James Moloney, The Beauty is in the Walking, HarperCollins, 1 August 2015, 248pp. $16.99 (pbk) ISBN 9780732299941
There are many well-intended books featuring characters with disabilities. Too often though, the disability becomes the defining characteristic of the person portrayed, resulting in two-dimensional characters and a superficial understanding of the condition. This book is not one of those. James Moloney lifts the bar much higher, giving readers a story in which cerebral palsy is only one of many difficulties faced by a typical teenage boy, whose focus is much wider than his own problems.
Jacob O’Leary is in the midst of studying for his HSC, simultaneously discovering his latent talent for language, and navigating the difficult terrain of friendship, bullying and love when a shocking crime of animal cruelty rocks the small rural town of Palmerston.
Appalled by the killing of a horse, Jacob and his friends drive out to the site of the crime. Amy, Jacob’s secret love, is frightened by the other boys’ antics, giving Jacob a chance to demonstrate his care and concern.
Jacob’s tentative moves toward a relationship with Amy begin to show results, his confidence grows and his ability to stand alone in the face of adversity asserts itself.
As the local police investigate the atrocity, a second crime occurs. A newly-arrived Muslim family and in particular their son, Mahmoud, take the brunt of local suspicion. Jacob sees that blaming the outsiders is too easy, and does some amateur sleuthing to discover evidence to prove the innocence of Mahmoud.
Like many young people, Jacob’s eyes have been opened to the possibilities of the wider world by a dedicated teacher, Mr Svenson. Jacob’s questioning attitude and growing sense of injustice fuels his response to the situation, channeled through social media and a political protest to support Mahmoud. Jacob feels an affinity for the Muslim student and his sister, who are also regarded by the majority of kids at school as “different”.
When things turn sour, Jacob’s friendship group is disrupted, leaving him vulnerable to bullying. There is friction within his family, and discovering the perpetrator of the crime ultimately drives a wedge between Jacob and Amy.
Amy’s ease of movement, the beauty of her walking, has been an attraction for Jacob, who walks unaided but is particularly vulnerable on stairs and in crowds. The gift of an antique walking stick from another classmate, Chloe, turns the tide of his mood and bolsters his independence.
Jacob knows his physical limitations but bravely bears pain to achieve his goals.
The love and care of his family has been the mainstay of Jacob’s life, but as he begins the transition to independence, negotiating a new status quo with his highly involved mother is another problem he must tackle.
Masterfully written, engaging and sensitive, this story shows the reader that disabled people are just that: people, with similar problems and concerns as everyone else.
NOTE: readers wanting more information about cerebral palsy could read
Can I tell you about cerebral palsy? A guide for friends, family and professionals by Marion Stanton. Jessica Kingsley, 2014 ISBN 9781849054645
or visit the Cerebral Palsy Australia website.
Reviewed by Julie Thorndyke