Well, my opinion of those authors who churn out endless installments in serial books for kids just went up a notch; A Corner of the Universe is one of the better books I’ve read in the past few years…and I don’t like much.
It’s the summer of 1960, between one school year and the next, between the turmoil of the Korean War and the social upheaval of the Sixties. Hattie Owen is twelve, a bit too grown to properly be a child, but not quite old enough to be truly mature; certainly, she’s not yet allowed to eat in the family’s parlor after an unfortunate incident a couple of years ago involving a deviled egg. Her parents run a respectable boarding house in one of the huge rambly old Victorian mansions from an era in which people had huge families; some of the residents have been there since before Hattie was forn. Hattie’s looking forward to another summer just like all the previous ones, in a small town that never changes except with the seasons—snow in winter, heat in summer and the immutable streets and inhabitants…
…well, you knew that wasn’t going to last, or there wouldn’t be much of a book.
Except…of course there’s an except. Hattie’s got an uncle whose existence was kept secret from her, more or less; he was institutionalized shortly after she was born and while they’ve met when she was a toddler, she does not remember him. The ‘school’ is closing, and so “Uncle Adam” must come home and live with his parents until they find another facility. Martin does not specify what precisely Adam has—either schizophrenia or autism—and to a large extent that doesn’t matter. He is different from everyone else, acts differently, cannot control his emotions and reactions as everyone else, including Hattie, can.
Needless to say, the summer is complicated just by Adam’s physical issues; he can’t be left alone, but is an adult with all that entails—he develops a crush on one of the boarding house residents and is devastated when he discovers her in bed with her lover. He wants to befriend Hattie, but not only do the other kids in town act like Mean Girls, his awkward attempt at a birthday party just for her goes badly awry. In the end, he commits suicide, unable to face going back into another institution or living in the, to him, bewildering outside run by behaviors he cannot possibly understand.
The language herein is not complex; it’s clearly written at a tween level, but the ideas are heartbreaking. It’s rare that I cry for a book written for this age group…but I did. I’m sure there are other books for kids which introduce mental illness in age-appropriate ways; this one struck me for its presentation of the uncle as a human being…who’s ill. Not a monster. Not demonized. Not pitying, or romanticized. There isn’t a lot of historical detail about how mental illness was treated at the time, but perhaps not necessary in a book of this level; I don’t think that’s the point in any case.