What is Normalcy?
Over the years that I have been reviewing, I have come across several books that stun me and among them are the thrilling fiction and nonfiction of Edmund White, the lyrical prose of Andre Aciman, the gorgeous poetry Emmanuel Xavier and the journalistic skills of Robert Fieseler in “Tinderbox”. I am now going to add “Face Your Fears” by Bill Mathis to that list of books that I cannot imagine being without. The prose is beautiful, the characters are real people who we come to know and love and the idea is brilliant.
Some of you may know that I have, of late, become active in making the world a better place for those with disabilities and this has come out of a friendship with Lisa, a member of my temple who is totally blind. I was never aware that those with disabilities are treated different than those who are “normal” but I have seen it time and time and it break my heart especially because there is o not one person who has a disability that chose to be that way. I have seen bus and train drivers ignore the fact that someone has a hard time getting on the train because they are blind and I have seen riders ignore the fact that someone with a disability is forced to stand while they are comfortably ensconced in seats reading their I-phones. Not all of us are so lucky to have bodies that work properly and those of us that do should help those who do not. All of this is taking us to my review of “Face Your Fears”, a book that dares to “challenge those traditional concepts of normalcy, family, disability and love”.
We meet Nate McGuire, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy who is being raised in a family of achievers. That should be plenty enough of a challenge but Nate has to be fed, dressed and toileted. He is a beautiful person who also has unique skills and abilities that he gradually becomes aware of. Jude Totsian is one of 10 children raised on a Iowa farm. He has no disability and can change diapers, cook, fix broken equipment and milk cows. He has discovered his vocation as a physical therapist. While these two guys are seemingly total opposites, they both experience tragic teen-age losses, deal with family tragedies, and accept who they are and make peace with what they have been dealt. They both also gay men and eventually together. I found that “Face Your Fears” forced me to reconsider the meaning of the world normal and understand that there are many degrees of the meaning of normal. Bill Mathis does not just share the stories of Nate and Jude but as the story builds, we get a look at how homosexuality was considered in Midwest America before the Supreme Court granted our equality. “…even in 1993, this whole area and school still isn’t ready to handle gays in a respectful manner. You must be careful. You must lead a double life. It’s not fair, but it is what it is”.
We are pulled into the lives of Nate and Jude and into their world where they realize that they are so different from others. We come to understand that they see three reasons for this; physical disability, sexuality and family confusion. It is not enough to have special needs, there are issues of sexuality. We see the challenges that they face and we understand them. In doing so, we fall in love with them, see what they see and feel what they feel. We meet both Nate and Jude as youngsters and are with them through adulthood sharing their lives. This is a love story that is replete with strong characters and who triumph over what has held them back. We have had so many coming-of-age stories and coming out stories that it is wonderful to have one that is different and touches our emotions. I could feel myself both smiling and shedding tears as I read.
The novel is told by Nate and Jude in alternating chapters written in the first person. I found myself waxing nostalgic over my own years as a teen as I read how they dealt with theirs. (Remember how much we all wanted to be in the “A” group only to discover that there was always an “A plus” group?). Teen years are traditionally a time of self-discovery and turmoil and being gay and disabled adds to the anxiety. We find ourselves on an emotional journey filed with intensity.
This is a character driven novel filled with nuanced character development of Nate and Jude and there are wonderful supporting characters, there’s a great range of fully formed characters from family members, friends to lovers, and it is through their interactions that we see and examine their family and social dynamics.
As the story alternates narrators, we join them on their journey and as we do we wan them to succeed at every thing they do. I know that I felt early on that I wanted them to be together. Nate and Jude stay with us after we close the covers. Like I said earlier, we live what Nate and Jude live and we also get a chance to learn about their families. I can imagine that it was not easy for writer Mathis to balance the differing perspectives and he does a very fine job of it. I love this book so much that I am rereading it now.