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I don't remember the actual strike,
but I do remember my mother telling me that I mustn't tell my grandmother why
and how my cheek bore the impression of my father's hand. It was imprinted on
my brain as much as on my face when I was 5 years old. Anke de Vries heroine,
Judith, faces a much more brutal existence than the psychological abuse and few
outbursts I experienced from my father during my childhood, but I can identify
with all the emotions, secrets, fears, avoidance behaviors, and confusion.
We adults all recognize Judith as
the typical abused child who thinks that being beaten is normal. How could she
know anything else? From as far back as she could remember, her mother had
beaten her. Didn't every parent beat their child? What Judith didn't understand
was why her mother never hit her younger brother. He seemed to be immune to his
mother's wrath. Judith's only answer was that it had to be some defect in her.
"If only I could be more like Dennis", she thought enviously.
Though she tried to hide her
bruises from everyone, even her mother's boyfriend, Judith's bruises were not
always on the outside. She lived in constant fear of the next beating,
"The waiting was often the worst part," then a boy in her class took
an interest in her and a healing friendship was forged.
Michael was also a troubled child,
but all of his bruises were on the inside. After the death of Michael's mother,
his father crawled into a shell of mourning that didn't include Michael.
Fortunately for Michael, his mother's sister, Aunt Elly scooped him up out of
the sterile relationship with his father and gave Michael a real home. She gave
him all the nurturing a substitute mother could give, but she couldn't heal the
wounds of failure that his father had etched inside a child's heart. His father
didn't know that Michael's inability to read had a name, dyslexia. "I
don't think I've ever met anyone as unwilling to learn as you are," said
his father. "It's almost as though you're doing it on purpose."
Both Michael's father and Judith's
mother are examples from both extremes of dysfunctional parenting, and while
we may shrink from the pain inflicted on both children, neither are judged by
the author. We want to get inside Michael's father's head and rearrange
his priorities and give him eyes to see how special Michael is. We want
to yell, "Wake up!" to all the adults who miss all the clues of
Judith's brutal beatings. But the author never says that either parent is a bad
person, just that they are a product of their experiences.
De Vries has successfully woven a
tale of brutality, friendship, love, and epiphany that children as well as
adults can absorb and learn from. I can't say enjoy because of all the
pain of reading a chronicle of physical abuse of a child, but the violence and
dysfunction of the families in the story might show an abused child that being
abused, either mentally or physically, is not normal. While it is written to
the reading ability of late elementary to junior high, it has enough grit to
hold the interest of adults, and teachers of elementary and junior high
students ought to read it just so they recognize the Judiths and Michaels in
their class. Mr. Beekman, the children's teacher, almost didn't.
The only thing that might confuse
young readers in America is the setting and that the novel is a translation
from the Dutch. The reader may be confused when Michael is explaining his
dyslexia and says, "Talking's no problem for me. I only have to hear
something once, and it gets stored away up here." Michael tapped on his
head again. "It just so happens, "he added, "I can even speak
Most of the translation is right on
to the universal understanding of older children and young teens, but occasionally
situations or experiences seem odd to an American audience and distract them
from the story. In the end though, de Vries has crafted a fine story and
provided a voice for abused children and those who might come across them.
© 2004 Lorraine Rice
Lorraine Rice provides the
following information about herself.
Adjunct Professor of English and ESL at Suffolk Community College,
NY for 16 years.
Poet and Artist My web page: http://hometown.aol.com/euterpel66/myhomepage/poetry.html
Widow and mother of three adult children and one granddaughter.
BA St. John's University, Jamaica NY
MA SUNY at Stony Brook, NY
Like to explore: the Internet, evolutionary-psychology,
countries, books, people, outdoors, flea markets, and old roads.
Like to create: portraits, gardens, found-object sculpture,
lists, poems, and friendships.
Like to travel: to most of US States, Canada, Bermuda, England, Brazil,
China, and Mexico.