This post contains spoilers.
As part of my requirements for my PhD I’m doing a book audit of books from my childhood that were meaningful in some way. Some of those books were books assigned in classes in schools (yes, I will be rereading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time since high school, I will also be reading Go Set A Watchmen). It is hard even in hindsight to determine exactly what some of these books meant to me but they are the ones whose titles I could never forget or that I reread over and over or found again at key moments in my life.
The book audit assignment is not going to allow me the space to really consider these books in detail. I will not be writing essays but rather explaining why the book is significant in the context of my dissertation (for more info click here). I have thus far only read one book, so I don’t know if I will dissect each of them here on the blog. I don’t yet know what emotions are going to come up or if I feel comfortable speaking at length about a particular book without further research.
Without further ado, the first installment in a potential series
Mine For Keeps (1962) by Jean Little
Sarah Jane (Sally) Copeland has cerebral palsy and has spent most of her school years in an institution for “handicapped” (it was the sixties y’all) children. A new rehabilitation centre is opening up close to her family and Sally is moving home permanently for the first time since she was a small child. She will be attending the same school as her siblings. Sally is scared but excited.
This was my third read through of this book. Both previous reads were done before I turned 18. All I can say at 32 upon rereading it is to say. Wow, I was really starved for representation if I treasured the memory of this book.
It is important to point out that Jean Little is both Canadian (yay CanLit) and is partially blind (vintage CripLit). She has written several children’s books on the topic of disability.
Mine for Keeps, offers an odd combination of realistic portrayal of disability and those smarmy morality tales that were popular in children’s fiction at the time. At times you have the impression that you have left suburban 60s Canada and fallen into a Dick and Jane school reader.
It is almost as though the author didn’t know how to balance realism with the morality that is inevitably expected in children’s books with disabled characters. Sally doesn’t just have to deal with going to a mainstream school that has ill considered her needs and balancing family life as a long-term resident and not just the summer and Christmas guest. Sally has to save the self esteem of an unpopular Dutch immigrant boy named Piet to make his sister happy.
Rereading this book as an adult, I cringe more that I identify with the book. Sometimes I cringe because I do identify with the book but not the book’s message.
To her credit Jean little does try to subvert the supercrip narrative that the book sets up. Piet is depressed because not long after arriving in Canada he contracted rheumatic fever and was sick for months. Though now out of bed Piet’s activities are still restricted by his health. His English isn’t as good as his sister Elsje’s and he is unpopular with the boys his age because his inability to participate makes him appear standoffish.
Before he was ill Piet trained animals and even has a very well trained dachshund named Willem. Despite being somewhat recovered Piet refuses to take back responsibility for Willem from his sister believing himself to crippled (though he said it in Dutch).
Elsje decides that if Sally can train her own puppy Susie, it will prove to Piet that he is still capable. Ultimately, Sally just ends up putting Piet on the spot in public forcing him to either display his dog training skill or be embarrassed.
The book is really longer than it needs to be and this seems to be to try to give Sally some semblance of agency in the story but in the end she is really just a pawn in her friend’s ill conceived bid to save her brother from being a moody teenage boy.
The book tries to justify this by giving Sally an odd anonymous obsession with Piet (they don’t even meet until well past halfway through the book) because her brother makes an offhand comment about no one liking Piet but that his sister was in Sally’s class.
Piet is otherwise an absent figure. He appears in two scenes in the entire book. Everything else is Sally being told private family business the teller should definitely be keeping to themselves or eavesdropping on other children complaining about Piet. From this alone Sally creates an ever-changing fantasy Piet that she is platonically obsessed with, for no conceivable reason.
While it is not written with that intent it very much reads like Sally is pursuing training Susie at least to the degree and zeal that she does in the book in order to keep a friend (who can be moody) happy.
There are no real stakes. Sally is able to convince Piet to go back to looking after Willem by pressuring him in front of an audience. The actual time spent training Susie up until this point is just a couple of weeks. Though of course as is the way with such books the children all intend to carry on training their pets. Sally with her friends and Piet with two new friends conveniently with dogs that just happen to be present for Piet’s moment of personal growth. This is a very important literary tool called “for plot convenience”.
Sally uses peer pressure rather than her disabled body to “save Piet”. It really feels like this book is missing basic things like character development and more information on Sally Copeland’s social reality. Perhaps it is just as an adult, that I see not just the gaping plot holes with ill-fitting morality messages stretched on top. The task of “saving Piet” much less meeting Piet is a MacGuffin. Oddly, in this book, a one-dimensional petulant Dutch immigrant who serves as the catalyst that inspires or forces (depending on how you interpret Elsje’s peer pressure) that inspires the disabled person not to mope around being depressed about their life.
