Tuesday, October 7, 2008
It’s 1964. In the middle of a snowstorm, Dr. David Henry drives his wife Norah to his office and delivers his own child. The baby Paul is perfect. But then, unexpectedly his wife bears down and a second child is born. After one look at his daughter Phoebe, he recognizes the tell-tale signs of Downs Syndrome and makes the fateful decision to spare his wife the agony of raising a child that’s doomed to die young and will never be fully functional. So, he tells his wife that the twin girl has died. But he secretly gives the baby to his nurse Caroline who promises to bring her to an institution in another state. Caroline, who adores Dr. Henry, is startled by his request, but does what he asks. But when she gets to the institution, she’s horrified by the conditions there and decides, in another fateful moment, to keep the child and raise her.
It’s easy to forget the public attitudes towards Downs Syndrome at that time, but Kim Edwards does a good job reminding us that these children were treated like shameful secrets and were hidden away in institutions, until the social revolution in the 1970’s when advocates for the mentally handicapped fought for educational rights in mainstream environments instead of the horrors of institutionalization.
In The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the plot is revealed in alternating points of view—Dr. David Henry who never reveals his secret and is tormented by it; his wife Norah who tries to fashion a life after Phoebe’s supposed death but is haunted by memories of her; their son Paul, who lives in a house full of silence and secrets and tries to crack them open; and Caroline, the nurse, who establishes a life for herself and Phoebe in a distant town.