Friday, September 9, 2011

Sweet dreams

The last time I listened to a book centered around walking or running, I fell and broke my ankle. Since then, I've definitely experienced fear about doing it again (not from the pain of the break, but from the sheer inconvenience of not being able to walk) and I'm still not sure I'll ever go walking in the dark again. [sigh] These were the hamster-wheel thoughts that kept going through my head as I listened to Wendelin Van Draanen's The Running Dream. I kept my eyes firmly on the ground during the morning walks and finished accident-free. You know how "they" say that most car accidents take place less than two miles from home; I'll probably fall while listening to a book about a kid who stays home reading all the time. See what I mean about fear?

Jessica Carlisle had just set a personal best in the 440 at her high school track meet and was on her way home on the team bus. An uninsured junk hauler with faulty brakes slammed into the school bus, killing one student and crushing Jessica's right foot. Everyone else gets out with cuts and bruises, but Jessica's leg is amputated below the knee. "My life is over," she says. Shocked and depressed, convinced that her classmates will see her as a freak, she hides out at home until her best friend Fiona drags her back to school and life. Working with a crafter of prostheses she nicknames "Hankenstein," Jessica gets a prosthetic leg, but struggles with the loss of her running identity.

Then, her coach shows her a video of a runner named Oscar Pistorius [photo below], running on prostheses that don't resemble Jessica's in any way. Coach Kyro announces that her track team, her school, her community will raise the $20,000 needed to get Jessica her running leg. The remainder of the novel follows Jessica through the stages of loss to acceptance. Along the way, she meets a more severely disabled schoolmate, Rosa, a 9th-grade math whiz with cerebral palsy. Until she had to share a desk with Rosa (because they are both in wheelchairs), Jessica realized that she never truly saw her.
  • I won't share the ending, but cue the inspirational music.
  • I finished this while ironing (never mind why I was ironing when it was 90+°), and I do admit to clearing a bit of a lump from my throat.
The Running Dream is narrated by Laura Flanagan. I've only heard her read one other time, and I really didn't like it much; but I think in that case it was the material, not the narrator (inspirational rehab stories aren't any more a fave than vampire novels [see previous post]). Here, Flanagan gets the teenage voices really well, and is particularly effective with the inflections and characterization of first-person narrator Jessica. She portrays Rosa's speech impediment (which Jessica describes as "under water") honestly, while ensuring that we can understand her.

Where Flanagan is less successful is in portraying adults. There are a number of adults in this story (unusual for a teen novel, now that I think about it), and they all seem a little formal, a little stiff and unnatural sounding in Flanagan's reading. Is she trying to make them sound so different from the teenagers that she teeters into caricature? Her choices don't ruin the book by any means, but they do give you that little ear-hiccup that makes you pay more attention to the voice than what the character is saying.

There are two other things in this book (having nothing to do with the audiobook) that struck me:
  • Jessica's younger sister (13) is frequently portrayed texting (and this activity is always presented in a slightly negative way) ... but 16-year-old Jessica and her friends never do. Yeah, right!
  • A small subplot of the novel involves health insurance (or the lack thereof, Jessica's working class family decides to only insure their laborer father). While lawyers are haggling over who's responsible, Laura needs care!! This was resolved a bit too neatly (and quickly), but I thought the issue was raised in a thoughtful way.
[The photograph of Oscar Pistorius running just a few days ago in the 2011 World Championships -- where he was the first amputee ever to compete at this level -- was taken by Erik van Leeuwen and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Narrated by Laura Flanagan
Listening Library, 2011. 7:00

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