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by Anke de Vries
Front Street Press, 2003
Review by Lorraine Rice on Oct 19th 2004

Bruises

I don't remember the actual strike, but I do remember my mother telling me that I mustn't tell my grandmother why and how my cheek bore the impression of my father's hand. It was imprinted on my brain as much as on my face when I was 5 years old. Anke de Vries heroine, Judith, faces a much more brutal existence than the psychological abuse and few outbursts  I experienced from my father during my childhood, but I can identify with all the emotions, secrets, fears, avoidance behaviors, and confusion.

We adults all recognize Judith as the typical abused child who thinks that being beaten is normal. How could she know anything else? From as far back as she could remember, her mother had beaten her. Didn't every parent beat their child? What Judith didn't understand was why her mother never hit her younger brother. He seemed to be immune to his mother's wrath. Judith's only answer was that it had to be some defect in her. "If only I could be more like Dennis", she thought enviously.

Though she tried to hide her bruises from everyone, even her mother's boyfriend, Judith's bruises were not always on the outside. She lived in constant fear of the next beating, "The waiting was often the worst part," then a boy in her class took an interest in her and a healing friendship was forged.

Michael was also a troubled child, but all of his bruises were on the inside. After the death of Michael's mother, his father crawled into a shell of mourning that didn't include Michael. Fortunately for Michael, his mother's sister, Aunt Elly scooped him up out of the sterile relationship with his father and gave Michael a real home. She gave him all the nurturing a substitute mother could give, but she couldn't heal the wounds of failure that his father had etched inside a child's heart. His father didn't know that Michael's inability to read had a name, dyslexia. "I don't think I've ever met anyone as unwilling to learn as you are," said his father. "It's almost as though you're doing it on purpose." 

Both Michael's father and Judith's mother are examples from both extremes  of dysfunctional parenting, and while we may shrink from the pain inflicted on both children, neither are judged by the author. We want to get inside Michael's father's head and rearrange his priorities and give him eyes to see how special Michael is. We want to yell, "Wake up!" to all the adults who miss all the clues of Judith's brutal beatings. But the author never says that either parent is a bad person, just that they are a product of their experiences.

De Vries has successfully woven a tale of brutality, friendship, love, and epiphany that children as well as adults can absorb and learn from. I can't say enjoy because of all the pain of reading a chronicle of physical abuse of a child, but the violence and dysfunction of the families in the story might show an abused child that being abused, either mentally or physically, is not normal. While it is written to the reading ability of late elementary to junior high, it has enough grit to hold the interest of adults, and teachers of elementary and junior high students ought to read it just so they recognize the Judiths and Michaels in their class. Mr. Beekman, the children's teacher, almost didn't.

The only thing that might confuse young readers in America is the setting and that the novel is a translation from the Dutch. The reader may be confused when Michael is explaining his dyslexia and says, "Talking's no problem for me. I only have to hear something once, and it gets stored away up here." Michael tapped on his head again. "It just so happens, "he added, "I can even speak English."

Most of the translation is right on to the universal understanding of older children and young teens, but occasionally situations or experiences seem odd to an American audience and distract them from the story. In the end though, de Vries has crafted a fine story and provided a voice for abused children and those who might come across them.

 

© 2004 Lorraine Rice

 

Lorraine Rice provides the following information about herself.

·        Adjunct Professor of English and ESL at Suffolk Community College, NY for 16 years.

·        Poet and Artist My web page: http://hometown.aol.com/euterpel66/myhomepage/poetry.html

·        Widow and mother of three adult children and one granddaughter.

·        BA St. John's University, Jamaica NY

·        MA SUNY at Stony Brook, NY

·        Like to explore: the Internet, evolutionary-psychology, countries, books, people, outdoors, flea markets, and old roads.

·        Like to create: portraits, gardens, found-object sculpture, lists, poems, and friendships.

·        Like to travel: to most of US States, Canada, Bermuda, England, Brazil, China, and Mexico.




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