Last week, I found myself journeying through two very different realms: one real, the other more real than I ever expected it to be. The first journey was a vacation to the Pacific Northwest, where my husband, sons and I witnessed some amazing sites, from the stark and stunning landscape of Mount St. Helens to a boat ride off the coast of British Columbia where enormous, black orca fins sliced through the water and humpback tails waved at us from afar.
As if that wasn’t enough of a fantasy, I did a bit of reading on the trip as well, and the fantasy novel I dove into shocked me with a dose of reality I hadn’t expected. The book was The Reindeer People by Megan Lindholm (who also writes under the name Robin Hobb). I picked up a copy because I was doing a bit of research on the arctic tundra and I wanted to read a fantasy in that setting. When I saw that the book was compared to Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, another heartbreaking favorite of mine, there was no question I had to read this. The Reindeer People did not disappoint (I am now waiting less than patiently for book two to arrive in the mail). But what kept me most absorbed had nothing to do with the arctic setting, or even the elements of fantasy, well written as they were. It was a single character, a boy named Kerlew, who reminded me, most painfully, of my own son.
It is one of life’s great ironies when a complete stranger puts your own hopes and hurts into the words you’ve been searching for all along. 30,000 feet up on the plane ride back home, and I was floored as I read. I have written in past blogs about my son; a smart, compassionate little boy with Asperger’s, and of some of the challenges we have faced together. While diagnoses of Autism spectrum disorders are becoming more commonly talked about today, the actual help and support for families facing resulting challenges are a bit lagging. And often, as a parent, I tire of the research, the talks, the fight for more support, for help at home and school. What I crave are the laughter and tears, the empathy, the stark honesty of another parent who is on the same journey of attempting to mold an iron-willed, awfully intelligent child into the social norms of society. But suddenly I’d found her, a mother just like me. She may have been a character in a fantasy novel, in a prehistoric setting dowsed with magic, no less, yet, like me, her biggest challenges were with the sundry, patience-testing tasks of raising a son who is other.
I cannot say that the character Kerlew is an actual depiction of a child with Autism. None of the author interviews I was able to pull up talk about this, though it seems other book reviewers out there have made the connection as well. Regardless, it is the most accurate depiction of the challenges of raising a child with Asperger’s I have yet read, aside from A Thorn In My Pocket, written by Temple Grandin’s mother (which I highly recommend). In awe, I found myself dog-earing pages where the mother and son interactions seemed to come straight from my own life, and put into words examples of my son’s unique way of thinking; Megan Lindholm has so simply and eloquently voiced my own, very personal struggles with my son. Here’s one such conversation between Kerlew and his mother:
“Why didn’t you come and tell me there was someone to see me, when Rolke first got here?”
Kerlew’s forehead wrinkled with concentration. “I did. But you gave me the meat and told me to go outside, so I did.”
“Must one thing chase another out of your head? Next time, give the message first. Anytime you have a message for me, give the message first. From now on.”
“I didn’t know,” he complained as he went back to his meat. “You never told me that before. It wasn’t my fault.”
I cannot tell you how many times something that I thought would be common sense was an absolutely foreign idea to my son. And he, when someone is upset by his inappropriate response, replies in almost the exact same way as Kerlew. “How was I supposed to know? You never told me that!” And though it is tempting, it isn’t right to say, “I shouldn’t have to tell you,” because the fact is, we do. Children with Asperger’s often need to be told exactly how to handle a certain social interaction, at least until they learn to mimic appropriate behavior.
As an example of this, when my son was in preschool, I puzzled over his aversion to talking on the phone. One day, when I put him on the phone with his grandma, who he’d been missing, he got extremely upset, held the phone back to me and said, “Tell me what to say!” I realized then that it wasn’t the phone itself or the other person on the line that made him uncomfortable–he was simply terrified of saying “the wrong thing.” If the other person didn’t dictate the entire conversation, or if they required from him more than a yes or no answer, he was at a loss. It’s not that he didn’t have things to tell her; he would beg for me to call grandma so he could tell her about his day, but if I didn’t feed him a sentence or two to encourage him, he would be overwhelmed by the choices of words, by what to say first, by the idea that there must be some right or wrong way to converse, and would simply shut down. Once, he even said to me, “Tell me the rules,” as if laws had been written somewhere about how to speak on the phone. Kerlew, on the other hand, seems often to have no qualms about what he says, and says the most inappropriate things at just the wrong time, much to his mother’s despair. And I can relate to that as well.
