Friday, May 7, 2010

Free as a Bird

Today we have a book review by Cindy Matthews, a vice principal and writer in Waterloo, Ont. who has lots of experience working with children with special needs. She brought this new book—Free as a Bird—to my attention. The book is fiction, but the author has a sister with Down syndrome. I can't wait to read it. Thanks Cindy!

Free as a Bird, Gina McMurchy-Barber, Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2010. 168 pages.
Reviewed by Cindy Matthews

My name’s Ruby Jean Sharp an I growed up in Woodlands School. That wasn’t a nice place for a liddle kid—nope, not a nice place a’tall.

So begins the fictional story of Ruby Jean’s life in an institution, Woodlands School, based in western Canada.

Ruby Jean has Down syndrome. She grows up in a time when people with developmental challenges grew up behind locked doors and windows with bars. Life lacks stimulation. Imagine her life: Staff is your caregiver. You keep wishing your mom would come back and take you home. You grow up losing skills you once had because you’re depressed, desperate and despondent.

Ruby Jean’s distinctive voice clutches you. British Columbian author Gina McMurchy-Barber does a stellar job of injecting Ruby Jean into your soul. How? Through McMurchy-Barber’s excellent character development, Ruby Jean is depicted as a change agent. She forces you to reexamine your attitudes, your prejudices, and your behaviour toward people different from you.

For example, Ruby Jean says, Sometimes bein a fly on the wall’s not such a good thing. That’s cause sometimes I heard things I wished I dint hear. Like the night Morris told some other uniforms bout Paulina.

(Morris says,) “Can you believe it—they dug out her brain and sent it to medical school. Don’t ask me why? I mean, what could they possible learn from the brain of a halfwit?” Then he laughed.

McMurchy-Barber captures in such a respectful way this young girl’s mental, emotional, social and behavioural decay. The uniforms clutch the keys. Staff ‘leashes’ her to maintain control and to diminish her hope. Dominance reigns supreme over the ‘retards.’ One staff says, “It’s business as usual – wake ’em, hose ’em, feed ’em, park ’em…”

A life fraught with grief, boredom, isolation and abuse, Ruby Jean often finds herself in a highly anxious state and with good reason. For instance, part way through the story Ruby Jean lives with a foster family. One night she finds she has had an accident in bed after drinking too much hot chocolate. Afraid she’ll get in trouble, she stuffs the soiled sheets in her closet. After being physically and psychologically tortured by the ‘uniforms’ in the Woodlands Institution, she is filled with dread. (She) could still hear the uniforms in my head though—yup, couldn’t get them to stop callin me names.

When Ruby Jean finds herself on the streets in the east side of Vancouver, life could not throw any more curves at her. Barely equipped for life in assistive living never mind life on the streets, Ruby Jean is the poster-child for vulnerability. McMurchy-Barber does an excellent job of painting life of the marginalized in this part of the story and reveals how Ruby Jean and her homeless friend find ways to be ‘free.’ Through email dialogue with this reviewer, McMurchy-Barber says she wanted to show that for Ruby Jean life on the streets “was better than going back to the hell that she knew as Woodlands.”

In the author’s notes included at the end of the book, McMurchy-Barber states, “When I was a kid, there was one word that grated on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard: retard.” Without lecturing and through excellent use of narrative, this author renders the reader to be Ruby Jean. And through this exquisite experience, empathy and understanding flourish.

McMurchy-Barber uses some of her experiences with her sister with Down syndrome to assist her in finding voice for this must-tell story.

Who should read this book: Everyone! Why? It’s an honest portrayal of what should never happen to a human being. It provides much needed enrichment reading for all of us, young and old. Run, don’t walk, to find a copy of this honest, movingly written novel.

Cindy is a vice-principal of Section 23 (care, custody, treatment and corrections) programs in Waterloo Region in Ontario as well as an enrichment centre for children in grades 1-8. Her daughter is entering fourth-year university and has attention deficit disorder. Cindy also teaches online special-education courses for Queen’s University in Kingston. Before becoming an administrator, Cindy assisted students with autism spectrum disorder diagnoses to be integrated into classrooms in elementary and secondary schools in Waterloo Region. You can read more of Cindy’s work at


I have some knowledge of the "living conditions" of East Side Vancouver -- once you witness the hundreds -- and I mean hundreds! -- of homeless people living there, the very idea of a person with Down syndrome trying to survive it scares the hell out of me. The character, Ruby Jean, would have to be completely frightened to return to institutional living in order to choose those streets.

I want to read this book but I am not quite sure that I'll be able to keep my own fears at bay. It will be great to read from a Canadian perspective, though.

Thanks for writing Lianna -- I'd like to read this book too, and I'm so glad that Cindy did the review for us -- and is planning some other reviews to keep us abreast of books that address disability.

I don't think I have read a book that has affected me as much as Free as a Bird. The story is very close to home for me and at times I had to put it down and deal with feelings that rose to the surface. It's a story that needs to be told but is hard to digest. Thank you Gina McMurchy-Barber for your courage to write it and to all the readers who have the courage to continue reading it to the last page.