Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine


Writing from someone else's point of view is always tricky, especially when that someone else faces challenges the author does not. This book is written from the first person perspective of Caitlin, a fifth grader with Aspberger's. From what I can tell, the author did a fairly thorough job researching the disorder (rather than just writing based on caricature and stereotype), and the book has certainly received a significant amount of acclaim, winning the National Book Award in 2010.

In addition to relying on a character type prone to stereotype, Erskine also selects a set of events that, in the hands of a less skillful author, could easily alienate the reader: a school shooting. Fortunately, Erskine wisely chooses to focus primarily on her main character Caitlin, and her grief over losing her brother, rather than the precise events that caused his death (the shooting).

A book about a kid with Aspberger's whose brother is killed in a school shooting could easily devolve into a cheesy, schlocky mess. However, Erskine avoids most of the pitfalls that would result in such overwrought writing. Caitlin's blunt and sometimes humorous way of perceiving the world around her shields the reader from the worst of the searing pain such events leave behind them. And Erskine deftly portrays a community's efforts to cope with the reality of the shooting and its aftermath--not directly, but through Caitlin's eyes. Her direct, childlike, and yet oddly clinical perspective allows her to see things a "normal" person would not see, and as a result, the grief of others is poignantly and creatively portrayed.

Yes, Caitlin's brother is idealized, depicted as an inhumanly kind and selfless saint. I suppose that was to be expected. And of course Caitlin is better able to cope with her Aspeberger's as a result of all the wonderful lessons she learns about grieving and empathy. But then, it is a book for children, and that requires a certain amount of hope. And I confess a great deal of ignorance about Asberger's--perhaps that kind of growth is not uncommon.

All in all, it was an easy read, and well-presented. Erskine uses lots of little visual linguistic tricks to communicate Caitlin's unique way of seeing and relating to the world. Many of these are lost in the audiobook, but the reader does a good job of highlighting what she can, and the narration adds a lot. I suspect it's a book that works well in audio or print format.

No comments: