Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham
4Q 4P, M/J/S
I admit it. This book had me near tears more than once, even though I was trying hard not to get emotional. (I feel like such a sap when I cry over something I'm reading.)
I also admit that I came to this book thinking it smacked of ripping off Bethany Hamilton's story (Soul Surfer, and that annoyed (even offended) me a bit. But the reviews were good, and I know it's the kind of story that a lot of people like to read, so I bought it for our teen collection. I wasn't going to read it, but I needed a book I could read quickly at lunch. Since this is written in free verse, letters, and phone calls, it looked like a very fast read. So I took it, a little bit grudgingly. Six pages into the book, I was hooked and having trouble swallowing my food over the lump in my throat.
The last thing that Jane expects when she, her mother, and her brother go to the beach one June day is that she'll wake up from a coma ten days later to discover that her right arm has been amputated just above the elbow after a harrowing shark attack leaves her arm so badly mutilated it can't be saved. The cards and letters that flood into the hospital can't begin to ease her pain, anger, and depression. Why her? Why couldn't it have happened to someone else? She loves to cook. She's an award-winning artist. She needs her arm! These people who are writing to her can't begin to comprehend what she is feeling. Why can't they leave her alone to mourn the person she'll never be again?
Kelly Bingham does a terrific job making it clear how such a tragic event doesn't just alter the life of the person it happens to. It is almost as hard to read about Jane's mother and brother's attempts to deal with the aftermath as it is to read about Jane's anger and despair. Where do you draw the line between being sympathetic and supportive and and TOO sympathetic and supportive? When is it time to force someone to move forward? When Jane's brother lashes out at her for expecting everyone to wait on her, it's both a shocking and liberating moment, for them and for the reader. The ways that Michael encourages (and forces) her to learn to do things for herself were touching and empowering. And I positively ached for Jane's mother as she tried to encourage Jane to go out in public, to draw again, to get back to as much of her old life and self as possible. There's a poem called "Constant" that is painful to read no matter whose perspective you read it from. It's equally moving to read about Jane's frustrations with her friends. Are they insensitive, or is Jane too sensitive? All of these poems and conversations, as well as Jane's tender moments with a little boy from the hospital, make for a very emotional read.
A few favorite moments:
(from "Leaving", p. 84, as Jane prepares to leave the hospital)
The problem is
life outside the window
is life outside.
People out there
are out there.
The eyes of the doctors
The kind of seeing I can almost live with.
It's their job, taking care of people like me.
I was welcome here.
I fit in.
Whew! If that doesn't communicate how scary it is to know you have to face people who are used to seeing you a different way, I don't know what would.
Then there's the poem called "The Web". Jane's discovering the world of Internet support groups, and she's not at all receptive:
Most of the time, we become
a better person than we were.
I was fine
with who I was.
I will never
become one of these heroic
icons, spreading hope
from the other side,
one hand waving.
I could feel Jane's resistance pushing out at me from the pages of the book.
"Moat, Overlooking" is a powerful poem depicting an artist's despair at knowing she'll never again be the artist she used to be. She's realizing that the things she used to draw aren't the subjects she would draw now:
are from someone else's world,
someone else's memories,
What, then, is now?
If I can't return to
am I doomed to be a
van Gogh imitation?
Tortured, wrecked, surviving
pain through the art of my darkest attic,
creations spun from the haunted memories
of the Shark Girl
trying to accommodate with her left hand?
Will the subject matter
be endless grays and white-capped
waves, gaunt faces, thin children,
I have no legs
to cross the bridge
toward Sunflower, Blooming,
and return home.
Eventually, Jane does start showing signs that she might be able to move forward. I liked this particular poem in part because it shows Jane now able to think about people other than herself and to recognize their sincere desire to help, when before she was too angry about too much to be able to do so.
(from "Tools", p. 223)
Fingering my new tools
I think about the people
who devote their lives
to inventing stuff like this.
Things that make life
a bit easier.
I wonder who they are
and why they invent things like this
and if they ever hear the words
Seeing Jane develop new interests and discovering that she doesn't have to leave her old ones behind makes this a moving, inspiring, and empowering story. I can't speak for Bethany Hamilton or anyone else who has ever lost a limb, but I can say that this book really helped me understand what they and their families might be going through and gave me some things to think about. I'm glad I ordered it and I'm glad that I wanted that quick read at lunch. I'm sure that I'll find myself recommending this book to a lot of readers in the future.
Post edited to include some links, including a very interesting interview of Kelly Bingham by Cynthia Leitich Smith (one of these days I'm going to finish my blog post on Smith's Tantalize, which I'm having a really hard time writing) and Bingham's web site. (In the interview, Kelly Bingham talks about how she got the idea to write this book, and Bethany Hamilton's name does come up. I was happy to see that she actually finished the book a few days before Bethany Hamilton was injured.)