Here’s another passage that so mirrors my own understanding of my son:
“It is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t know him. The thoughts of this moment drive from his mind the instructions of a moment ago. It is not as if he were stupid. He is always thinking, but of something else. He had his own ideas of what is important and what is not. Two days ago I saw a bruise on his arm, and asked him about it. Three days ago, Joboam grabbed him there. Why didn’t he tell me? Because he forgot, because that was the day he found the patch of frozen berries and dug them up and ate them, and I asked him what the red on his mouth was, so he told me about the berries instead. And, to him, that makes sense!”
Not only is Kerlew misunderstood (and often abused) by almost everyone in the book due to his differences, but he is also, in many ways, the most intelligent character in the story. It is he who solves the mystery of a crime that does not even involve him, while no one else but the reader has managed to piece it together by the end of the book. He also surprises both the reader and his mother now and then with sudden insight beyond his years, and oh, how my son has made my jaw drop, noticing and understanding things I would never have thought he could at so young an age. Kerlew also takes things at face value, regardless of context, and the other children tease him relentlessly for it. My son has the same face-value logic, often giving the correct, technical answer, and missing the idea of what’s being asked altogether. Just the other day, he was doing homework involving cities and states, and my husband asked him if he knew the capital of Ohio. “Duh,” he said, “O!” (Well, when you spell the word out, yes, that first O is the capital.) Meanwhile, he had no idea what was so funny.
What you might not appreciate about Kerlew’s character when you read the book is a desperate need to show others his talents and superiority. The common reader will find him arrogant and egotistic. But I happen to know from experience with my own child that this is actually a sign of deep self-consciousness, being aware of his own social failings. My own son often seeks to make up for his social lagging by proving himself logically or physically superior to his peers. Like the rest of us, he is desperate to be liked, he just goes about it the wrong way sometimes.
There are stark differences, of course, between my son and Kerlew– Kerlew is quite distant and often fearful of his mother, and he does not like to be touched by her. Though many children with Asperger’s or autism do not like to be touched, my son is not this way. He might not be able to stand the sound of an eraser rubbed on paper, and might be overly disgusted by the sight of bare feet, but my little guy is a cuddler and a hugger, especially with me. Still, the similarities were far more numerous than the differences, and reading about Kerlew was just uncanny. Which is why I want to reintroduce this out of print book to readers, especially since there is such a strong outcry today for more diverse characters in speculative fiction, including characters on the autism spectrum. The novel itself excels on so many levels, and if you’re a fantasy reader, you should read it simply for that. But for those raising a child on the spectrum, The Reindeer People provides something a little closer to home. Something a little too real in the realm of fantasy.
As we flew back home from our trip, I had to hold back tears as I read. I glanced at my son where he sat by the plane window, arms out in front of his face as his fingers stroked his thumbs in the repetitive motion he does when excited (the technical term of which is self-stimulatory behavior, or self-stimming). When he does this, my husband says he looks as though he’s casting a spell, and he really does. I knew that any one of the strangers on that airplane could look at him at that moment and see his otherness, see nothing but his otherness, and I honestly and absolutely did not care. I was glad that I had made the decision long ago not to criticize him or try to stop him from self-stimming. It only comforts him and hurts no one. He’ll be teased for it one day, of that I’m sure, and he will find other, less visible ways to move his hands and feet, but until then, let him be. With all the other struggles I face in preparing him for a less than fantastical world, let this one thing be his own. I smiled through my tears as I watched him, for once finding a way past the constant guilt that dogs me, as he conjured invisible enchantments over a world far below us.
I am so proud of him; proud of his bravery and ever-positive attitude as he overcomes challenges most children will never know. I am proud of his authenticity, his uniqueness. He truly is magical to me.
Megan Lindholm, I don’t know if you had any intention of portraying a child with autism in your novel, but kudos to you regardless. You’ve written something very insightful that echoes across time and realms, calling us all to be a bit more kind, a bit more considerate, and a bit more open minded to those who display some otherness, and to those who love them. For that, I thank you.
My son in the plane’s cockpit, giving a thumbs up when the pilot asked if he was ready to fly us home.