‘One, two, three, four’ Jo counts the steps from her home to her hideout, a derelict cabin by a river. The counting gives her some control over the chaos of her home life. Jo lives with her mother who has severe mental health problems. Looking after her mum, making sure she takes her tablets, trying to avoid the triggers that lead to episodes of depression, is a full time job. But Jo is determined to cope single-handed, without help from her grandma, without calling on their social worker. This is exhausting and a huge toll on Jo’s own life. She has no friends at school: her mother’s behaviour can be frightening, to adults and children alike; and there’s no way she can bring anyone home for tea. When she accepts an impromptu invitation to another girl’s house, the interruption to their routine sends her mum into such a manic state that she is hospitalised.
Things change when her psychologist suggests Jo spend her lunch hours helping in the school’s special needs section and she is assigned to a boy called Chris. Chris has cerebral palsy and is severely disabled: he can’t control many of his movements, he can’t speak. Though everyone believes Chris has brain damage too, Jo realises he understands all that is going on, knows what he wants as well as she does, but, like her, has chosen not to communicate. Together they work out a system that enables them to talk to one another. As her own home life becomes increasingly difficult, a visit to the centre where Chris lives convinces Jo that she must take him away. With no real plan in mind, she wheels him out of school and heads for her hideout. For a few heart-stopping chapters, it looks like they might both die. It’s only through luck, and Jo’s extraordinary bravery, that they don’t.
As a result of this, things improve for Jo and Chris, and both find their voices. She asks for help, acknowledging that she can’t cope alone; Chris is provided with a computer that enables him to say the things he wants to say.
Kim Hood has worked with people with disabilities and her book gives an honest, clear-eyed account of the challenges Chris and Jo have to deal with. Despite the uplifting ending, it is never sentimental; there’s no cure for what Jo’s mum has, Chris will always need round the clock care. This is much more than a book about disability though. It’s a gripping story, well told, with rounded and appealing characters. Jo’s loneliness at school is something a lot of young people will understand, and the importance of talking is a point well made. I will be recommending this to my book group and look forward to the lively discussion it will prompt.