Friday, March 18, 2011

Review: The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

I am so glad stories about all different sorts of disabilities have been coming out over the last few years. The Running Dream takes a slightly different twist from others I've seen though - in this case the disability is the sudden amputation of a leg after a terrible car accident. In most other stories I've seen, the disability has been something the protagonist has lived with for most/all of her life.

The Running DreamHours after setting a league record in the 400m dash, Jessica wakes up in the hospital - sure that her life is over. While she survived the accident that took the life of one of her teammates, Jessica has had one of her legs amputated below the knee. Sure, it could have been worse - but until now, running has been Jessica's life, the only time she felt relaxed and comfortable.

Returning to school, Jessica feels like a freak and an outcast, even more so when her tough math teacher has her move from her usual desk - which can no longer accommodate her so long as she's using a wheelchair - to the table in the back, where Rosa, one of the special ed students with cerebral palsy, sits.

As Jessica readjusts to school and learns how to walk again with a temporary, Frankenstein-ish, prosthetic leg, her team and the community rally behind Jessica's recurring dream: to run again. Jessica knows she is incredibly lucky to have such caring friends, and she wants to repay them in some way for their kindness and support. As Rosa shows she's deeper and more insightful than Jessica had ever bothered to notice before, she expands her personal running dream: now she's going to find a way to take Rosa with her across the finish line.

Something about this book was strangely compelling - when I stopped to reflect on it I could see it's a very traditional narrative arc/plotline and both Jessica and Rosa (especially Rosa) often slip into the inspirationally disadvantaged trope, which could certainly be annoying if not downright offensive to those who have been affected by disabilities. I cringed a lot around Rosa, but found Jessica interesting, if sometimes a little too positive and chipper. Yet something made me keep coming back - I read this in one day and when i did have to stop reading (stupid work!) I found myself thinking about the book constantly. In part, I think, because I was imagining all of the complex places the book could have gone - would other racers think that a running prosthesis would give Jessica an unfair advantage? Will Jessica over exert herself and get hurt? - and anxiously waiting to see if any of my predictions panned out.

If you're the sort that loves to watch inspirational sports movies (especially the ones Disney makes), you'll find yourself in familiar territory with The Running Dream - which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
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