Reviews: Communicate: Toronto Childrens' Aid Society

Getting to Normal

Kaushala Mahesan, Adoption
Communicate, Volume 13, issue 2, Summer 2001

One challenge faced by child welfare workers is trying to understand the unique perspective of the children who need protection.

Whether they live with their families or in foster homes, whether at an access visit or out in the community, staff try to see as they see, feel as the feel. In evaluating their perceptions, child protection workers may ask themselves: Was this child harmed? What happened? Is this normal? Is he okay? It is not easy to assume another person’s point of view, particularly a child’s point of view.

In her book, Getting to Normal, first time novelist Sandra Campbell makes a truly remarkable achievement. She reflects the inner workings of a child’s mind, heart and soul. Through the novel’s protagonist, Alice Redfern, readers are drawn into the world of a troubled seven year old. At times the writing is so vivid and poignant that the readers may feel as though they are in this child’s skin. It is equally disturbing and exhilarating.

As the story opens, Alice has been hospitalized for a mysterious ailment, suspected to be a virus, which leaves her with blinding headaches and extreme social withdrawal. It is plain to see though, that Alice’s emotional distance pre-dates any physical malady. She is an acutely sensitive little girl whose interactions with the outside world are painful at best.

Blaming the child’s illness for her own distress and fatigue, Alice’s mother, an embitttered, desperately unhappy woman flees to New York, leaving Alice in the care of her distracted father and her teenage sister, Sarah who seesaws between a fierce love and raging contempt for her younger sibling. Fortunately there is also Irma, a refugee from Sarajevo who cares for the convalescing Alice. Ironically, it is this individual, displaced of country and without family of her own, who becomes Alice’s refuge. Through lavish nurturing, unconditional acceptance and a sense of fun and play - qualities lacking in Alice’s own family - Irma guides her young charge into the light. To the satisfaction of Sara, who keeps a critical eye on her siblings progress, Alice finally appears to be getting to normal. As readers soon learn, however, Alice’s new-found confidence is easily shattered.

This is a beautifully written and entirely believable depiction of a lost child struggling for love and acceptance, and a family in quiet crisis. It contains many truths that are highly relevant to to child protection work, touching on themese of separation, loss and despair and conflicted loyalties. Its portrayal of emotional abuse is especially striking, as reflected in the mother’s constant criticism and undermining of Alicer who will always fall short of her expectations. Yet it is through this young girl - deemed a halfwit by her mother - that we realize some disturbing truths about this outwardly normal family. Within its confines are the unfulfilled ambitions of a mother who chafes against her homemaker existence, the bewilderment of a father who tries to hold the family together, and the desperate anger of an adolescent daughter yearning to have a normal family life.

Getting to Normal, by Sandra Cambpell, Stoddart, 224 pages $29.95

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