Monday, September 10

Wonder

by R.J. Palacio
Knopf 2012 

Can a boy with a deformed face find friends, happiness, success, and acceptance when he first goes to middle school? Only in a middle grade novel. 

I'm going to lean a little heavy on this book, despite the fact that I found the writing and narrative structure compelling and well crafted. Bear with me, I'm thinking aloud.

There are buses and billboards and junk mail that I see fairly regularly with pictures of a kid with a cleft lip or cleft palate coupled with an appeal for me to do something to help the poor child pictured. I hate these ads because not because of their appeal to help children but because they do so by attempting to guilt us into giving by trying to shock us into a politically incorrect place. We are so used to beautiful images of people in ads that when we see a child with a disfigured face our initial reaction (according to the psychology behind the ad) is to cause us to reel in horror and then instantly feel bad about having that response; if this were not true they wouldn't put the photo in the ads. These images force us to to look away, then look back with pity, and finally assuage our guilt via a donation. It isn't charity so much as penance for our thought crimes.

August "Augie" Pullman, the narrator of Wonder, is the photo in these ads times ten. It's the combination of two separate medical conditions that has disfigured Augie's face, a one-in-million set of circumstances, made only slightly better through dozens of surgeries in his twelve years on the planet. Due to his constant need for care and recovery from surgeries Augie has been home-schooled but his parents believe the time has come for him to be mainstreamed, to get a solid education and learn how to deal with the realities that life is going to dish out to him over time.

Mind you, Augie is perfectly normal in every other respect, and is the kind of whip-smart kid that is part-and-parcel of most middle grade stories. But where most protagonists have a goal placed before them Augie's is simply handed to him and his best hope is simply to cope. He is given the option of baking out of going to school, but without saying it Augie knows that he would essentially be choosing a lifetime of house arrest, so there isn't much of a choice.

Augie is used to kids recoiling in horror at his face, he's used to the brutal honesty of kids who speak their minds without intending to be mean, wounding him all the same. Inside he's just a kid like the rest of them but its the outside world that must bend to meet Augie half way. And as entertaining and heartwarming as all this is, it was about the halfway point that I started to wonder...

In the early 1960s this story could have been about the one black kid in an all-white Southern school. In the early 1990s this could have been about a kid with AIDS coming to school. The first girl in an all-boys prep. These stories all fit the mold of a kid who is different bringing people closer to understanding their "issue" while growing themselves in gaining acceptance. It all started to leave a bad taste in my mouth, like the waxy coating after eating a donut that tasted good at first and then suddenly not so much so.

My thoughts continued to drift as I read. I remembered The Elephant Man (which later is referenced in Wonder) about Joseph Merrick, a victim of his own deformities who lived in the much less forgiving Victorian England. Or was it? Merrick, despite his outward physical appearance and limitations, left school to earn a living in the workhouses of the time, and despite the story of his being a sort of sideshow freak who was taken advantage of, Merrick actively sought out this lifestyle. A shy and withdrawn man who once dreamed of meeting a blind woman who could love him because she couldn't see him, by comparison Augie didn't seem to have it so bad. Little Augie may have been taunted as a Zombie or the butt of a middle school joke called the Plague, but fat and gay kids are taunted and bullied far worse than anything Augie experiences.

So while Augie had to put up with betrayal by his closest friend and deal with older kids from another school giving him a beat-down, he also had at least one girl friend who could see beyond the surface, and eventually the return of his best friend after a little time-in-the-wilderness guilt and anxiety over some overheard comments. In many ways Augie's deformities are almost irrelevant to the story. He is sweet and charming, and after a while it was as if his face hardly seemed to be deformed at all. Not because we were see the real Augie beneath the surface but because the surface became unrealistic by virtue of the story's commonplace events.

In a story like this, a kid like Augie should triumph, but his stakes need to be exponentially higher than "normal" kids. By the end of Wonder it's as if the entire school (save one bully type) have turned and been won over by Augie. In one school year he went from zero to hero, as they say, but the notes are so high at the end that suddenly it becomes clear Augie's in for a lifetime of letdown. He's survived his first year of middle school and... it's all downhill from here. He might have been mainstreamed to the point of acceptance (not quite normal) but he'll never have a year as spectacular as the one in this book (no character could) and, when I think about it, its kind of sad.

Yes, of course, the point is that by the end the world sees Augie as "normal" and he can (theoretically) continue to have the normal sort of adventures most kids have... but in the real world? In the real world kids who start Wonder will try to align themselves with others in the book who recoiled in horror then came to accept him as just a good-natured, Star Wars-addicted kid with nerdy tendencies, but like those bus and junk mail ads, it comes at the expense of the reader's internal guilt. For 320 pages they have been shown how time and again Augie's face has shaped the reactions of people inside and outside the book, and the happy ending is the penance paid to let the reader off the hook.

See, everything worked out okay for Augie in the end, so don't beat yourself up over the fact that initially you realized you wouldn't have behaved so kindly if you'd met him for the first time.

Young readers will put the book down, grateful the visit to Augie's world was only a short one. They will convince themselves they learned a great lesson and may themselves be changed by it (if they can be that honest with themselves), but once the book is closed it's no difference then send a check to the people who paid for the cleft palate ads.

Out of sight, out of mind, guilt paid off in full.
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