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June's Book
Icy Sparks
by Gwyn Hyman Rubio

Bill:
This month's book is about a little girl growing up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky in the 1950s. Icy Sparks by Gwynn Rubio describes the joys and sorrows of a ten year old who is both an orphan and a victim of Tourette's syndrome. Join us for an entertaining and absorbing story. bookclub@ket starts now.

Music

Rochelle:
I would say it is one of the most difficult coming of age processes that I have ever read about. It's not Catcher in the Rye, but she managed to capture some of the real heartache of this little girl's life. Icy Sparks is the title character and it has some beautiful writing about growing up but growing up difficult, growing up hard.

Bill:
Would it have been a difficult life even without the Tourette's syndrome?

Rochelle:
Well, there is no way to know because it was such a part of who she was. I felt sorry for her in some places, in a lot of the places, and it was difficult to just keep watching things pile on to this little girl because since it's in retrospect it starts with everything that happened in her whole life. If you have Tourette's syndrome, you have no control which means even at points where she was old enough to start having some control of her life she never had any control until the end.

Bill:
So someone else -- if you were asked blindly on the street one day what's this Icy Sparks book about.

Dava:
Well, I would say it's something beneficial to read because it does deal with Tourette's syndrome and it's not this is not a disorder you hear a lot about. It was educational for me also besides being a book to read. And like Rochelle said it did deal with the heartache she had to go through, things she had to contend with. And I thought that that in some way that made it an endearing read and so I really could not put it down. That's not to say it's the best book I've ever read, but I did enjoy it. Some of the things didn't really mesh right, but I liked it.

Wilma:
I think certainly Tourette's syndrome is an interesting subject and one I don't think has been covered in literature very much unless there is something I am not aware of. But I did think at the beginning--I thought the beginning was so strong and it was so interesting about the birth of Icy Sparks and about her mother and father and their deaths. I expected more from the book. I thought it promised more at the beginning in areas of drama that I don't think paid off later. I think it was weaker later and at the end I wasn't exactly sure where the author was going to go and how she was going to end it so I was a little disappointed that it didn't pay off as well as I thought it was going to at the beginning.

Dava:
You know that's a really good point. It started off like a memoir with some great pieces of writing and then I got the sense that we were supposed to learn about Tourette's syndrome instead of had that continued literature. I want to read at the very beginning this passage about her father who, of course, died when she was young because there was so many people she lost in her life.

I remember how he'd squat in front of the country store, resting on his haunches, talking so quiet that friends would lean over to hear him. The closer he came, the softer his voice grew until suddenly his eyes would protrude like two round stop signs, signaling to friends that they were too near, that he needed to be alone. He had to silence the rumble of dynamite and the thump of dead birds.
And that refers back to when he was in an accident and all of this coal dust fell on him and these dead birds came out and he was stuck there having to deal with that. But she has several passages where it's just wonderful like as a writer I went, "oh man." But you are right, it wasn't consistent throughout, and there were parts where I found myself sort of skipping a few pages to get to the rest of the story.

Bill:
Yeah, Jonathan, you have always done such a good job for us in describing in short sentences and phrases exactly what the book is about. Can you do it with this one? It is a nice little story.

Jonathan:
How short do you want my sentences?

(everyone laughs)

Jonathan:
I enjoyed reading it. I think it's a very fine example of, as you said, the coming of age novel sometimes called a Bildungsroman, the German word meaning novel of education in the widest sense.

Bill:
Ahhhh.

Jonathan:
Catcher in the Rye by J. Salinger, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where you see the young character grow and develop and often there are school settings and the person matures and faces the problems that every teenager faces and every child faces and then finally overcomes them or transcends the problems or in some way resolves the problems.

In this case it's particularly interesting because apart from the ordinary problems of development and maturation that children or teenagers have in their everyday lives there is also the added dimension of the clinical problem of Tourette's syndrome which takes this very violent form of dramatic involuntary tics and jerks and, of course, this sort of terrible ejaculations of profanities and swear words and curses, and there is some terrible violence splurging out of the person.

And so it really, as you said, puts a lot of pressure on this person, too. She is trying to make friends, she is trying fit in, she is trying to make connections with her peers. Just when she is on the cusp of making a breakthrough in terms of feeling normal, something pushes her over the edge and, rather like an epileptic, she has a fit and everybody thinks she's crazy. I don't know if you saw a recent episode of Chicago Hope but there was a doctor on Chicago Hope with Tourette's syndrome, and he had this problem of cursing...

Bill:
Outbursts.

Jonathan: ...and swearing at everybody.

