Sunday, July 15, 2018

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a story about three teens with serious disabilities forming an unlikely friendship as they struggle to cope with everyday life.

Aven Green is a thirteen-year-old girl who was born without arms. She loves to make up crazy stories about what happened to her arms. "I got so tired of telling them the same boring story about being born without arms that I started making stuff up. It was stinking hilarious. I knew from the first moment I told a girl my arms had burned off in a fire, I had found a great hobby: making up stories. I loved the way her eyes grew wide with shock and the way her voice went all high-pitched with excitement as he asked me a bunch more questions about my charred arms." Her parents however stopped Aven's wild storytelling. Gradually Aven's classmates came to accept her disability and she never felt out of place in her school.

Aven's life changes drastically when her parents move from Kansas to Arizona to take over running a western-themed amusement park called Stagecoach Pass. Aven's father was unemployed when he was contacted by a guy named Joe Cavanaugh. They move into the small apartment over the Stagecoach Pass Saloon and Steakhouse, mainly because her parents must be available all the time.

At Stagecoach Pass Aven discovers the park has a gift shop, a gold mine offering gold spray-painted rocks, a soda shop that sells old-fashioned candy and ice cream and run by Henri who suffers from dementia and seems to already know Aven. There is a shooting gallery, a theatre that shows old black and white western movies, a jail were you can pay to have someone arrested for something silly and a petting zoo that contains an old llama named Spaghetti who has a large tumor on his head. There is also a steakhouse restaurant. But it is the museum that Aven finds most interesting because it contains a collection of stone arrowheads and framed photographs on the walls. Aven's curiosity is stirred by a blank spot on the museum wall and a nameplate that reads "The Cavanaughs, Stagecoach Pass, 2004"

Aven starts school at Desert Ridge Middle School a few days after arriving in Arizona. With a student population of a thousand kids, it's much larger than her school back in Kansas. In her old school, lunchtime was natural and easy with kids she'd grown up with. Aven would have sat with her friends, Emily, Kayla and Brittney laughing about teachers, complaining about parents and even catching the pretzels in her mouth that Kayla would toss at her. But at Desert Ridge she immediately feels awkward because  Aven has to use her feet to do everything including eating lunch. So she decides to forgo lunch the first day and tells her mother she just wasn't hungry. After school Aven scouts out more of the park and finds an old shack with numerous "DO NOT ENTER" signs slapped on it. An old rusted padlock hangs from one of the doors. But without arms, Aven is unable to open it.

Although Aven's teachers are nice, she doesn't want them giving her special treatment, something that never happened at her old school in Kansas. Aven returns to eat in the large bathroom stall the next day and then tries to eat in the cafeteria the following day. That doesn't go well when she is questioned by a group of girls who are more concerned about whether they can catch her disability than actually meeting her and making friends. Her next strategy is to try eating in the library. While reading Journey to the Center of the Earth Aven hears a dog barking. She discovers that the barking is coming from a boy sitting near her. Believing he is making fun of her, Aven confronts him. Instead he apologizes and tells her that he has Tourette's Syndrome - " a neurological disorder that causes involuntary motor or oral tics." When he asks Aven about her missing arms, his honesty encourages her to tell him one of her crazy stories which he finds hilarious. The boy, Connor tells Aven he comes to the library every day for some peace. Like Aven, Connor is also new to the area and hasn't made any friends. He tells her about Tourettes and how his classmates mimic his barking and laugh at him.

Aven invites Connor to the Stagecoach Pass, showing her new friend the different attractions and showing him the mystery shed. Connor is able to wedge the door open and they discover it contains stacks of books, "the shelves stuffed with old books and papers and props" and seems to hold the possibility of providing some information about the mysterious Joe Cavanaugh who owns the park and hired her father and who no one ever sees. Also puzzling are the many books on tarantulas.

Aven and Connor's begin spending much of their free time together at the park.  Aven adds another friend when she discovers Zion who is overweight eating in a quiet area outside the school. He tells Aven that he eats there so people can't watch him, "Everyone likes to watch a fat guy eat." Aven, Connor and Zion begin hanging out together, playing video games and searching the old shed for clues to the mystery of the Cavanaughs.As Aven and Connor's friendship blossoms they find the strength to support each other and the courage to let their light shine.

Discussion

The Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a juvenile fiction novel about belonging and how each person has something significant to offer the world. It is also a story about the importance of friendship in our lives.

Early in the novel when Aven is new to Stagecoach Pass and Arizona, she decides to take a walk into the desert behind the main park and discovers a large saguaro cactus that her father believes is over two hundred years old. Contemplating the span of two hundred years, and all the important events that have happened during that length of time including the Civil War and Martin Luther King Jr's famous speech, Aven believes her life and the events in it are insignificant. "I am an entirely insignificant event in the life of this cactus. I try to remember that as the sky darkens and the lights of Scottsdale and Phoenix brighten the earth -- millions of lights for millions of people. And then there's just me, sitting in the dirt on a mighty hill..."  Aven wonders then if it really matters that the kids at school ignored her or that they were afraid of her. As it turns out Aven's actions prove that she is anything but insignificant.

