When shadows creep and fall
Walk on, walk on
Against the wind and tide
Trudge on, trudge on
If you’re ever weak and lonely
Limp on, limp on
When darkness hides the light
Crawl on, crawl on
And the glow of hope is dim
I’ve put off writing this post because I wasn’t sure I could put my thoughts (and my knee-jerk reactions) into words. But it’s been years now, and I still haven’t managed to sort it all out. So I’m going to go with what I have and see if I can’t find some clarity by the time we come out the other side. This post will contain spoilers for Avatar and The King’s Speech, so if you don’t know how those two movies end and the title of this post hasn’t already given the game away, then stop reading.
Characters need flaws in order to be interesting. They need challenges to face and overcome. This is a very basic concept of fiction and most authors who don’t get this usually don’t get past the submission process. Some have taken it to the next level and given their characters staggering physical challenges. But if that character is suddenly healed by the end of the story, somehow it feels like cheating. It feels like the author is saying, “You’ve got the strength and the skill to make it through, but if you want to stand on this pedestal and be called a hero, you have to look the part.”
I recognize this is not what they want to say or what most people see when they finish the book. I recognize some of my disgust comes from my own hang ups and insecurities. But that doesn’t change the fact that I finished watching Avatar and felt like James Cameron was telling me I couldn’t be a hero because I use a wheelchair. Jake chose the healthy, studly body over the broken one, and it made sense from a practical standpoint. But that put a twist on the ending. Jake ran away from harsh reality and was rewarded by getting to live a fantasy, and that left a sour taste in my mouth.
So my problem might have something to do with the way the healing is treated in the story. For example, there was no sour taste at the end of The King’s Speech. The whole movie was about King George fighting against and eventually managing his speech impediment. The resolution was triumphant instead of disappointing. I think it’s because he wasn’t “healed”. The problem or flaw didn’t go away entirely. He learned to work with it, speak around it. His reward was self-confidence and respect. Whereas in Avatar, Jake’s healing was more like a prize. “Yay, you saved the day! Here have this body. It’s bigger and better than the old one!”
Healing offered as a reward for a job well done seems like a slap in the face. As if all the growth and challenges the character went through don’t mean anything unless there’s a really spectacular prize at the end. Like legs that work. I guess that was the point I was looking for. Does the healing add breadth and depth to a character or is it more a convenience? You can tell which I prefer.
I wrote this to start a discussion because I feel like there could be a lot more sides to the issue. So what do you think about healing characters with disabilities?
One of my favorite things about using a wheelchair is flying down ramps, but I think I can safely say I will never be as brave as this guy. Aaron Fotheringham might be one of my new heroes. He’s a 21 year-old wheelchair moto-cross athlete with spina bifida. I love the way he’s made his own hybrid sport out of his disability. Aaron is known for landing the first wheelchair backflip and the first double backflip and now he tours the world, performing his gravity defying tricks and showing kids with disabilities that wheelchairs aren’t limiting in the least.
He makes me feel less guilty about zipping around Costco as fast as I can and testing my braking distance around their corners. Note: super slick floors plus nice high pressure wheels equals lots of exciting sliding. I really liked what he had to say about changing the way people see wheelchairs. And how a wheelchair isn’t part of you, it’s just something you’re riding. Like a bike. And bikes are fun, right?
In a time of superstition, before modern medicine, Salz struggles to breathe. A strange disease leaves him weak and marked for death. Except… he hasn’t died. And when a plague of madness strikes his town, Salz is the only one left unscathed. But is this a blessing or a curse? Because with the reprieve comes suspicion. Is Salz the source of the plague? Or will he be the salvation of them all?
A good book makes me feel the whole gamut of emotions: joy, sorrow, anger, frustration, and shock. A great book does all that, but it also keeps me thinking long after I’ve turned the last past. Breath didn’t have the most engaging plotline or amazing characters, but it had some fascinating things to say about health and illness, disability and heroism, faith and hypocrisy.
I know Donna Jo Napoli for her fairytale re-tellings. I really liked Beast and I’ve got Sirena waiting on my to-read shelf. I’m a huge sucker for fairytales, so when I realized Breath was a retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin (one of the more chilling fairytales) and might possibly have something to do with the plague (a subject I find morbidly riveting), I grabbed it without a second thought. Then I realized I had a disability topic in my hands.
Salz suffered from Cystic Fibrosis, something that should have killed him long before, but among the medieval remedies his grandmother dosed him with were some potent pieces of wisdom which kept him alive. Someone suffering from Cystic Fibrosis today wouldn’t necessarily do a hand stand every time they start coughing, but the acrobatics helped Salz clear his lungs and breathe easier.
I loved how intertwined the perceptions of health and illness were in this book. Salz is sick. Really sick. Sick enough that everyone’s surprised he’s still alive and Salz himself hesitates to make plans for his future. His illness is met with derogatory reactions not unexpected in this time period. His family thinks he’s useless, his grandmother is the only one who shows any affection toward him, and when it comes down to a choice between Salz’s life or his older brother’s, his family chooses to throw him under the metaphorical bus without a second thought.
But in the end the Cystic Fibrosis protects him from the disease that ravages the rest of the town. It saves his life even as it threatens to kill him. And of course, being “healthy” puts him at risk again when the townspeople accuse him of being the source of the disease through witchcraft.
There was such an interesting give and take between being healthy and being sick. Salz’s weakness is what keeps him from leaving with the children when the piper demands his due, but it is what leaves him healthy enough to go after them. So the invalid becomes the hero. The line between disabled and enabled blurs.
I read this with the disability and illness themes in mind, but already, I know that it deserves a re-read. I want to go back and look at how Napoli handled faith and hypocrisy as well. I caught a glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye as I barreled through and I can’t wait to revisit them.