I just finished reading Marti Leimbach's novel Daniel Isn't Talking, a book about a woman whose young son is diagnosed with autism.
Not a book about autism; a book about a woman.
Autism is an important character in this novel, but it plays a supporting role. Autism is the device upon which the plot turns. The star of the novel is Melanie, mother of two, whose husband, unable to deal with the reality of having and raising an "imperfect" son, walks out on his family and moves in with his ex-girlfriend. Leimbach's writing is rich and full; she creates in Melanie a character with intelligence, wit, and limitless strength, full of flaws, insecurities and fearful desperation. Melanie and I are both autism mothers, but I did not see myself in her; our lives, our families, our sons, our perspectives are different. But I did see her, very clearly - enough to wish that she weren't a fictional character so that she could be my friend.
Daniel, too, is a supporting character, though without doubt the most endearing one in the book. I fell in love with him during a scene in which he visits a shoe store with his mother, covets a pair of little girls' party shoes with sparkling buckles, and encounters a saleswoman who insists that the shoes with buckles are for girls. Only girls. Leimbach writes,
Along the wall of the shop is a pretty display of pink shelves, interspersed with Barbie logos and pictures of blond dolls. In this decorated world of carnation pink lie the shoes that Daniel wants. He sees this. He understands what the woman is reporting. Language is no longer lost on his ears. And so he goes to the dinosaur display on the boys' side of the shop and removes some of the shoes there, those big greenish-black shoes with heavy treads and prehistoric monsters in holographs on the straps, and takes them to the girls' side. He swaps the dinosaur shoes for the pretty patent-leather pumps with the buckles, the ones he so desperately wants.
"Excuse me, could you do something?" says the saleslady pointedly.
But I am fascinated by what I see before me. How Daniel knows what the trouble is, how he has been separated from his desired object by means of his gender. It seems to him a simple thing to switch the decorations. To make the shoes with the heavy tread and Velcro part of the world of girls and Barbie, and embed the sacred buckled pumps into the masculine surround of dinosaurs and jungle grass.
How can you help but fall in love with this clever boy and his creative attempts at problem-solving? As the scene continues, the saleslady scolds Daniel and reaches to snatch the pumps away from him. He bites her on the hand. Melanie reacts quickly: she buys the shoes and lets him wear them home.
I think that's when I fell in love with her, too.