Wednesday, May 5, 2021

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin


Source of book: Audiobook from the library


For the last 7+ years, since I started traveling and camping throughout the western United States with the kids - trying to see as many of the national parks as we can before the kids grow up and move away - we have also been using audiobooks to make the miles pass faster and keep me awake. As part of this, we have been listening to many of the Newbery Award winners and honor books, not in any systematic order, but as they seem interesting and as they become available in our library system.

A Corner of the Universe was an honor book in 2003. Two things surprised me about this book. First, the author is Ann M. Martin, best known for the Babysitters Club series that many of my tween acquaintances loved back in the day. Second, the ending is surprisingly dark, and a bit of a shock, given all the positive stuff that happens throughout most of the book. In that sense, I guess consider what your kids are up for. On the positive side, it is a compassionate look at mental disability, and an all-too-accurate portrayal of how things like that were handled back in the 1960s. I was unable to determine if there was an autobiographical element in the book, but Martin has said she writes a lot of her family history and her own experiences into her books, so it seems plausible. 


Hattie is an 11 year old girl in 1960. Her parents run a boarding house, to the disapproval of her maternal grandparents, who are wealthy, and also disapprove of the fact that their daughter married an impecunious artist, rather than someone from their social class. The summer in which the book takes place is a turning point for Hattie, as her world is turned upside down by two people. 


The first is Adam, uncle she never knew she had. He is….different, as everyone says. While the book is never clear, it seems likely that he has a developmental disability, possible Autism. But, this being 1960, most people were just considered “mentally ill” and locked away where nobody had to think about them. It is only because Adam’s “school” has closed that he is back home until a new placement can be found. Adam is kind of like a child, even though he is 21. He doesn’t regulate his emotions, says stuff without a filter, and is prone to being overwhelmed in certain situations. He and Hattie become friends, however. 


The second friend Hattie makes is Leila, the daughter of the proprietor of the carnival that comes to town that summer. While her grandparents disapprove of her hanging around with “that kind of people,” Hattie finds a kindred spirit in Leila. 


Unfortunately, things cannot last. Adam freaks out riding the Ferris Wheel at night, and is brutally arrested by the police. (Let’s just say that we have not improved in our policing of mental disability.) When he finally gets out of the hospital, he sees the young woman he is obsessed with making out with her boyfriend. He has a mental break and, unfortunately, commits suicide. At the same time, Leila and family leave for the next city, and, in the chaos surrounding Adam’s death, she is not able to get an address to write. 


While this is a lot of tragedy for Hattie to handle, she does emerge with a profound sense of empathy for others, and she regrets that she (and even more so, her grandparents) didn’t understand and help Adam more. 


The audiobook is read by Judith Ivey, who does an amazing job of capturing Adam’s vocal style. It is distinctive and accurate without ever becoming a caricature. I know people who talk exactly like that - which is why I think the intended diagnosis is a developmental disability, rather than a mental illness such as schizophrenia. 


Overall, an interesting book, and an empathetic portrayal of the kind of person that we still tend to want to marginalize as a society. 


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