One way Aven proves to be significant is her effect on the life of her new friend Connor. When Aven meets Connor he is living a very limited life; he won't go to the movies, he won't eat out for fear of spitting his food and he believes he cannot ever go out in public. But Aven doesn't see the limitations in Connor's life, instead she sees his possibilities. She has him over for dinner, and she and her mother take him to see a movie. Aven encourages Connor to attend a Tourettes therapy group, even accompanying him. She stands up for Connor when he is mocked by other students in the hall. When Connor doesn't want to involve  his mother in the therapy group, Aven comes to understand that Connor blames "himself for all his mom's problems - his dad leaving, this tiny apartment, her hectic work schedule." Aven realizes that "It wasn't at all that Connor's mom couldn't stand him, as he had said. It was that Connor couldn't stand himself." By wanting to spend time with Connor, Aven shows him that it is possible for others to like him and enjoy being around him. Aven even manages to get Connor to attend the Stagecoach Pass art festival even though there will be huge crowds attending.

Aven also has a significant effect on another student in the school, the overweight Zion. When Aven meets Zion eating alone outside the school office on the hot sidewalk she befriends him. "How could I just walk past him again, as though he were invisible? As though he were some speed bump in my way?" Aven's way to include Zion is to join him for lunch each day bringing along Connor. Through Aven, Zion becomes friends with Connor.

Aven has a significant impact on the park when she comes up with a plan for Stagecoach Pass to have its own art festival. The event is a resounding success, bringing together Aven and her new friends, offering her a chance to shine her own light and help people see past her disability. For the park it means the beginning of a revitalization as new vendors are found for some of the empty stores in the park.

The theme of belonging is woven all through the events in the novel.  Aven has left her home and school in Kansas where she definitely felt like she belonged. She had three good friends who behaved normally around her and accepted her disability. But in Arizona life is more challenging. At first Aven's response is to hide - in the bathroom, the library and then eating lunch mostly outside with Connor and Zion.By the fall Aven still has no other friends besides Connor and Zion. "Most of the kids at school were now ignoring me completely. I guess they were used to seeing me around...It was more like I just didn't exist." At this point Aven doesn't belong but she's also been hiding. Her initial experiences with the kids at the new school have not been positive.

When Connor insists that Aven is not being realistic about her life and what she can achieve, that she is in fact - disabled, Aven becomes angry. She tells her mother, "I don't ever want to be seen just as a disabled person...I don't want to just be Aven Green, that girl with no arms. I don't want to be labeled like that." However her mother reminds Aven that she has to be realistic about her life, that some things are difficult for her. Then Aven's mother offers her a chance to show people that she is more than just someone with a disability by performing on stage with the band hired for the art festival. Aven adamantly refuses, "I'm not going to go up on stage so people can gawk at the girl with no arms playing guitar. I'm not some circus show."

Connor articulating how their disability makes them different causes a crisis in Aven. She too wants to be "like everyone else" so she can be invisible. But her father tells her, "No one lights a lamp and hides it under a basket. They put it on a table so it can shine for all to see." He tells Aven, "Don't be like everyone else, Aven. Be you." Aven makes the choice to go to the soccer tryouts. "It was hard to think about putting myself out there again, trying to be part of a new team, at a new school, with a new coach. Everyone watching me. But there are a lot of hard things in life. Who would I be if I gave up when things got hard?" With the support of her parents Aven makes the choice to do these hard things, trying out for the soccer team and performing at the art festival. Both of these choices open new possibilities for Aven, allowing her classmates to see beyond her disability and giving her the courage to try more new things like wearing a "strappy pink dress", forgiving her grandmother Josephine Cavanaugh for giving her up for adoption and even eating lunch in the cafeteria with Connor and Zion.

There is also the mystery of Aven's identity which is a minor subplot but which ties in with the theme of belonging. Bowling uses the character of Henry, an elderly man with dementia who runs the ice cream shop, to give hints to the reader that Aven is somehow connected to the park. Aven's appearance at the park is confusing to Henry. When Aven questions Henry about all the tarantula pictures on the wall of ice cream shop, Henry tells her that she loves tarantulas. Henry experiences confusion over Aven's lack of arms, asking her what happened to them and telling her she used to have arms. Later on he calls her Aven Cavanaugh, which angers Josephine Cavanaugh - because in fact Henry has just spilled the beans on Aven's real identity.  Halfway through the novel it is revealed that Aven was adopted when she was two years old. Although younger readers might not suspect anything, it's not difficult to figure out that Aven is somehow connected to the park. Aven eventually discovers her connection to the park, she must forgive her grandmother and mourn a mother she never knew.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a sweet, funny read. Aven Green is a strong, determined heroine, whose disability make her intent on living life on her own terms. She is capable, positive and independent. Because of her own disability, Aven has considerable empathy for both Connor and Zion. She is able to see beyond Connor's Tourette's and Zion's weight to who they really are. In Aven, Bowling has crafted a realistic character, a young girl who wants desperately to belong and be like everyone else but whose circumstances mean a different path. The novel's positive message, delivered with some moments of great humour make what might be a heavy subject, accessible to young readers.  Bowling's novel invites young readers to be empathetic and to consider the physical and emotional challenges those with disabilities must navigate every day.

The inspiration for the novel came initially from a cousin who was severely wounded and lost an arm after serving in Iraq. Bowling was further inspired by viewing a video of Barbie Thomas, a stay-at-home mother and bodybuilder who lost both her arms at age two from an severe electrical shock. Bowling invited another woman with limb differences, Tisha Shelton (who was born without arms) to review her manuscript.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is highly recommended.


Book Details:

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
New York: Sterling Children's Books      2017
262 pp.

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