by Judy McFarlane
In 2006, Judy McFarlane, an aspiring writer herself, was asked by a friend if she would help a young woman with Down syndrome write a book. “I always dream to be a famous writer,” twenty-three year old Grace Chen had written in her notebook.
When Grace was born in Taiwan and the family learned that she had Down syndrome, Grace’s grandfather advised Grace’s parents to put her away in an institution and forget about her. Instead, Grace’s father said to his wife, “Now we have to think how to help this child.” Eventually, they decided to emigrate to Canada to make a new life for themselves.
When McFarlane is introduced to Grace, she has big reservations. She’s always had aspirations to write herself, but instead pursued a career as a lawyer, and then stopped working to raise three children born in quick succession. Now her children were grown, and that old desire to write – to be a writer – was pulling at her again. Unsure of her own abilities as a writer, she was ambivalent about helping someone else write. But her reservations went deeper than that, and that is what underpins this story. It’s the story of how Judy McFarlane, middle-aged former attorney, aspiring but unsure writer, spent several months helping a young woman with Down syndrome write a book. More than that, though, it’s a pretty courageous and unflinching look at her own prejudices, fears, and preconceived ideas about Down syndrome and disability, and that’s what makes this book unique in the Down syndrome literary landscape: the perspective from which the story arises and is told. It’s not so much the story about a young woman with Down syndrome, but one about an older, educated, accomplished woman who confronts head on her own feelings and ideas about disability and Down syndrome.
Over the months of sitting down with Grace to help her write her book, McFarlane develops a growing fondness for Grace that doesn’t feel condescending, as well as a friendship with Grace’s parents. Her growing interest in learning more about Down syndrome leads her to meet and talk to other adults with Down syndrome and their families. She also confronts memories of a girl from her childhood who had Down syndrome and was bullied while young McFarlane stood by.
I really enjoyed this book, and I think its unique perspective, thorough research, and engaging writing make it an important addition to anyone’s Down syndrome/disability book shelf.
For a look at Grace’s book – a modern take on the traditional Cinderella story, check it out on Amazon: Cinderella-Grace Vancouver Princess