The Blurred Line

BreathBreath by Donna Jo Napoli

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.

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