CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 21. . . .February 5, 2010.
Wheels for Walking.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books, 1983/2009.
160 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Joan Marshall.
“Sally, I’m not asking you to marry me. We’re not ready to make that decision. We weren’t ready before the accident and we’re not ready now, but I still love you.” He sat down and put his hand over my limp fingers. “I want to share things with you. You haven’t changed. You’re still the same person I care about.”
“No, I’m not.” I stared down at his hand, unable to pull mine away. I began to sob as I looked up at him. Each word was an effort, and my head jerked when I spoke. “I’m not the same. I can’t move and I can’t feel. How can you love me?”
Brian spoke softly. “Right now I wonder. If you want my love like I want yours, we have to keep our sanity. We have to fight together.”
His smile infuriated me.
“Well, I don’t want your love or your fight.”
“How can you be so selfish? You’re not the only one who’s hurting.”
“Yes, I am. I’m the one who can’t walk. It’s my life that’s ruined, not yours. I can’t bear the thought of people feeling sorry for you. ‘Poor boy. Look what he’s stuck with.’ Well, you’re not stuck with me. Why don’t you just turn around and WALK away.”
In her final year of high school, Sally is full of energy and looking forward to the future, especially her life with Brian, a university student who truly loves her. Sally’s life is suddenly turned up side down when she becomes paralysed as the result of a car accident. She spends months in recovery and at a unit specializing in spinal cord rehab. Sally lashes out in anger at the medical staff, Brian and her parents, unable to conceive of a future in a wheel chair. As time passes, the patience, friendship and professional expertise of the medical staff finally allow a crack of joy to break into Sally’s life. She asks Brian back into her life and makes plans to begin visits back home.
Sally is a typical 1970’s young adult. Her eyes are firmly fixed on marrying Brian and having children, her goals to be a good wife and mother. She loves Brian fiercely and is saving her virginity for marriage, although they have had a chance to have sex. Sally’s mother has high standards for her daughter’s morality and is deeply hurt by Sally’s commitment to Brian and her moving away from her family’s protection. In the middle section of the book, Sally’s carefree life as she takes off for a skiing weekend with Brian in his MG is very true to life in the Seventies when couples stayed with the parents of friends at ski chalets so they could be together experiencing an exciting winter sport and yet satisfy their own parents that they were staying within the bounds of the conventions of the times.
The hospital and rehab centre where most of the book’s action takes place are both shown as clinical, clean and bleak. The medical staff are sympathetically yet realistically portrayed, with most characters thoughtful and determined to help Sally become the best she can be. The psychiatrist, Dr. Ericson, is especially kind as Sally unburdens her terror of a future in which she sees herself as completely helpless and useless. Sally is horrified at the condition of the patients around her but does reach out to one handsome young patient, Jake, whose sense of humour and recklessness attract her. She soon realizes, however, that his dope smoking and arrogant approach to the medical staff will not work for her, so she reluctantly says goodbye to him as he leaves the rehab centre. She makes a friend in one very kind young nurse who follows her intern boyfriend to New Zealand from where she writes to Sally asking her to be her maid of honour at their marriage the following summer. Although this friendship helps Sally to see herself as more normal, it is the knowledge that she can have children if she wants them that really fills her with joy and helps her to gather together the conviction to move her life along.
There are a few aspects of this novel that will mystify today’s teens. Smoking cigarettes is seen as normal behaviour whereas today it would be seen as disgusting. The idea that Sally and Brian don’t have a full sexual relationship at their age would seem quite odd to today’s high school students. The idea that Sally doesn’t have career goals, but aims mainly to be a wife and mother, would make it very difficult for any high school girl to connect with her as a character. And, of course, the hospital and rehab experience would certainly be much different today than it was 40 years ago. However, the car accident, Sally’s pain and anger, her persistence and slow, eventual successes are so realistic that readers will still be drawn into Sally’s story and cheer her on.
Wheels for Walking was originally published in 1983, based on Richmond’s own experiences as a quadriplegic (her quadriplegia also being the result of a car accident), and has been re-issued. Richmond later died after a five year battle against breast cancer. All the money raised from the sale of this edition will be given to the Vancouver General Hospital and University of British Columbia Hospital Foundation for the rehabilitation of patients who have suffered spinal cord injuries, and also to the BC Cancer foundation’s Weekend to End Breast Cancer.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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