Bill:
But did they know what it was.

Jonathan:
Oh yeah, well they knew how to diagnose it and how to treat it.

Bill:
In the 50s they did not though.

Jonathan:
In the 50s I guess they didn't. There was a famous case covered by Oliver Saks in his wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Bill:
hmm .

Jonathan:
Called Ricky Ticky or something.

Bill:
hmm .

Jonathan:
And he was a very energetic child but a very misaligned child who was a bit of misfit but who became a great drummer. And he used to channel all his energy into banging the drum, and then when he was put on medication as they did to control his mania, he wasn't such a good drummer. So there was a interesting connection between the creativity and the energy of the thing how it can be channeled into something creative. And I think that it's in here because she also ends up by in a sense giving herself music therapy. I mean all the energy is channeled into song, and I think that helps her.

Rochelle:
Well, I'm ready for coffee.

(everyone laughs)

Bill:
Well, you know I do want to just go back to that first question that I asked you about would it have still been a difficult novel without the Tourette's syndrome, and I disagree slightly, Rochelle, in that I think growing up and going through adolescence and all of those things is tremendously traumatic for people -- I mean Dava has just been there. We all know -- I'm just teasing.

(everyone laughs)

Bill:
We know how difficult all of that is, but then when you put this ordeal with Tourette's syndrome with that, I just think that really exacerbated so much her.

Rochelle:
I don't think we disagree. I just said that there was no way to know because it could have been worse.

Bill:
hmm

Rochelle:
Whether she had Tourette's syndrome or not. For example, her best friend is this woman who is 350 pounds strong, and her life is miserable. You don't know whether because just of living in rural Kentucky not having the sense of freedom and love and things that she wanted that she would have been any better off. But you can't separate her from the illness because of the impact of Tourette's on her life and not knowing what it is. You can't in this book and in the 50s take that away from who she was. But there was this passage that just talked a little bit about the biggest loss or the biggest thing they worried about losing was just the fact that somebody would become close to them. Miss Emily her friend who was big and where Emily tells her, "No. Icy Gal" which is what she calls Icy Sparks.

You must accept the fact that touch isn't possible for people like us. We might be liked. We might even earn a town's respect. But we're different--too different. We exist beyond the comfort of touch. For us, Icy Gal, touching is dreaming, mere fantasy.
To hear that as a young child, you know she might have heard that even without the Tourette's, there might have been something else about her, but there's no way to know because Tourette's was her life and I can't imagine having to run to the root cellar every time I felt like my head was going to explode -- and not knowing what it was and knowing there was no help for it because you are living with your grandparents because both of your parents are gone and you have no hope.

Bill:
And it happens so early in her life.

Rochelle:
Yes.

Bill:
And for her to have to deal with it all alone and by herself those were tough times.

Rochelle:
So sad.

Bill:
I think that Ms. Rubio did an excellent job in sort of putting the reader in those places with Icy, and I think she did a pretty good job in that way. What about the other characters and their development? We talked about Ms. Emily, I mean could you see Ms. Emily and sort of suffer through her problems.

Wilma:
I thought the character development was a little weak. They almost came close to being stock characters. Ms. Emily for instance was the overweight misunderstood woman with a heart of gold and then we also have what I think is a stock character in the teacher, who?

Bill:
Ms. Stilton.

Wilma:
Yes. Who wields authority with sarcasm and a ping pong paddle and then in the hospital we have the sadistic nurse who preys on the weaker patients.

Bill:
Wilma.

Wilma:
Wilma and her name happens to be the same as mine.

(everyone laughs)

Dava:
I bet you were upset at that.

Wilma:
And they talked about what an ugly name it was.

(everyone laughs)

Wilma:
So I thought that a great many of the characters were just almost stock characters. Even the grandparents, the grandmother was this loving person who cooked well and was good to everyone and so on. I'm not sure that the characters were developed well. I really would have to say that that was one of the weaknesses. Now Icy was developed a little bit better because we are inside her mind, of course. I know a great deal about her. But I didn't feel that I really knew the characters. Did any of you feel the same way?

Rochelle:
Well I will just have to take exception, then I will give it back to Jonathan, with Ms. Emily.

Wilma:
hmm .

