I keep running into Barry Denenberg books, almost against my will. One of these days this is just going to turn into a Dear America/Canada/Royal Diaries/My Name Is America review blog.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, Perkins School for the Blind, 1932, Barry Denenberg, 2002.
Before we get started, there’s a few things about this book that set it apart. First, it’s told by a set of twins—Bess, the protagonist, and her twin sister Elin. Because Bess is blind, she dictates to Elin, who writes, and there are a number of passages by Elin as well, which lends it a more epistolary feeling than most. And secondly, the protagonist is blind, which could have fairly easily shoehorned this into a “learning about disabilities” book, but it happily escapes that fate. There are appallingly few books focusing on protagonists with disabilities in the kids’ and YA canon, and I’m very pleased to see this addition, but like most of Barry Denenberg’s books, it has its issues.
At the beginning, Bess is dictating to Elin about how she hasn’t missed a day of diary-writing since she was seven. A few weeks prior, they had gone sledding in a fresh snowfall, and run into some boys from their school who were horsing around and trying to scare them. When one of the boys veered too close, Bess’s sled hit a tree, and the next thing she remembers is waking up in the hospital and unable to see anything. After enduring many hours at the Massachusetts Eye Clinic, interminable tests and examinations and painful proddings, the doctors tell her there’s nothing to be done, and her sight is lost permanently.
Elin puts in her opinion, too, on how terrible it was to see Bess in such confusion and pain following the accident.
The girls live with their mother and their Uncle Ted, after their father died when they were about four. They’re not wealthy, but they’re fairly prosperous for 1932, and they’re well-enough off to send Bess to the Perkins Institute, which is a school for the blind. Uncle Ted broaches the topic, which is unfathomable to Bess, who wants to stay home and go to school with Elin like she has always done. The girls’ mother is also pretty alarmed at the idea of losing her daughter, but Ted points out that it’s close enough for her to come home every weekend. Bess overhears Ted and her mother talking, and after her mother says she’ll be Bess’s eyes and look after her forever, Ted points out that they won’t be able to look after her forever, and he wants to outfit her for an independent life—so Bess opts in.
The next entry is the following week, after Bess’s first week at school, which Elin dutifully dictates for her. She has a housemother, Mrs. Burton, and two roommates—Amanda, who is partially sighted, and Eva, who is an orphan and horribly shy. Amanda takes the lead in introducing Bess to everything, and shows her how to arrange her clothes and manage her own food—which, at home, her mother and Elin have been looking after for her. Elin’s contribution to this is how frightening it was for them to leave Bess there without any friendly faces. And Bess finds Perkins to be horrible at first—being independent is terrifying, even with Amanda’s assistance.
Bess’s teachers begin to introduce her to everyday living—how to tell coins apart, how to learn to fill a cup by sound, and so on. She’s quite surprised to see how the other students at Perkin live a pretty normal life—they have snowball fights and go ice skating in the winter, they have glee clubs, they have teachers they hate, etc., normal kid stuff. And after just a few weeks at school, Bess’s family begins to treat her more normally, and Bess says how much she wishes everyone would just let her figure things out for herself, even if it’s harder and takes longer.
That weekend at church, the boy who crashed into Bess tries to come over to apologize, and Ted hustles the girls into the car before telling him “something about ‘rotting in hell.’” Uncle Ted does not mess around.
Bess had been a good student before her accident, and begins to enjoy some of her classes—English and drama, geography, and gym (because they get to swim, which makes her feel normal). But she loathes Braille—after a lifetime of reading and writing, she finds Braille nearly impossible to learn. Even though Amanda and Eva keep assuring her that she’ll pick it up and everyone finds it hard at first, she has a terrible time picking it up.
In a strange way, the Depression doesn’t have a great impact on Bess herself. There’s a bit about how Ted has to lay off men at work, and how former Perkins students who learned to tune pianos for a living are losing their jobs, but by and large, it doesn’t have a lot of effect on Bess or on Elin. Bess gets to do a lot of the things she was learning to do in school—swimming and gymnastics and music classes—which is a pretty big difference from most of the other Depression-era kids’ books I come across.
Miss Salinger, Bess’s favourite teacher, offers to write her diary entries during the week when Bess is at school, and Bess is afraid that Elin will feel alienated, but she loves the idea. Meanwhile, Bess faces down a pretty ordinary set of troubles—her housemother is mean, the school’s director gives boring speeches, one of the girls in her cottage is snobby and rude, and so on.
