A little-talked about advantage to hot Texas summers? You’re not forced outside all summer long, because to do so would just be inviting heat-stroke. So parents are perfectly fine if you spend all summer in blissful air conditioning with a stack of library books. Which I always did, even though I never won the summer reading challenge because I always read long books. And in those days, it was all about the number of books, not the number of pages. I’m only thinking of this because this weekend was the first really hot weekend, and I’ve been reading a lot. And I wish there was a summer reading program for adults.
But perhaps I should be more honest about my summer childhoods. . . I was never an outdoorsy kid, I read cereal boxes because they wouldn’t let me read books at the breakfast table (something about me being late for school.. . .), and it’s not like my parents ever tried to fight my reading habits. But with all that, it should come as no surprise that I read a lot as a kid. Some books are forever imprinted on my brain. But there are others that I had essentially forgotten about until fate tossed it back into my life.
Light a Single Candle by Bevery Butler is one of those books. I know I read this more than once as a kid. But I hadn’t thought about it again until it popped up at a book exchange a couple of months ago. I saw it and exclaimed “I loved this book!” Which seems kinda weird to say, when it’s about a girl going blind. Not exactly light summer reading.
Last month, I finally picked it up again. I had those emotions you almost always get when you pick up a book you loved as a kid but haven’t touched in decades: will it hold up? will I have changed too much? was it ever any good?
At first, it didn’t do much for me. And then, around the time Cathy stops feeling sorry for myself and heads to guide dog school, I fell completely head over heels again. It wasn’t until I read the author’s note that I realized that this book is most certainly kidlit history. It’s not one of those crappy, made-up tragic stories for teens (Lurlene McDaniel, I’m looking at you), but based on Beverly Butler’s experiences when she went blind at 14. Suddenly, the story took on a whole new resonance. Did Butler have a similiar horrible State School for the Blind experience? We know from the brief “About the Author” that she also had a guide dog, which makes me very happy. But what about the rest of her life? I attempted to do some digging on Butler. She died in 2007 and was a continuous advocate for the blind. There’s one more book about Cathy Wheeler, but my library doesn’t have it. Beyond that, there’s just not much about her life.
Just before beginning this post, I did a quick skim through the goodreads reviews. The word “dated” is used several times. Umm, yes, it could be considered dated since it was first published in 1962. But when does a book go from dated to historical fiction? This is a great look at what the options were back in the 1960s, before the ADA (which wasn’t signed into law until 1990. 1990 people!). The public school tried to accommodate Cathy, and really, the only reason she left for the State School was because a friend didn’t know how to deal with her new disability. Her experiences at the State School would have been far different if someone besides Mrs. Creel (who is Evil) was in charge. And there really weren’t a lot of job options, especially if you didn’t have the support of family and friends. This isn’t dated, this is history.
Despite its “datedness”, Butler does a great job of showing the range of reactions from Cathy’s friends. Friends like Pete Sheridan and Joan. People that just don’t know what to do. And people like that still exist. But there are also great friends, like Mary Beth and dreamy Steve. So much of her book is still applicable today. I especially noticed the reminder that there are many different kinds of blindness. We do a collaborative event at the museum with the American Foundation for the Blind and local vision impaired teachers. One of the first things they tell us in the training is that these kids aren’t blind–visually impaired is a much better word. Some can see light and dark, some have a limited range of vision, some can see things if they’re super-magnifiied, and more. So seeing the range of visually impaired students at the State School seems rather forward-thinking–until you remember that Butler didn’t do research on this topic, she lived it.
So yes, I admit the historian in me bristled at the repeated use of the word “dated” when describing this book. Because that word just doesn’t do this book justice. Cathy is a great character, and she has a great story. It feels real because it was real. Books like this should still be read today, even though it was published almost 50 years ago and may be “out-dated.” We need these pre-ADA books to remind us of how far we’ve come. That’s what history is all about, right?