Monday, December 31, 2012

What Happened to Ivy by Kathy Stinson

"I could ask him now.  I could ask him:  Did you drown her? Did you plan it, like I planned the worms?  Did you know when you helped her into her bathing suit...what you were going to do?  Or not till you carried her into the water and made her laugh one last time?"

What Happened to Ivy is a great example of the kind of book that's not getting published as much these days, but which I think is still welcomed by many young readers--what librarians refer to as "the problem novel".  Not in that the book itself is a problem--but in that the book presents a problem, often some kind of ethical issue, as its main underpinning, and explores it deeply enough to expand the reader's understanding of the issue's  emotional and  philosophical complexities.  Such as, in this case, euthanasia.  Although What Happened to Ivy is fiction, it bears a strong resemblance to the real-life Robert and Tracy Latimer case, in which a Canadian parent was convicted of killing his disabled daughter in 1993 because of her pain management and quality-of-life issues.  This case generated huge controversy for many reasons, but I think most of all around the issue of consent;  euthanasia generally involves adults who are able to make their wishes known, but in this case the victim was a minor who had never expressed any desire to die. 

Stinson's fictionalization gives us over to the point of view of David, a young teen with an even younger sister, Ivy, who has cerebral palsy, just as Tracy Latimer did.  The first half of the book takes us through what it's like to be part of a family which includes a person with neurological disabilities.  Ivy consumes a lot of family focus, leaving David feeling frustrated and invisible sometimes--this family operates in a near-constant state of crisis, and his needs will always come in second to his sister's.  On the other hand, sometimes he's too visible, being out in public with a sister who's frankly embarrassing.  Ivy drools, she wears a diaper, she's loud, repetitive and hard to understand.  She has violent seizures and has had multiple painful surgeries. She can scare away other kids, leaving David isolated.  But Ivy can also be joyful, communicative and very loving, and when she has a seizure in a lake and drowns, despite being with their father, David is devastated.  He's even more devastated when his father admits that, instead of rescuing her,  he deliberately let Ivy go.  

Despite being a pretty easy read, this is a thought-provoking book.  Was Ivy better off dead?  Was failing to save her an act of love or an act of emotional exhaustion, and does the motivation even matter?  Was Ivy capable of making her own decisions about life?  How do we, as a society, value people with complex disabilities and how successful are we in offering their families support?  What Happened to Ivy succeeds in presenting Ivy as a person of value, whose family, both before and after her death, has no easy choices.

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