The xenophobia over the immigrants in the story is painfully apparent, primarily because the book is trying to horn in the additional message that xenophobia is bad but none of the Dutch characters are likeable. Piet is taciturn and only gets over himself when publicly forced to. Elsje initially isolates Sally by monopolizing the attention of the one girl who seems to like her. When Elsje finally warms up to Sally, Sally quickly becomes the vehicle through which Elsje will “save” her brother. That dynamic between the two never really changes, yet is never questioned.
The characters are really just set pieces so that Sally can navigate learning “lessons” about independence and self-advocacy. Sally’s first lesson is that the person who was primarily responsible for her care at school is an asshole and so is Sally’s mother. I admit I remembered this part. I can’t remember if it struck me as odd upon my first reading but my alarm bells were ringing by the second reading.
On Sally’s first morning home from the institutional school, Sally’s mother left her alone to dress despite Sally always having needed help dressing before. She understandably panics at being expected to independently perform a task that she has always needed and always been given assistance with before.
Turns out all the clothes are made so Sally can dress independently and the school guardian recommended them! Prior to that moment Sally had been expected to dress herself in clothes without adaptations and there was always someone to assist her with the things she couldn’t do. She had no reason to expect accessible clothes. Her mother is also a jerk about Sally not noticing the clothes were accessible. Her mother tells her a story from when Sally was FOUR and scared of the beach until her dad ignored her fear and just plunked her unable to escape the situation ass in the surf. In this blatant false equivalence Sally is immediately enamored of the water but her mother reminds her that the family taunted a FOUR-YEAR-OLD with the nonsensical nickname Scarey Sarey (Yes, Scarey Sarey not Scardy Sarey). The message is supposed to be “how do you even know if you like something until you try it”. That, however, ignores the context where Sally has no reasonable expectation of accessible clothing. She’s never experienced it before and we learn that the person most responsible for her care has been withholding this kind of access in the institution. The book doesn’t really get into the complicated politics of normalization that are hinted at here. Sally is wrong and must learn a lesson, not her mother.
The book is full of these false independence messages. Apparently, in the world of Mine for Keeps nondisabled siblings are just tripping over themselves to do a disabled siblings chores (anecdotally, this seems suspect) instead of trying to adapt the chore to make it accessible.
This is the one place where a book full of otherwise toxic disability messages shines. Sally is constantly being consciously accommodated. She isn’t left out or left to figure it out on her own. People consider their impact on Sally. People apologize when they didn’t consider how their actions would impact Sally. This is restricted to areas of physical access though as much of the story seems to care less about how people treat Sally as a person (see: Elsje’s peer pressure). Socially, Sally is only friends with people who approach her. There is very much a vibe of “if they are smiling, they are safe”. Considering the direction Elsje’s character takes this is unfortunate.
The implication at the end of the book is that Sally has found community but, she only seemed to get it via that age-old literary device of “plot convenience”.
Despite trying to challenge the standard disability narrative, Jean Little reinforces it. I only noticed how she subverts the narrative with Piet on my third reading and that only because the book abruptly ends there. So, I guess Sally only existed to save Piet after all.
How to Support My Work
So now for the very in-depth appeal for support for mu PhD. Please read through this, there are so many ways to help, including just sharing this blog post on social media.
Kindle ebooks read on my iPad are the easiest way for me to read and take notes unfortunately Amazon does not allow people to buy ebooks for others through their wishlist system. I have an Amazon Wish list anyway as some of the books can only be purchased in print or from third party sellers because they are out of print. If you could buy me one of the books that can only be had in print, I would greatly appreciate it. If you want to help fund the ebooks I’ll need you can buy me a gift card and send it to the following email address
The email is firstname.lastname@example.org
I will not be answering queries about my research through this email. It is solely a way for people who want to support my work to be able to do so. (this is a safety boundary). If you want to talk to me, find me on Twitter.
My research and supporting myself will get past the reading phase and there will be field work in my future. If you would like to help me fund my PhD in the long term you can
support me on patreon
buy me a ko-fi
send me money via paypal
send an e money transfer to the email above (if you have scruples about third party sites)
I also have a generic disability wish list of things that would just improve my quality of life
Thank you for your ongoing support. and just an FYI I’m changing my name socially to Kimberley Jane Erin. You can call me Kim or Jane but I prefer Jane. I am however, not the least uncomfortable with Kim so don’t worry about messing up.
It’s time I really leaned into my identity as a scholar. I hope you’ll support me