I claim no expertise on the parameters or expectations of young adult fiction. I read the Harry Potter books, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Laura Ingalls Wilder when my own child was the right age, and I read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, mostly because I keep up with him and wanted to follow the controversy around it (recently it has been the most banned book in America which, of course, increases its popularity and distribution). All of these books defy any expectation that fiction that labels itself as “young adult” is simplistic or sugarcoated. They prepared me for reading Rachel DeWoskin’s Blind.
I had read DeWoskin’s earlier novel, Big Girl Small, which is set in Ann Arbor (where DeWoskin grew up), when it first came out a few years ago, and was captivated by its story of a young woman coming of age with a body type that redefines our idea of beauty. Although it has a high school protagonist, it was not intended as a young adult novel. Nonetheless it clearly helped to prepare DeWoskin to write her latest book.
Emma Sasha Silver loses her eyesight in a freak accident just after her first year of high school. As any of us might, she withdraws from her friends and her town: “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.”
The general movement of the plot goes where you want it to: Emma very slowly, very painfully, learns to live again, to go out into the world, to love and argue, to help others, and to get in fights. The horror of her own accident diminishes just a bit when contrasted with the death, an apparent suicide, of one of her classmates. Emma is the one student in the school who needs to articulate her response, and she forces her friends to understand the fragility and beauty of their short moment in the light.
But Blind is particularly good because of the way DeWoskin describes the smallest moments of discovery. Because Emma was once sighted, voices and sounds have the texture of color. Here DeWoskin writes of her experience listening to a quartet playing classical music:
At first, it was as if my way of separating sounds out got in the way: I could only hear the individual strands of music, but then, as I reminded myself to breathe, I started hearing all of it: the ridges and drops and the notes swelling and falling, and sometimes they were purple, dark like velvet curtains, and then the clarinet would come in and the notes were summer, lemonade, sand, and then the piano behind them became a drum for me … and then the violin was playing a shivery line alone, above everything else like a bird, or something smaller, a bird so small and delicate it was invisible. To everyone except me.
I would challenge the most hard-hearted of readers, no matter what their age, to be unmoved at the end of Blind.
Rachel DeWoskin reads from and discusses her novel as part of the Ann Arbor Book Festival’s “Book Crawl” on June 20.