Polly and Ivan are concerned about their daughter, Amanda. She’s a gymnast and has an unusual diarrheal illness for the past couple of weeks. Their pediatrician, who knows them well, can deduce that this is not a good sign and from her low white blood cell count he is extremely worried about the possibility of cancer. But not in a million years is he expecting that she’d be positive for AIDS, having contracted it from a blood transfusion after a complicated surgery for appendicitis 5 years prior, before blood was screened for the virus. The paranoia and alienation that the whole family experiences is unexpected and devastating, possibly even worse than the actual diagnosis.
This book, published in 1988, reminds us of the experience that so many went through when HIV first appeared in the 1980’s. With ads on TV for HIV medications so commonplace and ordinary today, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, there was mass victimization of those who were infected with the virus. Children infected via intrauterine transmission or from blood transfusions were sometimes not allowed in school because of fears of casual contact transmitting the virus to others, even when there was early evidence that this was not possible. Millions of infected adults suffered not only from the disease but from the indignities of being ostracized from a society who rejected them because of their disease. And we have still not cured it. [The reason for this has probably more to do with financial incentive than the science – it is more beneficial for pharmaceutical companies to produce medications that sustain patients with the disease than to cure it. Just as with cancer. But I digress…]
As for the book, I found the story compelling, but the writing a bit awkward. It is told in the present tense, which I often dislike. More importantly, though, the narration also shifts from one character to another almost as if they are passing a hot potato from one to another, to another. This shift occurs so frequently and over so many characters that it dilutes and distracts from the actual plot and it is harder to become attached to the truly important players. We just can’t feel that sorry for everyone. So while the story is tragic, it does not cut quite as deeply as it might.
Nevertheless, At Risk is a timepiece and tells a part of the story of our bitter history of the HIV epidemic that is important to remember. We think of HIV as a disease of adults only, but there were thousands of children affected by the disease as well. And still are today.
After a devastating accident leaves Shelby with an onerous survivor’s guilt, she wilts into a depression and essentially withdraws from her life. People around her — particularly her mother — try very hard to pull her out, but it is only when she begins to discover her drive to save mistreated animals that she finds a purpose in her life and a reason for her to actually connect with other people as well.
This story actually starts off so simply and slowly that it seems almost too simplistic. But it builds insidiously and the characters develop a charm and sweetness that work their way into your heart even before you know it. Even while Shelby is being rude and harsh, you can only feel sadness for her because of her tragic brokenness.
The writing here is remarkable as well. It is written in the present tense, which I usually find annoying. (I can’t even say why that is so.) However, in this case, I actually think it works. But Shelby can only live in the moment, in the here and now and has trouble thinking about a future; therefore a present tense is a logical way to express her story. There is also an intentional stiffness to the writing in general – to the description as well as the dialogue. It is very effective in relaying how awkwardly Shelby relates to others. There is only a comfort or warmth that shines through with very few people, and that becomes obvious as time goes on.
This is a heart-wrenching story but very moving and well-written. Another winner by Alice Hoffman!
On Hemlock Street, in a small town on Long Island in the year 1959, all the houses looked the same. In fact, even those that lived inside those identical model homes had difficulty finding their own because the streets all looked the same. The mothers were all homemakers and shared recipes and gossip, the fathers all worked and bonded in the hardware store, and the children all fell asleep to the sounds of the Southern State Highway. So when Nora Silk, divorced and juggling multiple jobs with the care of her 2 young sons, moved onto the street, she could not have appeared more different from the others. It was only after time, acts of tragedy and kindness, and the communal realization that no one has a perfect family, that Nora was able to work her way into the hearts of the families on the street.
The first thing I loved about this book was the capturing of an iconic generation and its details. The description of suburban life in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s is perfect – from the clothes to the foods to the very way of thinking at the time. It was a simpler time but still fraught with normal human experience, both sweet and sad. I am dating myself by saying that I could relate.
The story, as it very subtly unwinds, though, is really about bullying in its many forms. Whether it is adults who are unfriendly to someone who they judge to be different, or kids who pick on the awkward new boy, or teenage boys who treat a “loose” girl like she doesn’t matter, the story revolves around the evil that comes from judging others and acting mean. Some learn their lessons while others just run away. But ultimately, kindness rules.
This is a beautiful, real-life story that will very gradually and quietly warm your heart.
The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman
Wow, is all I can say about this book. This is a must-read for anyone with any interest in the dramatic, heroic story of Masada. By telling the story through the voices of 3 main fictional women who live on Masada before and during the siege of the Romans, the author takes the reader through the harshness of desert life and the barbarism and the humanity that coexisted there. As you develop an empathy for each character and their personal plight, you then go through the actual siege with them and even though the outcome is known, the story is still gripping and suspenseful. This is to the Masada story as Mila 18 was to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the story is just as dramatic.
I learned so much from this story. I learned about the Essenes, a sect of Judaism that existed at this time which dictated strict adherence to the Jewish laws and a strict avoidance of any violence whatsoever. I also developed an appreciation for the mystical beliefs that still prevailed at that time. Even though Judaism preached belief in one god, there was a lot of belief in sorcery and spirits and angels and demons as well. Mostly, though, this story gave me, in vivid — really graphic — detail, an idea of how harsh life in the desert is. I felt as if I myself was tasting the sand in my food and feeling the pelting heat of the sun. I felt a relief as they did when the rains came.
I loved this book. I’d love to hear how you feel about it if you have the good fortune to read it!