and then somehow drowned in the lake. Logan and Emma decide to ask Zach Haze, whom Emma is crushing on, to meet to discuss setting up some kind of get-together where people can talk about what happened to Claire. At this meeting they decide to ask people to meet at an abandoned house known as the Mayburg place near the I-92.

As she heads to her friend Logan's house for a sleep over so she can attend the Mayburg meeting there is evidence that Emma's world is beginning at times to right itself.
"Maybe because the night was unfolding so deliciously in front of us, I felt as good as I have in forever, kind of extra human. Like a cartoon hero with sidekicks and special powers or something, my bones and my ears and mind and dog and stick doing the work my eyes used to think they were doing."

Emma and her friends invite a number of people to the meeting including, Blythe Keene, Claire's best friend, Amanda Boughman, Joshua Winterberg, Deidre Sharp, Elizabeth Tallentine and Christian Aramond whose father is the French teacher. The group of friends meets at the abandoned house and Emma tells them that they are there to figure out how to keep each other safe and to see if they can figure out what happened to Claire since very little information about her death has been released to the public or her friends. However, little does Emma know that the Mayburg meetings will result in new revelations, test friendships and lead Emma further on her journey to recovery and hope.

Blind is a novel about the process of recovery and rediscovering one's identity. Emma was an attractive, accomplished girl, who played piano, was popular and had a best friend. After her accident, she is blind and has been disfigured with a scar over her left eye which is permanently closed. She feels scared, unlovable, and cannot imagine a future being forever blind. It is as she explores the death of Claire, that Emma begins to realize some truths about her situation and to face them. One of her friends points out that if Claire did kill herself, even in her darkest moments she was rejecting all the possible futures where she might be happy.

The concert is a defining moment for Emma when she comes to realize that despite being blind, she is happy she is alive. As she is experiencing the colours and texture of the music from the quartet she considers "how Claire will never taste chocolate again or see a single color let alone hear a symphony." She wonders "How do you decide you'd rather be dead, and never hear music or eat chocolate again?"  The music instills in Emma a desire "to be even more alive than I am, than anyone is. It made me want to feel everything, to be in love. It made me want to start my piano lessons again immediately, to ride a bike again, to call Sebastian, to swim."  These are all things Emma had been refusing to do because of her blindness.

When Emma reconnects with Seb and goes on Briarly's school ski trip she realizes that she now thinks differently about life than she did a year ago. "...I hadn't realized yet that it was possible to be both blind and capable of thinking about anything other than the fact that you're blind." Unfortunately, when she tries to restart her friendship with Seb, whom she acknowledges earlier in the novel gave her the first glimmer of hope that things wouldn't always be dark and dismal, Emma finds it is too late. Seb is no longer interested.

Emma's journey continues when she is taken to visit a young girl named Annabelle, who has lost her eyesight to disease and who will also likely go deaf. Emma recognizes herself in Annabelle and like Seb a year earlier, wants to help Annabelle cope with being blind. Emma tells her that she spent most of the past year trying to forget that her time at Briarly because she thought it would make her life easier. Instead it had the opposite effect, making her a terrible friend to someone who had given her hope, and making it longer for her to accept her blindness.

Eventually Emma comes to realize that in order to live with her blindness she has to remember everything and she has to live her life. She comes to believe that she almost was like Claire who once told her friend Amanda who was struggling to cope with her parents divorce that she "shouldn't think my life was over, because I would be a totally different person in two years. So if I killed myself then, I'd be killing that other person, too, and who knows, she might be super happy."  Emma comes to realize that if Claire did kill herself, for whatever reason she forgot what she told Amanda. And she forgot about the reality of death and the possibility of a better future.  "And maybe in that moment, after the drugs, during the time in the water, it's possible to think that you don't care whether you die. If it is, that's only because you don't care whether you die. If it is, that's only because you don't know what it means to be dead, inside forever in the dark. You can't know about dead until you're dead, not even if you're me."

Emma understands this because she's been where Claire was, wanting to die, seeing only dark in her future as a blind person and not understanding the possibilities of the future or about the nature of death. This is what Seb was trying to show her at Briarly when he let her touch his face - that the future contains hope. Emma, however, was not ready for that message yet.

There's an interesting symbol woven throughout the novel which is expressed through the use of eye glasses. In English class Emma's teacher asks about Atticus's broken eye glasses and Emma tells her that this represents Atticus having a new point of view, of seeing things from a different perspective. In Blind, Emma adamantly refuses to remove her sunglasses because of the "livid" scar over her left eye. To Emma that scar defines her and represents what blindness is - ugly. But by the end of the novel, Emma decides to remove her glasses, remarking that "Sunglasses make great headbands.",  demonstrating a new perspective on blindness and who she is.

Blind is a long, detailed novel that explores the themes of identity, death, blindness, disability and life. Readers will perhaps find the novel slow in the first one hundred pages but as Emma uncovers the changes in herself and others, the novel becomes more interesting. It simply takes the author a bit of time to develop these themes.

DeWoskin appears to have researched her subject well, as Emma's experiences, first coping with the loss of her vision,  at the school for the blind and as a visually impaired teen are well portrayed. Characterization is a great strength of this novel; there are a number of well drawn principal characters including Emma, Logan, Sebastian, and Emma's sisters Leah, Sarah and Naomi.

Overall Blind is an excellent, well written novel.


Book Details:
Blind by Rachel DeWoskin
New York: Viking      2014
394 pp.

No comments: