Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Up Where We Belong

I am currently going through the stressful process of looking for a new apartment. More than anything else, not knowing where I am going to live fills me with fear and trepidation about the future. Choosing a place to live is loaded with so many careful considerations, from the quality of the neighbors, character of the neighborhood, and physical layout of the apartment, that making any choice feels extremely daunting. We spend our entire lives looking for a place to rest our heads, to find peace and security. Finding a place in the scheme of things, a place where we belong is not easy. Uncovering our true home is one of the greatest mysteries in our lives. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, winner of the 1979 Newbery Medal, and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, the 1979 Honor book, reveal, in very different ways, how facing the unknown can help people find their place in the universe. 

The Westing Game is the ultimate mystery, probing readers from the first page to notice each detail of plot, character, and setting to discover who killed Sam Westing. People, who would otherwise be strangers, are paired together to play Westing's game to find his killer, and these partnerships yield surprising results. No one is who he or she really claims to be, and has plenty of skeletons in their closet to make them a suspect. However, this caper forces the characters to take stock of why they were selected to reside at Sunset Towers, a glitzy apartment building that faces Westing's home. Without spoiling the story, this experience changes the lives of all who play the game, especially for the winner, who catches a glimpse of future ambitions and learns how to cultivate them. 

While the character in The Westing Game struggle with finding their place within the mystery, Galadrial Hopkins, or The Great Gilly Hopkins, has the challenge of finding a permanent home after a long string of foster homes. A wild, rambunctious, blunt child, she has yet to find foster parents that can truly understand (and manage) her. Gilly still holds out hope for her birth mother, Courtney, to rescue her from the system and sweep her away to a perfect home in California. No matter how welcoming Mrs. Trotter, her foster mother, is, Gilly prickles at her ministrations. She mocks her fellow foster child, William Earnest, for his mental deficits, and steals money from Mr. Randolph, an elderly Black neighbor who joins the family for meals. Using the stolen money, she buys a one-way ticket to San Fransisco. Her escape is foiled by the police, and she rejoins Trotter's family. This time, however, is different. She is given the choice to stay with Trotter until her mother contacts her, and decides to stay. Trotter assigns her chores to earn money to repay Mr. Randolph and Gilly learns what it means to be part of a family. She helps William Earnest with his schoolwork and teaches him to defend himself, takes care of their house, and nurses Trotter, William Earnest, and Mr. Randolph when they come down with the flu. Giving back to her caretaker and feeling needed transforms Gilly from a 'mean' flower into a blossoming rose. It is then when her past unexpectedly catches up with her and her dream of reuniting with her birth mother comes true. Gilly's story is, all at the same time, heartbreaking, humorous, insightful, and infuriating. Reading about Gilly reminded me of a wonderful program from PBS called This Emotional Life, and its segment of attachment in early life. They interviewed a family who had adopted a boy from Russia and were having difficulty dealing with his behavior and emotional issues. As a toddler, he had not formed strong attachments to his adult caregivers, who did not hold him when he cried or needed to be comforted. He learned from this that he could not trust or rely on adults, and as he grew up these early experiences "continued to influence how he behaves and felt about himself and others". Understanding their son in this context helped his parents deal with his behavior and get him the help he needed. I wonder if the Tennessee woman who shamefully sent back her 7 year old adopted son to Russia was aware of these common issues associated with orphans. This "throw-away" attitude directly contrasts with Trotter's feelings about Gilly. Although Gilly has attachment issues, steals, fights, and runs away, Trotter still wants to be her foster mother. Unconditional love like this is rare. Trotter does something even more exceptional. Not only does she accept Gilly back into her home, but she is willing, just as easily, to let Gilly go if it's the right thing for her. Experiencing this kind of selflessness can only mean that home is nearby.

>>> Another decade done, four more to go!>>>

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