An Informative Journey Beyond Down Syndrome

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June 11, 2014

Writing With Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome

By Judy McFarlane

Douglas & McIntyre  2013

205 pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Janet Ralph

      Vancouver writer Judy McFarlane uses a personal and conversational style to invite readers into her experience mentoring Grace Chen, a young woman with Down Syndrome, who has a dream of becoming a famous writer. McFarlane is initially uncertain about the task but, after doing research into Down Syndrome and confronting her own fear and prejudice, she decides to work with Grace. 

       Hopes and dreams form the essence of the story— the most delightful being Grace’s retelling of the Cinderella tale, which includes Grace as the heroine, Ronald, a boy she likes, their honeymoon, an emergency helicopter rescue off the Titanic, three babies and a future career of espionage. In her next story, Grace plans to send the duo into space.

       McFarlane includes many other dreams in her book, including her own neglected childhood dream of becoming a writer, and her daughter’s dream of a career in theatre. She also looks at the hopes and dreams of adults with Down Syndrome for acceptance in schools, jobs, friendships, love and safe places to live their lives – in short, their basic human needs.

      Woven into the stories are quotes from Jean Vanier’s book Becoming Human, Robert Murphy’s The Body Silent and Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam. All offer insights into life with handicaps and prejudice towards people with disabilities. McFarlane refers to David Wright’s book Downs: The History of Disability to summarize the tragic treatment of people with intellectual disabilities in the past.

      Writing With Grace has a mosaic structure with six parts, each made up of short sections of stories and research. Although the title suggests otherwise, the author’s experience writing with Grace actually takes a back seat to McFarlane’s own life: her pursuit of a writing career, her parents, brothers, husband and children. 

            Sometimes abrupt story shifts disrupt connections between stories, resulting in some connections feeling contrived. McFarlane’s writing flows well when exploring research on high-functioning individuals with Down Syndrome. However, the discussion of Down Syndrome would be more complete if she had included information about the lives of families who are dealing with lower-functioning people with Down Syndrome as well.

     In the end, Grace’s venture into writing is a success. She is recognized in her community in British Columbia and in her birthplace of Taiwan. Her family bond is strengthened by a visit with her grandfather who finally accepts her as she is. Even better, at the World Down Syndrome Congress, Grace promotes her book and meets others who share her abilities and interests.

            The Jean Vanier epigram McFarlane chooses is apt for every human story: “Is it not the life undertaking of all of us . . . to become human? It can be a long and sometimes painful process. It involves a growth to freedom, an opening up of our hearts to others, no longer hiding behind masks or behind walls of fear or prejudice. It means discovering our common humanity.” 

Janet Ralph is a Victoria reader and writer.     

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