That weekend, when Bess is home, her family has their bank president over for dinner, and Uncle Ted gets thoroughly tired of listening to him and begins ranting about how people are not to blame for the poor decisions of bankers and Wall Street. When the president begins to walk out, Ted follows him to the door and says what a shame it is that they can’t meet with a friend of theirs, Mr. Watkins, because Mr. Watkins was notified that the bank was repossessing his house, and rather than going home to tell his wife and five children, he killed himself with a shotgun. As interesting as this little anecdote is, it doesn’t have a lot to do with Bess herself, and doesn’t particularly impact her, either—all the little anecdotes about the Depression don’t add up to a cohesive feeling of struggle, and ends up just making them feel a bit tacked-on.
In March Bess asks if Eva can come home with her for the Easter break, and her mother says yes, though not with some anxiety of her own over whether it will be safe for a stranger to come and stay with them. But then at the beginning of April, Amanda, who is from Nantucket, learns that she won’t be able to go home for the Easter holidays, since the fishing season has been quite poor and her family can’t afford it. So Bess calls home and asks to have Amanda home with her, and her mother agrees again. But it turns out to be a raging success—her mother and Uncle Ted are quite taken with Eva, whom they call a wonderfully sweet and well-mannered girl. Amanda isn’t quite as impressive (being fairly bossy), but they appreciate all that she’s been doing for Bess.
And then my least favourite part of this entire book—Miss Salinger announces that the school will be producing a play called When Will This Cruel War Be Over?, which is THE BOOK ON THE CIVIL WAR THAT BARRY DENENBERG WROTE!!!! You are not that big of a star, Barry, you do not get to do that! And then you especially do not get to have your main character go on about how much she loves the play and what a great story it is! Come on! This is not hilariously meta, it’s just awfully meta. No. No no no no no.
Later that month, Bess cuts her hair so it will be easier to take care of, and her family is somewhat distressed, to say the least. Elin is particularly hurt by this, since it’s the first time in their lives that they haven’t looked just alike, and Bess didn’t even consider that before cutting it. In a scene where Bess is dictating to Elin, she talks fairly candidly about their feelings, and it’s really the only scene where the dictation thing kind of falls down.
By the end of the school year, Bess is actually afraid of being at home for the whole summer—she’s grown so used to being at Perkins and knowing where everything is and being around people who don’t treat her like a fragile bird. She’s looking forward to the play (stop it, Barry, you are not famous enough for your character to rhapsodize about how awesome another character is!) and meeting boys, and she’s comfortable there. But then one of the girls in her cottage is taken away in the night by her father—a drunk who never wanted her to go to Perkins in the first place. The play is cancelled since Naomi, the girl, was to play the lead, and they’ve all lost the heart to go on with it.
Eva comes down with a fever and frets herself quite sick, and Bess’s mother has Eva come home with them for the weekend—and then agrees with Ted to keep Eva there until she’s fully recovered. Bess is delighted to have a friend stay all summer long—and the last entry is “It’s nice to be home,” written in Braille. (Well, fake Braille of dots instead of raised paper, as that would have probably raised the price of this book far over $10.99 USD). The end.
In the epilogue, we learn that Bess’s mother and Ted legally adopt Eva, who goes to massage therapy school and sings in the church choir while living with the Brennans for the rest of her life. Bess goes to work for The Seeing Eye, the group that arranges seeing-eye dogs for blind people, in 1939, and never married, unlike Elin. But Amanda was swept out to sea in a storm in 1941 in her father’s boat and never heard from again.
Rating: B-. This one was a hard one for me to assign a fair rating to, because it had a lot of aspects I liked—I thought the dictation was an interesting way of doing a diary by a blind character, and I am of course a huge fan of books inclusive of characters with challenges and disabilities. But it had so many things I didn’t enjoy—the tacked-on Depression anecdotes and the fact that there’s a reference to another Dear America book! And not even a good one! God! That knocked this book down a full letter grade to me—I hated it THAT much. So I’m really torn between a C+ and a B-, and I’ve gone back and forth a few times before deciding on the B- for inclusivity and the book’s general good sense of humour. I can live with that.