What Happened to Ivy (2012), by Kathy Stinson

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 18.2.

What Happened to Ivy

In 2000, Terry Trueman published Stuck in Neutral, written from the perspective of a teenaged boy suffering from cerebral palsy so badly that he cannot communicate at all. The novel is brilliant, causing the reader to really think about what it must be like, to be an intelligence locked in a body with no controllable outward responses. In the final scene, Shawn is about to enter a fit, unsure of whether or not his father is—at that very moment—intending to “put him out of his misery.” Kathy Stinson’s What Happened to Ivy tells a similar story, from a different perspective, and is, I think, more successful for that. While Stuck in Neutral shows the internal perspective of the cerebral palsy sufferer, What Happened to Ivy tells the equally troubling tale of Ivy’s brother, David, and the father who might or might not have been instrumental in his daughter’s death.
David both loves and resents Ivy. He feels that his parents focus entirely on her, ignoring the things in his life that matter, the things most teenaged boys can share with their parents and siblings. David, like his parents, is little more than a caregiver for the severely disabled Ivy; nonetheless, the three of them love her dearly, and work unceasingly to ensure her comfort and safety. Holidaying at their cabin, while David is walking with his new girlfriend and their mother is napping, Ivy has a seizure in the water and drowns. David is understandably traumatized by the combination of guilt and relief he feels, and this is what gives the novel its power. Reading David’s story, I felt so strongly that he really needed to talk to someone his own age, who would listen and understand and give sage advice; then it occurred to me that very few people his age would have any sage advice to give: his situation was relatively unique, although survivor’s guilt itself is not. That is a role that Stinson’s book can perform admirably. There are very few books out there that can be successfully bibliotherapeutic in the strictest sense of the term, but this I think is one. David struggles both with his own guilt and with his resentment of his father, who admits in his distress that he let Ivy go as she struggled in the water during her fit. David himself points out the philosophical difference between killing and letting die, but that is not enough to heal his own wounds. In the end, as in Stuck in Neutral, we are left not knowing what the criminal and social ramifications of the situation Stinson constructs will be, but we are given ample evidence of the possibilities. We also know the direction that David’s thoughts have taken, and we see him move towards self-healing, the final step in the bibliotherapeutic process. We watch as his family’s tenuous balance and security is wrenched apart, and we watch as his mother and father and girlfriend, Hannah, help him to slowly weave together his own revised pattern for his life. When he admits the most profound source of his own guilt to Hannah, she thoughtfully remarks, “You’re human, David” (139). Simple, honest, and non-judgmental, her comment solidifies the healing process David has begun. In the penultimate scene, David is finally able to extend that healing to his suffering father. While the practicalities are not resolved, David’s own inner turmoil has been calmed, his emotional energy directed away from his own grieving towards that of his parents. He has grown into an emotional maturity that we know will help him to survive whatever happens next.

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