American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Early Childhood      REVIEW

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Two Novels by Kristen Witucki

Reviewed by Deborah Kendrick

From the Editor: Deborah Kendrick is a journalist who has written extensively about blindness and disability. She divides her time between Cincinnati and Florida.

THE TRANSCRIBER

by Kristen Witucki
GemmaMedia, 2013
ISBN: 9781936846412
[Available from www.bookshare.org]

Kristen Witucki with her husband James and their sons, Langston and Noor. Photo Credit: Damien LaRockWhen Deborah Stein asked me to review Kristen Witucki's new novel, Outside Myself, I initially had difficulty locating the book. However, I immediately found Witucki's other title, The Transcriber, published half a decade earlier. I was drawn quickly into this young-adult novel, staying up into the night, unable to put it down.

Sibling relationships are complicated, and they are like no other bonds forged in our lives. Add a disability to the mix and the heat, as they say, gets cranked up.

Does the child without a disability wind up resenting the one who gets so much special attention? Does the child without a disability become marginalized or ignored? Perhaps worst of all, does the nondisabled sibling feel an obligation to take care of the less advantaged child in the family?

In Kristen Witucki's young-adult novel, The Transcriber, we get a firsthand look at the role of the sighted sibling of a blind sister. Louis tells it the way it sometimes is in real life, and families with children of varying visual acuities would do well to read—and yes, even talk about—what Louis has to say.

Emily is older than her brother Louis. She is smart, musical, artistic—and blind. Louis loves her—and sometimes (like when she trades him in, as he sees it, for some girlfriends her own age)—he hates her enough to crash a chair into her bedroom door to break it.

Louis is the only sighted member of the family who learns to write Braille. He is resentful when his mother, to get him to Braille Santa tags on Emily's Christmas presents, reveals to him ahead of schedule that Santa isn't real. "She's older than I am!" I repeated. "She should write tags for me!"
His mother tells him not to be unkind. To Louis their mother means that Emily has to be treated kindly because she is blind.

Louis wonders at the sign telling passing drivers that a blind child lives here. "Emily's not stupid," he reflects. "If she wants to play in the street and get run over, it's her decision." And he wonders why there is no sign to say that he, a sighted child, lives here, too. He experiments with what it might be like to be blind, and gets the hang of walking around "without touching walls" until he forgets and tumbles down the stairs.

Louis resents Emily, and he adores Emily. And mostly, the charm of Louis and of this wonderful little book is that Louis is perhaps the only person in the family who sees Emily as Emily, not as the blind girl. She is blind. He knows that. But he also knows that she can do all sorts of things kids who can see can't do, and that she will do more. When his father takes Louis, but not Emily, to visit an aunt and uncle, it is because the relatives don't understand about Emily and his father doesn't want to endure their pity. In keeping with their misguided perceptions, they conclude that Emily stayed home because "in her situation" she is unable to travel. "[They] figured," Louis tells us, "that if Emily didn't come, it was because she couldn't travel, because she couldn't see, and it would be too hard for her. I know that's not true. Emily is always talking about how she wants to go to places like Ireland and Japan and Kenya, and I know she'll do it, too."

When their father becomes ill and is hospitalized, Louis dreams their father is a beggar. He refers to Emily as having a disability and their father as being crippled. The meaning is clear: their father refuses to accept that his body has become different, whereas Emily just lives her life. Like so many good books for young people, this novel is one to be savored at any age. We come to love Louis in these pages and, through his eyes, to love Emily. Better still, we come to respect Louis and, through his eyes, respect his sister—as a typical girl who just happens to be blind.

OUTSIDE MYSELF

by Kristen Witucki
Wyatt-McKenzie, 2018
ISBN 9781942545996
[Available from www.bookshare.org, from www.audible.com, and from NLS as DB91111]

Eagerly I returned to the pursuit of Outside Myself, for which the review was requested. Certainly, I thought, if a first book was as engaging as The Transcriber, a second book promised to be nothing short of delicious.

Beware of expectations was the applicable lesson here, as it turned out not to be quite so uncomplicated. Both books are written by an author who is blind, and both feature blind characters. That is where the similarity ends. To be fair, I needed to review them as the separate entities that they are.

Kristen Witucki's second book, Outside Myself, features a relationship that most blind readers may accept as credible. Tallie is a girl in middle school whose parents are divorced and who is obsessed with finding a cure for her blindness. When she calls the library for the blind Benjamin answers, and she asks him if there is a book about a cure for Leber's congenital amaurosis (LCA). Benjamin gently but firmly advises her to forget about a cure and live her life. Tallie is eleven. Benjamin is a grandfather. Tallie is white. Benjamin is black. Most significantly, Benjamin is the first blind person Tallie has ever known, and the two form an instant connection.

If you are looking for a book that tells the truth about blindness, there is plenty of honest representation here. Tallie was born without sight, while Benjamin's story is one of a long struggle from childhood to manhood, from painfully limited vision that diminishes over time until complete blindness as an adult. We learn about Braille and independent travel and the ridiculous behavior the presence of a blind person can spark in sighted people. In one scene, Nate, a friend from school, is mortified by his mother's fussing when he invites Tallie over to play video games. (The scene triggered a hilarious memory from my own college days when a friend's mother placed her hands on my shoulders and literally tried to back me onto a toilet seat!) We learn that blind people can participate in sports (Tallie's mother takes her on a ski weekend with other blind people), and that blind adults can be professionals (Tallie meets a blind journalist there). We also learn, largely from Benjamin's compelling story, that blind people can be parents, spouses, supportive friends, and owners of heart-wrenching mistakes. The writing has real merit, and it is sometimes poignant and insightful.

However, fiction is made memorable by characters, and I had to read the book twice before I could form any emotional attachment to the characters presented here. Witucki explains in an afterword that the book is the result, in part, of her vow to write her husband's story. She does that well. Witucki was born blind, and her husband had a gradual vision loss. Witucki is white, and her husband is black. While this book is not Witucki's autobiography or a biography of her husband, clearly their story helped shape the novel.

Examining the characters in this book, I feel that Benjamin is the more real of the two. His agonizing journey from what he later calls "half sighted" to total blindness will be recognizable to any reader who has been there or been close to someone who has. He pretends to see when he can't. He struggles to see whatever he can. His ultimate acceptance and choice to be a happy blind man rather than a miserable one will no doubt resonate with readers in much the same way that it does with Tallie. Benjamin's internal conflicts, his love of his family, his pragmatism, and his kindness comprise a real human being, a character the reader can wonder about when the book is closed.

The same cannot be said of Tallie. Tallie's story, while often educational, sometimes reads more like theory than fiction. I found myself questioning the authenticity of the eleven-year-old character more than once. Would a child this age, if born blind, really be so obsessed with wanting to see and constantly bemoaning her blindness? Would a child of eleven, even a precocious one, tell us that her school corridors smell of "chalk dust and despair?" And would an eleven-year-old experience and identify the level of transformation resulting from this brief friendship, as we are told Tallie has? If we can, however, as Coleridge prompted, willingly suspend our disbelief and put those questions aside, this is a promising novel by a new writer, a novel written by a blind person representing the truth about blindness.

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