Rochelle:
Because she was the person who wound up being closest to her and the tea parties they had and descriptions of her and sometimes the foil for a character is somebody who is just totally different and provides laughter and that might be stock, but this was just such an unlikely relationship, the only person that she had to turn to. I got the sense that I could see Ms. Emily. There were some characters that I didn't know what they looked like -- the principle who put her in this room with the books and the teacher. I couldn't really see her. but I could see Ms. Emily. I could envision her, and when she first got dragged into town by her grandfather to meet her and didn't want to get hugged because she thought she'd die, and she said I'm going to hug you too. And she said her flesh was crawling forward like a blue stained snowdrift. She started out with -- that woman is fat and I don't want to be around her -- to this being one of the most important people in her life. I could understand that. So I just have to disagree about that one.

Jonathan:
I do think that the character that was presented most fully and withthe most complexity was Icy Sparks herself. I really like theway she was able to analyze her feelings about herself and about other people and the way she was even able to analyze how she felt about her illness. And the illness comes in fits and spurts. It's not there all the time. it only comes when the provocation.

Bill:
hmm .

Jonathan:
And she knows the signs, she knows. "I could feel a jerk coming."

Dava:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
And it's almost as if she's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which is one of the books that's referred to. But I like the way she has this self-knowledge that perhaps other characters where, you know, we're not told about their understanding of themselves but more how they respond to her. But this first moment when she realized that she is going to have to control herself forever and repress herself forever, I think is an interesting moment. She says,

I was no longer that little girl from Icy Creek Farm -- [This is after she had a fit.] our sixty acre homestead, replete with two milk cows, a dozen chickens, and Big Fat, the-500-pound sow. [Kind of pastoral idyllic image there.] I was now a little girl who had to keep all of her compulsions inside. Whenever it became too much, after hours of hoarding blinkings and poppings that threatened to burst out in a thousand grotesque movements, I'd offer to get Matanni [that's her grandmother] a jar of green beans from the root cellar. [And then she would hide there. And the way in which she is able to analyze what she has got to do. She's got to put on a mask from there on.]
And so she becomes like a person with a mask, and I think that's well done. And then she has got this strange desire for order, doesn't she?

Dava:
I loved that part.

Bill:
I did too.

Jonathan:
She's locked, she's put in solitary confinement in this school for misbehaving.

Bill:
Wasn't that an interesting aspect?

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
The technique that she used to bring that in. You are writing about this neurological disorder and all of the problems there and yet -- and I don't know if this is a part of the syndrome or not. I would not imagine that it is--but tell us more about that. I thought that was very unique the way she...

Jonathan:
Well, yes, I suppose she herself was full of this. She has got this potential for such disorder within herself that she loves to make order around her I mean.

Rochelle:
hmm

Jonathan:
She's locked in this room, and she wants to order everything in terms of their colors and so even objects if they are not related to each other or if they aren't really relevant to each other. She puts them together because of their colors, and so the whole place is color coded. And then when the teacher came in and he started reorganizing it, she really got angry. You know you are destroying my world.

Wilma:
But see I didn't think this was consistent. Later in the book she didn't have that compulsion. I loved that part of it.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Wilma:
And I thought that was real but later.

Bill:
How much later, I mean.

Wilma:
Oh I don't know. When she was in the hospital, she would walk in and see her bed unmade -- the way she left it, and I didn't see anything when she was in the hospital to indicate that she was rigid.

Jonathan:
I agree with that, but I tell you where it really came out in my view which is when she was at the revival meeting.

Wilma:
hmm .

Jonathan:
And her grandmother and Ms. Emily and other people were dancing, and they were in this religious frenzy.It was in a Pentecostal revival meeting where everybody was really letting it all hang out.

Bill:
(laughs)

Jonathan:
And I think, in a sense, it looked to her as if they were fits because they were speaking in tongues, they were getting down on their knees, they were saying oh take me Lord and so on, and it looked like people were out of control. And she couldn't handle it because that's too much like what she is like clinically. And so again, I think it was the disorder of the religious fervor that made her shrink from it.

Rochelle:
And I thought that she would run to that. I thought that that was going to be what would save her, that she would see disorder in other people's lives and that didn't do it. You had to go further to find that it was music that would actually save her.

Jonathan:
Yeah, yeah.

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
I'm not sure I like the comparison about the Pentecostal Church and their fervor in religion and the comparison with her Tourette's. It was almost too direct. And I don't know if it worked or not. I haven't thought that through thoroughly. I started getting nervous when she went into that, wondering where she was going with it, and I think it was handled fairly well. But that did make me a little nervous.

Jonathan:
I think you are suggesting that you feel in a way the novel is unresolved at the end, and I think that her problems are still with her at the end. She is able to take part in these five different choirs in the local village she lives in, and in singing she controls her illness.

Wilma:
And she finds redemption.

