by Gina McMurchy-Barber
Publisher: Dundurn Group
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Born with Down syndrome, Ruby Jean Sharp comes from a time when being a developmentally disabled person could mean growing up behind locked doors and barred windows and being called names like "retard" and "moron." When Ruby Jean's caregiver and loving grandmother dies, her mother takes her to Woodlands School in New Westminster, British Columbia, and rarely visits.
As Ruby Jean herself says: "Can't say why they called it a school -- a school's a place you go for learnin an then after you get to go home. I never learnt much bout ledders and numbers, an I sure never got to go home."
It's here in an institution that opened in 1878 and was originally called the Provincial Lunatic Asylum that Ruby Jean learns to survive isolation, boredom, and every kind of abuse. Just when she can hardly remember if she's ever been happy, she learns a lesson about patience and perseverance from an old crow.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
This book is a great example of one with a misleading synopsis. That last sentence about the talking crow almost turned me right off the book, because I didn't really want to read a book about such a serious subject that was going to incorporate talking animals (which, unless they're done really well, are a great way to turn a good story into a ridiculous one). Luckily, there's no anthropomorphic fantasy in this book. Instead, it's an interesting, emotional, character-driven historical fiction novel.
At first, I wasn't sure if I liked the way Ruby Jean talked. Quite a few of the words she used were spelled phonetically, and it took a while for me to get used to that. Once I did, however, I realized how necessary those spellings were to help bring Ruby Jean to life on the page. And I ended up really, really liking her character. I rooted for her, I felt heartbroken for her, and I wanted things to turn out well for her. Despite being told all her life that she wasn't smart, she actually was; maybe not in the IQ sense, but she was quite observant and had a lot more sense and compassion than some of the other characters in the book. The staff of Woodlands made some excellent villains... but it's disturbing that these characters' actions were based on ones that actually happened. (The author's note at the back of the book is well worth reading, as well, for some historical context.)
For such a character-driven novel, quite a lot happens. There is a well-crafted story that moves along at a nice pace, even within the institution. I was never bored while I was reading this book. The pace picks up even more in the second half, most of which takes place outside of the institution (see what I mean about the synopsis being misleading?).
This is one of those books that I found at the library and picked up because it was set locally (which is always kind of cool to see) and because it was short. What I found was a wonderful little novel about a fairly recent time in history and the people that our society wanted to forget about.
When Grace left Morris said to Bernice, "I can't believe the little cretin behaved herself. Little Miss Do-Gooder's probably just too embarrassed to tell us how Ruby Jean acted up." Then he looked at me. "Did you bite her, Ruby Jean? C'mon, you can tell Morris."
Morris dint knowed I'd never want to bite Grace. Sure was gettin a feelin bout bitin him though.
Recommended to: fans of historical fiction and "tough" subject matter; readers who like strong characters
Writing & Editing: 4/5
Overall Rating: 4.43 out of 5 ladybugs