January 2022 – Keeping Lucy by T. Greenwood
There are many ways to judge the worth of a book – by the number of people who read it, by the strength of the characterization, by the type of story, and the list can go on. If a book can be determined a success by the amount of conversation it engenders, then Keeping Lucy by T. Greenwood was certainly a successful pick for Zion’s readers in January.
This novel was a fictional look at a couple difficult subjects – Down syndrome and motherhood. It is easy to forget from the viewpoint of 2022 that it was not that long ago that any kind of disability in a child was something considered shameful and to be hidden. In Keeping Lucy, Zion’s readers jumped back in time to the 1970’s and met Ginny Richardson, a young mother in Massachusetts, and her husband, Ab, a striving attorney in his father’s law firm. On the surface, a pleasant suburban family with a son. Underneath, Ginny feels hemmed in and kept on a leash with a generous weekly allowance but no money control. Ab is still trying to earn his father’s approval even though the law leaves him unfulfilled. However, they both look forward to the arrival of their second child. And that’s when the fabric of their lives starts to fray.
When Ginny awakes from a hard delivery, she finds that Ab has consigned their daughter, Lucy, to a specialized “school” for developmentally impaired infants and children at the behest of their doctor and Ab’s father. Ginny never sees or holds her baby (which pulled on the heartstrings of our readers considerably) even though she protests vigorously. Ab has been convinced by his father that this is the best choice for the child and the family, and Ginny finally accepts this and grieves in private at her loss. When two years later, Ginny is handed a newspaper expose of the “school” by her best friend, Marsha, her carefully constructed walls come tumbling down. The investigative reporter reveals horrid, unsafe conditions with minimal care and certainly no attention to development or schooling for the residents. Ginny determines to see for herself, finds Lucy, signs her out for the weekend, and quickly falls in love with her daughter. Appalled at the condition she is in (as were we – pretty graphic descriptions), Ginny determines to never return her and takes off with her son and Marsha on a road trip to Florida. The trip will test Ginny’s resolve (technically she is kidnapping the child since Ab signed away their parental rights), the strength of her marriage, and Ab’s integrity.
While a work of fiction, the “school” is based on an actual institution that was the subject of an investigation which revealed children kept much like animals simply because of their disabilities. It’s tough to read about this abusive situation and realize how often and recently (one institution didn’t close until 1992) this incarceration happened. Our readers shared various examples of families they knew with disabled people (Down Syndrome, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, etc.) who were often kept in the background or hidden. Thankfully, as the years have gone by, society has grown in its knowledge about Down Syndrome and other disabilities and how to provide an environment where people with such challenges can thrive. While we cringe at older labels like ‘mongoloid’, we do recognize that there are still hurdles and moral issues to consider.
Providing a nurturing, growth-oriented environment is expensive. While help is available through various agencies, access can still depend on economic status. Equitable access is problematic. Parents still suffer guilt at decisions they make. Some disabled people will thrive in a group home, but parents worry they are viewed as institutionalizing their child. What do parents do when their child turns 21 and assistance may be no longer available? If you are the primary caretaker for your disabled child, what happens when you die or are no longer able to do day-to-day care? Estate planning takes on a new urgency in such situations. Then there are ethical questions – are wealthy parents entitled to take advantage of public assistance for their disabled dependents when they could afford to pay for it? Is this not taking away from other needy families who don’t have financial means?
Parents and family members who need help to give disabled relatives fulfilled lives do now have resources like The ARC, PA ABLE, and United Cerebral Palsy. PA ABLE is a fairly new organization that provides tax-free savings vehicles to be established for clients thus ensuring money for their care after the death of their parents. This type of option is certainly a step in the right direction. Knowing there is help available can be empowering.
However, Ginny Richardson lived in 1970’s Boston without these resources at a time of societal upheaval when the roles of women were changing. And so, while the basis for the novel grabbed our attention and emotions, the plot had some questionable parts. Massachusetts has been a progressive state for a long time; it was hard to reconcile a young woman who didn’t drive and existed on an allowance from her husband, adequate though it might have been. Although many of our readers knew of older female relatives and neighbors who never drove, we expected that in rural Adams County but not in Boston where women were burning bras in the 1970’s. And then to have Ginny able to master learning a stick shift in one go strained credibility. We had a hard time finding a character to admire – Ginny and Ab were irritating and needed to grow backbones, the grandfather was totally overbearing, his wife appeared emotionally frozen, and Marsha a bit manipulative at times. Some of the situations in which Ginny found herself during the trip to Florida seemed contrived; the approaching hurricane became a non-starter for the plot. There were a few jarring present-day references such as ‘special needs’ which were out of place. Some of our readers felt the story was ‘discombobulated’ and the plot contained too many different ideas. Ms. Greenwood managed to conveniently tie up loose ends leaving the impression of fairy tale when some readers were expecting a grittier “Thelma and Louise” denouement.
Even with those drawbacks, the story itself was both heartbreaking and heart-wrenching when we focused on Lucy and how what she endured in the pages of the book was reality to many, many children. We could understand how Ms. Greenwood felt compelled to use her talents to shine a light on the past in order to make it harder for the same thing to happen in the present. The more you read, the more you learn and grow and our discussions allow us space to do just that in our exchange of opinions and ideas. We appreciate authors who enlighten as well as entertain us. This was reflected in the voting: we had one neutral vote, four giving it a knuckle, 9 voting one thumb up, and the book earned two thumbs up from one reader.
In February, we will discuss The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell. Happy reading!