Jonathan:
But she can't . It's kind of like a novel about being born again in a sense, but she can't. It's all there, still there you know. And the only time she is sure of not having a fit is when she's singing. She can't do that all of her life so in a sense it ends beautifully when she's singing these hymns. But where does she go from there? In a sense it is about growing up and overcoming your problems, but in her case her problems are very much still with her. She has just worked out one way of dealing with it.

Rochelle:
I have read a great....

Jonathan:
But how what's she going to be like when she is sitting in a room and somebody annoys her. She can't sing a hymn.

Rochelle:
Or maybe she can.

(everybody laugh)

Wilma:
You were talking, Jonathan, about the coming of age novel which, of course, is often a great piece of literature and especially children's literature and literature for young adults is almost always that way. And I think I have read so many better examples of children coming of age and children with problems. I'm thinking especially of Gilly Hopkins, Catherine Patterson, and Junior Brown from Virginia Hamilton. Both children with problems and would just wrench my heart reading about it and in this particular case I don't think it necessarily wrenched my heart. I enjoyed the book, but I didn't think it was as strong as some other things I had read about children with problems.

Jonathan:
What I felt was, and I wonder what you guys think, that the most poignant section was when she is put in the asylum for children in Lexington, Bluegrass Hospital.

Bill:
hmmm.

Jonathan:
And when she is left there the first night and her grandparents leave her. I think that was rather well done and the atmosphere of the place being very strange to her -- I think that was maybe the best part of it.

Dava:
I think the way the entire group of children was at the hospital, the way they are each painted you don't get a strong character development in each but that was one of the best parts of the book I think, and just the solitary life each of those children lead and they are misunderstood in every single way. It was very disparaging I thought.

Rochelle:
The most poignant thing for me was her always searching for love and so in that way it was part of the time that she was in the institution but it wasn't the portion in the institution, because, as Wilma said, I just think that you know it was -- okay let's put in a little piece of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.

Wilma:
hmmmm.

Rochelle:
Let's put in a little piece of this, let's put in a little of that...and what I wanted was the real parts because this woman is such a good writer that I felt that she was capable of doing some things different places. Every time she was searching for some love, for example when she and Peavy kind of get together and her whole world changes because she thinks someone cares about her. And then he has to go back to school, and she's not allowed to so she gets all these books from Ms. Emily and one of them is Victorian Poetry, Tristram and -- is it Iseult?

Jonathan:
Iseult, yeah.

Rochelle:
By Matthew Arnold about the tragic love affair. So she puts this in her letters to him, and I thought this was hilarious, but it was so sweet where she said,

I imagine myself as Iseult separated from my own true love. "Blame me not poor sufferer! that I tarried," I copied carefully. "Bound I was, I could not break the band./ Chide not with the past, but feel the present!/ I am here -- we meet -- I hold thy hand." I ended the letter with "Your loving Iseult." Below the signature, I drew a cracked heart.
And she is trying to let him know how much she misses him and her heart is broken because he's away at school. This is Peavy that she loves, and he sends her a message back,
Roses are red. violets are blue What are you talking about? It don't matter 'cause I still love you. P.S. Is your middle name, Insult?

(everyone laughs)

Rochelle:
You know it was just so sweet and so unusual and the things that were unique and original throughout the book just moved me and kept me knowing her. The things that looked like they were put in to connect things, like okay if she is going to find her redemption in church, we have got to get her to church. All of a sudden the grandmother announced that she's going to church and that's how she gets to the choir. Or she has to go to this institution well she didn't go from the time, I think she was like thirteen before they finally...

Everyone: hmm .

Rochelle:
For thirteen years she has these fits and she goes through all of this horrible stuff at school and only then do they put her in this institution. I loved the relationship between her and Rose the little girl who could not talk back to her, but I almost wished that there were more connections. That the connections or the transitions between these portions of her life were clearer.

Bill:
Let me talk to you a little bit more about the asylum and the hospitalization. I enjoyed that part, and I thought that was done very well although I was ready for her to leave. I couldn't find the reasons in the writing why she wasn't able to have visitors after a while or why she wasn't able to go home. I think that that segment was done very well up to a point. Maybe up to Christmas when she wasn't allowed.

Rochelle:
When she was supposed to go and they said no you can't.

Bill:
I really didn't understand that. In fact, quite honestly, that was frustrating to me as a reader that she wasn't given some leave. She could have come back and developed the rest of the hospitalization in all of that.

Jonathan:
Well I think I mean she didn't know what was going on and I think it reflected rather well a sense that she was just felt like a prisoner there, and she didn't know why.

