Thursday, December 22, 2011

Book Musings: Deenie

by Judy Blume

I finished this book about two weeks ago, but I've been having trouble putting my thoughts about it into words and contexts properly. It is more rooted in its time than many of Judy Blume's "issue books" and though their are timeless elements, that is important to keep in mind.

In the novel, twelve-year-old Deenie is struggling with her desire to break free of her mother's demands that she become a model. Partially she just wants to be able to spend time with her friends after school instead of being dragged to modeling agencies all the time, but she's also tired of the constant refrain that something is wrong with her "posture" and that she must "try harder". After several examples of this humiliation, Deenie is finally told that she has scoliosis and will have to wear a brace for four years.

And this is where I found it very hard to keep liking Deenie. She has traits I admire. She doesn't rely only on her parents (and thank God, because her mother is clueless) or her doctors to understand her condition. She takes to the encyclopedia. She tries to make decisions about her treatment, and she does--unwillingly--follow the rules set out for her. But she whines a lot. I know one of the major themes of the novel is body image, and to have one's body so completely taken over by something foreign would incite different reactions in different people--but Deenie's reaction turned me off big time.

Moreover, I had about as hard a time as Deenie with people's desire to start seeing her as someone with a disability ("handicapped" in the language of the time). The principal wants her to ride the "special bus" which she balks at. I found the scene really unnecessary, because though it's meant to show Deenie realizing that she is one of the people she judged, she never really comes to terms with whatever connection she has to this segregated group. She does okay getting over her issues with the girl with excema, and even the old hunchback lady whose fate she fears. But the treatment of people with disabilities is disappointing. I know the book came out two years before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and in some ways it's fairly progressive, but reading it as someone with a disability, all I could feel was disappointment in Deenie's attitude--one I couldn't relate to at all--and Blume's dismissal of this element.

If we accept Deenie as the character with a disability, the book does sort of pass my guidelines for disability-related books. She is more than her disability, a curious girl interested in the world, in her friends, in sexuality, in her family dynamic. But she doesn't have much else going for her, and she requires confirmation from a boy before she accepts her new body structure, so points off. There's no cure story, but enough other elements introduced--Deenie's relationship with her mother and modeling, for instance--were introduced as focal points of the book and never properly resolved enough for me to be able to say this is anything but an issue-book about her disability, and not a fabulous one.

I would recommend it only as an example of the way people with disabilities were on the periphery before IDEA and the way in which learning about a disability can, realistically, terrify a family. I'd recommend it less to a person who has grown up disabled.