Author: James Moloney
Publisher: Harper Collins (2015)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a YA readership)
Content warning: The novel and review contain ableist slurs directed at the main character, for the purpose of highlighting their impact.
“Everyone thinks they know what Jacob O’Leary can and can’t do – and they’re not shy about telling him either. But no one – not even Jacob – knows what he’s truly capable of. And he’s desperate for the chance to work it out for himself.
When a shocking and mystifying crime sends his small country town reeling, and fingers start pointing at the newcomer, Jacob grabs the chance to get out in front of the pack and keep mob rule at bay. He’s convinced that the police have accused the wrong guy; that the real villain is still out there. And he’s determined to prove it – and himself – to everyone.”
Cerebral Palsy representation in a #LoveOZYA novel? Yes, please! Jacob walked with a limp and struggled with stairs, just like I do, and it was refreshing to read about a character facing challenges similar to my own. However, Jacob’s disability didn’t define him or the story. The romantic subplot prompted me to consider the dynamics of a relationship and the role of ableism.
As I write this, I can’t pinpoint exactly how I feel about the CP representation. I’m glad it’s there, and I’m glad that Jacob was a multi-dimensional character. But…pretty much every instance of Jacob walking or standing or basically moving anywhere was followed by a thought about his “dodgy legs.” It suggested a level of self-loathing and discomfort with his disability that seemed incongruent with the rest of his character. It also felt as though the reader was constantly being reminded of Jacob’s disability. I’ve read one review which criticized the inconsistency of Jacob’s challenges, given that he struggled with stairs but then was able to walk a long way, albeit in pain. Inconsistency is the reality of some disabilities, and it’s the reality of CP for me, so I thought that element made sense. Jacob and his mother both recoiled at the idea of him using a wheelchair, and his ability to walk was framed almost like a victory over the prognosis he was given at birth, which made me uncomfortable. Jacob “shuddered at what school would have been like in a wheelchair,” suggesting that the use of a mobility aid is something to be avoided at all costs. As someone who used a wheelchair in high school and was reluctant to do so and lose my independence, I can understand this. However, as a literary choice, I worry that it perpetuates the ableist idea that wheelchairs and wheelchair users are something to be pitied. They’re not – we’re not. However, Moloney demonstrated Jacob’s character development and the strength of disability pride when Jacob embraced the use of a walking stick towards the end of the novel.
As well as exploring Jacob’s experience of his CP, the novel examined how other people related to it and him. The two greatest examples of this were the girl Jacob liked, Amy, and his mother. There were a couple of moments where Jacob’s behaviour made me uncomfortable. When he and his friends were in the car, and he had his arm around Amy, for instance, “Amy leaned away to break my hold, but I tensed my arm, keeping her in place…” No. Amy’s behaviour said no, and Jacob deliberately ignored it in favour of what he wanted. In some ways he was exceedingly mature but that moment made me cringe. As it turned out, Amy wasn’t as understanding of CP as Jacob thought. She called him “spastic” and refused to kiss him because of the saliva at the corner of his mouth. Where Amy didn’t love Jacob, his mother loved him too much. She was against him using a came at first, believing that it would cause him to lose functionality, and she planned for him to work with her after he graduated because it would be easier than living on his own and going to uni. Well-intentioned though she was, Jacob’s mother exemplified the low expectations some people hold of those with disabilities.
Disability representation aside, the mystery element of the novel was wrapped up a little too neatly. The perpetrator (whom I won’t name to avoid spoilers) was referred to as “crazy.” He was sent away, due to reasoning that “the madness will go away.” The correlation between mental illness and violence also made me uneasy, though it possibly wasn’t deliberate on Moloney’s part.
I’ll be thinking about this novel for a long time. An important story of courage and the challenge of doing what’s right, even if it means you’re doing it alone.
You can buy a copy of The Beauty is in the Walking from Readings independent bookstore.
You can find some teaching notes for the novel here.