Dava:
I think it reflected well how other people didn't understand at all. After all she did come there in November I believe, and by Christmas it would have probably been a month or something and I could believe that she wouldn't be allowed to go home because they had no clue what was wrong with her. Maybe they thought if they let her go maybe they wouldn't bring her back I don't know.

Rochelle:
But the problem was them promising her that she could go thinking that they could cure her in a month when they didn't know what was wrong.

Dava:
Oh yeah.

Rochelle:
One more disappointment.

Wilma:
I thought the author painted herself into a corner in the mental hospital because she got her in there and really they didn't do much with her. She didn't have a great deal of counseling. She had to leave at some point, of course, to get back home, and the only way that the author was able to resolve that is with the Christmas pageant which was really outside the rest of the novel. It was almost slapstick.

Bill:
hmm .

Wilma:
During the Christmas pageant she falls down in a fit and they drug her and she goes into the hospital bed and stays there until they decide to take the drugs away from her. Then they just send her home.

Bill:
hmm .

Jonathan:
Yeah, that wasn't explained well.

Wilma:
No it wasn't at all.

Bill:
I think that's part of the frustration that I felt.

Jonathan:
She was supposed to be kept in for observation. I mean Dr. Conroy kept saying you can't go home yet because we have to see more of you. We have to observe you more to work out what's wrong with you.

Bill:
But you know that's as far as Dr. Conroy ever went with her. Now maybe you don't explain that to a child and she was still at that time very young. But I thought maybe in the other narrative that maybe there could have been a better explanation to ...

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
... somebody Dr. Conroy was talking to -- someone else. .

Rochelle:
Exactly.

Bill:
Now let me ask you about this first person writing style. We have talked about it a little bit before and whether or not it works better in this one than it has before and what your examples are. Wilma, let's just talk a little bit about that.

Wilma:
One problem that I had with it is that it is an adult book I think. It's a very thin line for a writer to cross in writing an adult novel from a child's viewpoint. Now really topnotch authors I think have been able to do that. But normally when you get a child's viewpoint, you are writing for a younger audience. You know the child. You know you are supposed to be part of that child and so I'm not sure I don't think it was a terrible example, but I'm not sure that it came off as well as it could have because it is I think an adult novel, didn't you feel that way? And yet told from a child's viewpoint.

Bill:
Yes and no. I think that a teenager could read this and be absorbed in this character and really maybe go through the frustrations of adolescence as we talked about a few minutes ago. Certainly not in a joking way, I didn't mean that, but in a very serious manner of the tribulations that one goes through. What do you think?

Rochelle:
Well, first of all I think the first person absolutely worked. I couldn't imagine this book told from any other point of view besides hers. But I saw it only as an adult novel. I don't think this is the kind of thing for young people.

Bill:
Really.

Rochelle:
Yeah, I put this in the same genre as Catcher in the Rye -- just not at quite the same level. I think that there is writing that rises to the occasion, but it's just not consistent.

Jonathan:
I can see teenagers reading this. I mean Catcher in the Rye is often read by sixteen years olds, and I can certainly see a sixteen year old reading this and really identifying with her because I do think that a lot of teenagers are very keen on fitting in.

Rochelle:
Well I'm not saying it's off limits.

Jonathan:
Trying to fit in.

Rochelle:
No, I'm not saying it's off limits. I just wouldn't recommend this to a thirteen year old.

Bill:
hmm .

Rochelle:
You know it's not like a Judy Blume book. I'd I would recommend this to friends particularly for people who like to read things that have good writing in it.

Dava:
I think the first person worked out fine because you know she is writing it from when she is older, and so I think that is good because she can put in retrospect what exactly she is thinking.

Bill:
Oh, I see.

Dava:
And I think that's why Icy Sparks was such a strong character on the inside.

Narrator: Remember to check out ket.org and learn more about this book and other bookclub selections. Plus enjoy author interviews and discussion boards. You can join the club any time. The address is www.ket.org.

Dava:
Sure is pretty I said like a photograph dreaming. And later she says all soft light she is talking about the twilight like my goosedown pillow like the fluff on a dove's breast safe soft and gray. Bad things shouldn't happen at twilight. I just couldn't believe a child would say this.

Bill:
No exactly, and I thought again, if I have a slight criticism, it may have been that she was a little bit mature on the written page beyond her actual years if you were to believe that she said these things.

Jonathan:
Yeah, I will give you another example when she meets Peavy Lawson when he's grown up somewhat and he now presents himself to her.

Rochelle:
And he doesn't look like a frog any more.

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