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A Corner of the Universe is performed in a wonderful audio book by Judith Ivey. Set in the 1950s, 12-year-old Hattie looks back over the previous summer when her uncle Adam was released from a mental institution and came to live with his parents. It was released several years ago, so I will give away some of the crucial points of the plot -- those who don't want to have the outcome spoiled for them should stop reading.
Hattie tells her own story to the reader, from the vantage point of several months after the summer. She is fan only child, and lives with her somewhat unconventional parents. They run a boarding house with three lodgers, so Hattie has to help with the work, taking one of them her morning breakfast every day. Hattie does not mind, because she likes the lady. She is more comfortable with the company of adults than people her own age, and she only has one friend at school. Hattie likes walking into town and being greeted by all the store owners and getting books out of the library. She is a serious girl who likes nothing better than to curl up on her own with a good book.
Hattie's mother wishes she were more social, and her grandmother frankly disapproves of Hattie's antisocial tendencies. Hattie starts to understand their attitudes when she realizes that they hope she is not like her uncle Adam. She only learns about Adam's existence this year, when she is 11, and her parents tell her that Adam is coming to town. She is mystified why they never told her about him before, until she meets him, and finds that he is different from other people and cannot ever had a job or get a girlfriend. Adam is full of enthusiasm but he is often socially inappropriate in his behavior. He has some savant skills and he becomes easily overwhelmed by strong emotions. He sometimes throws tantrums and does not understand much of the adult world. He loves the TV show I Love Lucy and can quote large sections of many episodes. He gets on well with Hattie, who finds that she partly relates to him as a peer and sometimes finds herself looking after him. She gets fiercely protective when other people call him a freak. Yet she is also embarrassed when Adam shows a very adult interest in one of the lodgers in her house, an attractive young woman who works at the bank.
One of the best features of the book is its sensitive depiction of people's reaction to Adam's mental illness, with Hattie's grandmother's embarrassment, her classmates' horror and taunting, and her own sympathetic understanding and appreciation of Adam's difference. While it is set fifty years ago, not much has changed in people's attitudes.
The central crisis of the story is Adam suicide at the end of the summer, after an episode where he was arrested in public and then given a personal shock. It is not just a very sad moment in the plot, but a depressing one, since it gives the message that there is no place for people like Adam in the world. His death is a solution to many problems, and although everyone feels terrible grief at his loss, it seems that only Hattie believes it is not for the best. One might question author Ann Martin's decision to give her mentally ill character a death sentence, especially in a book for young childfren, since it may teach them that the mentally ill are doomed. Yet Adam's death also serves to highlight how keenly Adam is missed and what he brought to the summer.
Narrator Ivey gives a good sense of the strong social conventions of a 1950s southern town, with a reserved tone of voice. This is thrown into sharp contrast by her performance of Adam, who is so full of energy and funny to listen to. He makes everyone grin when they first see him at his parents' house, and makes Hattie "Christmas morning giddy." He is childlike in his spontaneity and openness, yet he is also self-conscious and he hides his personal anguish. Ivey's charismatic portrayal of him is terrific, making him charming and perceptive, even if he does not fit in with the conventionality of the 1950s and cannot cope with its hidden realities. It is not entirely clear why Adam ended his own life, but the realization that a woman he had a crush on had slept with another man seems to have played a major role. It leaves one wondering if he had been treated more as an adult if he would have been better able to cope with this discovery.
So what at first seems to be a rather conventional and nostalgic novel for children about small town life of an earlier era comes alive in a distinctive portrait of mental illness and the inability of a community to accommodate to Adam's difference. One might wonder whether Martin's depiction of mental illness is accurate, and certainly Adam does not fit into any simple diagnostic category. We might say now that he is on the autistic spectrum and has some other distinctive emotional and cognitive problems. But Adam himself is a perfectly believable character, and he will long remain in readers' memories.
Link: Publisher website
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.