September 18, 2013

Free as a bird

Free as a Bird
by Gina McMurchy-Barber

Narrated by Ruby Jean, who has Down's Syndrome, this is the disturbing tale of life in an institution, where children are treated as less than human. As Ruby says, "(Woodlands School) wasn't a nice place for a liddle kid - nope, not a nice place a'tall. ... Sometimes they hit me an shouted an called me names like retard." To cope with the physical and emotional abuse, Ruby Jean stops talking, but she keeps her eyes and ears open. Salvation comes in the form of Grace, who teaches Ruby how to wash herself, how to cook, and how to tie her shoelaces. When Grace is dismissed for taking Ruby Jean out of Woodlands without permission, Mrs. Gentry takes over. She helps get Ruby into an independent living program and later, a new home with Mr. And Mrs. Williams (Pops and Nan). 

Ruby loves her new life until Pops (Mr. Williams) is taken away in an ambulance. To Ruby Jean, amblances (sic) mean that you never come back because that's what happened to her grandmother. When she overhears Mrs. Williams' son talking about other arrangements for her, she fears that she's being sent back to Woodlands. So she runs away and lives on the streets, where she's befriended by a woman named Mabel. When Mabel gets sick, Ruby Jean has to overcome her fear in order to get help.

Ruby's story is a difficult read, not because of the language, though it forces you to read at a slower pace, but because of the disturbing subject matter. Woodlands School, located in British Columbia (1878-1996), really existed; its residents subjected to years of physical abuse, verbal abuse and medical experimentation. As seen through the eyes of Ruby Jean, the story sheds light on a dark period of Canadian history.

Ruby's story is harrowing enough without having her run away too. I was also surprised at how long it took for Pops and Nan to find her. Readers will be relieved that Pops doesn't die; it was all a misunderstanding. That Nan never explained the situation properly is the fault of the author. It nearly derails a perfectly good story.

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