When I grew up I did not have much reading guidance, and the choices of good books for young readers were far fewer than they are today. Somehow I got lucky and came across a book I never forgot, Follow My Leader by James Garfield. I am often deeply affected by what I read, and after reading this book several times, I became suspicious that I might go blind someday and have the same challenges that Jimmy faced. I remember practicing walking down the sidewalk near my grandmother’s house with my eyes closed, imagining what it must be like to be sightless. In the story, Jimmy is blinded when a firecracker goes off in his hand and as a young boy facing his teen years has to learn how to do even the simplest things all over again. After a difficult time, he begins to work with a guide dog named Leader. This relationship and his growing confidence help him adjust to his new circumstances.
Fast forward to 2014 and I just finished reading Blind by Emily DeWoskin. One reason I picked it out was because the blurb brought back to me memories of that special book I read as a child. The main character, like Jimmy, loses her sight when burned by fireworks on July 4. At 15 she is plunged into darkness, not just physical but mental and emotional as well. Her difficult year is further exacerbated by the death of a friend who is believed to have committed suicide. Emma begins to wonder what good can possibly be in story for her in the future after such loss. Her best helper is Spark, her companion dog. Emma narrates the story in something akin to stream of consciousness, which at times got a bit tedious. Since I listened to the story, I could not skim those repetitious parts and there were times when all the reporting felt tedious. All the same, it gave me great insight into all that is involved in acclimating to a dramatic life change like losing one’s vision. This book would be a great read for anyone who has impaired vision or who wants to help a family member or friend in such a situation. It is another YA title that I think could be read and enjoyed by my adult reading friends as well as younger readers. Anyone who read Follow My Leader will find the similarities striking and both books equally rewarding reads.
This post is running very long but I have to add another thing that made this book special for me. Back as a very young teacher, I was selected to work with a 7th grade girl who was returning to public school after several years at Austin School for the Blind. Like Emma, she lost her sight as a youngster. In her case, it was due to a viral infection. Her story was so much like Emma’s that it was striking. She went through a very hard time adjusting and at the time I knew her she was still not happy about using Braille. I recorded things for her. She had an attendant, as did Emma. No dog. She memorized the steps between classes and while she had a cane she did not use it in the building. She wanted very much to blend in with the other kids, who had been her friends when she was sighted. Like Emma’s mother, Shele’s was very protective and, I suspect, felt guilty though this was out of her hands. I kept up with her for a number of years. The last time she wrote me she had been diagnosed with MS. She was taking college courses and trying to make new adjustments. Frankly I have to wonder if she is still with us. I cannot find her on the Internet beyond her high school yearbook, and her name is fairly uncommon. Reading this book made me remember again how much I learned from her. Does anyone know a Shele Hooley who used to used to live in Arlington, Texas? I would love to get in touch with her or with her mother. Shele would be in her 50’s now.
PS I checked Amazon reviews of Follow My Leader and found this wonderful entry. I had not realized until just now that this book was autobiographical. Here is what James Garfield’s granddaughter shared:
I'm James Garfield's granddaughter. He dedicated the book to my mother, Carolyn Lazarus, who is now 81 years old. My granddad lived to be 102 years old, living half of his life blind. He had a seeing eye dog, Coral, a golden retriever who was the sweetest animal I've ever met and she was so very attentive to him. He would have been very flattered to read these reviews so I thank all of you who have taken the time to write about Follow My Leader.