Novels about the conflicts inherent in having a differently-abled friend or relative are not new. Dovey Coe, Naomi Leon, Jake Moon, Heidi in So B. It, Mic Parsons, Trevor in Petey, Moose Flanagan.... many well-respected books consider this theme. There is the dance with responsibility - will it be accepted gladly or seen as an unfair burden? There is the tunneled focus of the family on the neediest member -- does it feel like a group effort or one in which no one else matters? There is the concern with the hurtful views of outsiders - will it be taken in stride or taken too much to heart?
Cynthia Lord introduces us to Catherine and her younger autistic brother David. Summer is beginning, a time that should promise freedom and fun for a twelve year old girl, but Catherine knows that hers will be circumscribed by her responsibilities to her brother and her parents.
The relationship between the two siblings is wonderfully drawn. Yes, there is a lot of tension and resentment on Catherine's part. She keeps a notebook of "rules" to help David fit in to the world and not call such attention to himself (read herself). She is always on edge, wondering when things will go downhill, and who will be watching when it does. She is a great deal of help, to be sure, but also sees clearly that her parents do not see her for herself anymore. She longs to escape to the beach with a friend, and barring that, retreats into her drawing pad to shape and in some small way control her world. Yet despite these knotty issues, there is a strong bond between Catherine and David. The conversations the two of them have that are completely concocted of memorized bits from Frog & Toad are lovely moments -Catherine's mother has forbidden them to speak in this manner, but it is a comfort to both of them - a ritual of closeness. The recurring game of "No toys in the fish tank" is another poignant connection between the two sibs - though it breaks one of her "rules", Catherine can't help but be amused by the surprises David leaves for her in the aquarium.
The twist in the story is the addition of Jason, a young wheelchair-bound man Catherine knows from the waiting room of her brother's therapy clinic. Their initial interaction is not good, but soon she finds herself drawn to interact with him. Their interaction is tender and wonderful -- a warm friendship in which half of the words between them are spoken via a notebook full of word cards - for Jason cannot speak. Catherine's illustration of the cards, and her choices of words to add to his card vocabulary are a fascinating part of the story.
It was interesting to see Catherine more willing and able to help Jason than her brother and discovering from that how differently volunteering care feels from having it demanded. I was also intrigued that the clinic and its staff, despite being a focal point of family references and many scenes in the novel, did not provide a sense of its being a place where David or Jason received relief or remedy. Catherine's word cards, illustrations and wheelchair racing appear to be much more valuable than any of the weekly efforts of Jason's therapist. And maybe that is the point - that human kindness and connection can turn the key.
I read this one straight through until I got to page 190. The interchange between Catherine and David on that page is so emotionally perfect that I found myself unable to read any further because I was crying too hard to see the pages. It is for that reading moment that I thank Cynthia Lord. Rules is a wonderful, memorable novel.