CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 35. . . .May 14, 2010
Born That Way.
Lantzville, BC: Oolichan Books, 2009.
185 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Turner's syndrome-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.
Review by Kim Aippersbach.
Okay, I must be really slow. So this has nothing to do with marketing campaigns. It's one of these puberty things. I review the sites listed on the history screen. Surely she can't think I'm a hermaphrodite——she's my mother, she's seen me naked. She must think I'm bisexual. I wonder briefly if there's any advantage in letting her think this, anything I might be able to use to get my own horse, but then I think, gee this is my mother who knows me better than anyone. Could she be right?
"Mom, do you think I'm bisexual?"
"It doesn't matter what I think," says Mom. "What matters is what you think."
"I don't know what I think."
Mom reaches over and pulls me tight into her, "Sylvie, we will love you no matter what you are. We won't try to change you. You're perfect just the way you are." . . .
"What if I decide," I start slowly, "that I am……," I pause like Dad would for comedic effect, "an equestrian?"
Mom stiffens and then says the scariest thing I've heard all day. "I'll find you a therapist."
Sylvia is an only child with a developmental problem her parents haven't recognized. She's a "teenager with the body of an eight-year-old," but her parents are still complacently waiting for her growth spurt. Sylvia's passion is for horses, but her parents assume this is just a stage she's going through and sign her up for gymnastics instead.
Her desire for a horse is tied in to her growth problem because her grandfather has promised to buy her a horse when she's as tall as his shoulder. So Sylvia does stretching exercises every day, and, in the meantime, she begins a "gorilla marketing campaign" to convince her parents she should be allowed to get a horse. To show them how responsible she is, she makes a pet out of some barnacles, but this backfires because, while doing on-line research on barnacles, she discovers they are hermaphrodites, and trying to learn what that means leads her to websites that freak out her parents when they see her search history. Her psychoanalyst mother gets Sylvie a therapist appointment; this ends up a good thing because the doctor diagnoses Sylvia with Turner Syndrome, the cause of her delayed growth. Plus, the doctor is, herself, a horse lover, and convinces Sylvie's parents to take her desire for a horse seriously. Grandpa shows up ready to buy a horse even though Sylvia isn't tall enough, but Sylvia decides to start taking riding lessons first.
The plot of Born That Way seems meandering, but it comes together in a satisfying way. Sylvia's family dynamics are painfully realistic: teenage readers will recognize themselves in Sylvia's attempts to get her parents to understand her, and parents will sympathize with her baffled mother and father who are rounded characters with their own conflicts that colour their approach to Sylvia.
Sylvia's voice is not as vivid as other first person narrators in this genre (Susan Juby's Alice comes to mind), but she is sweet and convincingly drawn. Her naivety sometimes verges on unbelievable: just before the passage quoted above, when her mother discovers her search history, Sylvia thinks it's the guerilla marketing she's worried about, not the sexuality. Much of the humour of the book relies on this kind of dramatic irony, and it falls flat when Sylvie is just too ignorant to be credible.
There are a few school scenes, and these are not nearly as well done as the family scenes. They exist only to show that Sylvia is picked on because of her size. A boy is mentioned who might like Sylvia, because he sticks up for her, but this plot potential is never followed through. The scenes with the young woman who owns the nearby stables are more convincing: she becomes a friend and mentor to Sylvia. There are brief forays into spirituality, such as Sylvia's cousin convincing her to use a Ouija board, which seem thrown in just to make sure every adolescent issue is covered.
Many of the chapters begin with an episode of lucid dreaming in which Sylvia gets to ride horses, and characters from real life appear with useful messages for her. I found these unnecessary and potentially confusing: a reader unfamiliar with the concept of lucid dreaming might think the book was trying to be a fantasy.
The lucid dreams form part of Born That Way's layers of symbolism, which sometimes work and sometimes don't. Ketchen seems to be poking fun at her own profession (therapist) by playing up the horse as a sexual symbol, the joke being that Sylvie doesn't want sex, she wants a real horse. Ketchen also subverts the expectations she creates with her title and all the references to bisexuality because no one ends up being gay or in any way confused about their sexuality. If she is again poking fun at a society that sees sex in everything, the joke becomes problematic when Sylvia is diagnosed with Turner's Syndrome. Are we meant to see a parallel between bisexuality and a genetic disorder? Ketchen makes her message explicit: "There's something wrong with me. And I don't think it's that I'm bisexual, because technically that's not wrong." But then Sylvia says, "I don't understand why she isn't relieved like I am that I'm not bisexual and that whatever is wrong with me is at least somewhat fixable." This is a perfectly honest and credible response from a 14-year-old, but it makes Ketchen's message less clear.
Born That Way is a clever book that doesn't quite work. It's at its best when it depicts the relationships in a family and the journey of an adolescent learning to listen to her heart and stand up for herself. It falters when it gets too inside-jokey about the psychiatric profession. It's a useful cautionary tale for parents and professionals who work with youth: kid's problems don't always fit into the boxes we create for them. Teenage readers may not be immediately engaged by Sylvia's quiet humour and seemingly run-of-the-mill problems, but, if they stick with her, they will find her story empowering and the conclusion satisfying.
Recommended with reservations.
Kim Aippersbach is a freelance editor and writer with three children in Vancouver, BC.
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