Following the splendid Say What You Will, Ms McGovern’s new novel again succeeds in showing, not telling, that getting to know individual young adults with mental and physical challenges can change perceptions of them along with other people with disabilities.
High school seniors Emily and Lucas both fail to help mentally disabled Belinda when she is being sexually assaulted at a high school football game. As punishment, they must help out at a “Boundaries and Relationships” class for mentally disabled young adults. However, they both come to believe they need to do more for Belinda herself, so, as she loves acting, they decide to put on a play of her favorite movie, Pride and Prejudice.
Told from Emily and Belinda’s points of view, their perspectives are enlightening in both style and content. Emily is a pretty standard, though thoughtfully written, YA lit geeky teenager with geeky friends and geeky fixed ideas about other people. Belinda’s narration is much more original. We learn about her worldview, her disability and her family’s methods of dealing with it, in a straightforward and at times gauche tone. Is there a whiff of authorial patronizing? I don’t think so – Ms. McGovern works with special needs kids, and gives the reader the opportunity to see that there are many different types and gradations of mental disability; even Belinda (and her family) have their own prejudices about the other students in her classroom.
Of course, it’s not entirely original to reference Jane Austen to suggest that the social stratification at a contemporary high school is as rigid as that of early 19th century England. But McGovern uses this as a jump off point to look at more than the prejudice a geek has for a football player; she also tackles both the personal and collective preconceptions about mental disability that the characters (and maybe the readers) have.
Unlike P&P, A Step Toward Falling does not tie all the ends up with everyone’s future secured. In fact, they are notably, and realistically, not tied up. In Belinda’s case, the author weaves in facts about how challenging it can be for those with disabilities to find any sort of work, let alone something that they might find satisfying.
This novel succeeds both as entertainment and as a campaign for tolerance and action – readers who dropped by for the fun may well find themselves walking out with a fistful of pamphlets and a resolution to make life better for others.
Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.