Within the first ten pages of One-Handed Catch by M.J. Auch, eleven-year-old Norm’s life changes abruptly when his hand gets caught in the meat grinder in his father’s butcher shop. A week later, he is sent home from the hospital an amputee. In 1946, it wasn’t uncommon to see an amputee, but they were usually war veterans. Norm is a kid, and from his perspective, losing his hand isn’t about learning to light cigarettes with a hook prosthesis. It’s about playing baseball and riding his bike.
Before I get too much further into this review, let me admit something: I am not an amputee. Like Norm in the book, I only have one hand, but I was born this way. Though doctors refer to my condition as a “congenital amputation,” I think a distinction between someone like me and someone like Norm is an important one to make. For one, I have no traumatic accident in my past. For another, I have no phantom pain, which often plagues amputees whose brains remember their absent limbs. The third difference is that I have always done everything with one hand (or with one hand and a prosthetic hook) while Norm has to adjust the way he does things throughout the book. Those differences aside, I still regularly recommend One-Handed Catch as the best book for young people about limb deficiency because it captures two big aspects of life with one less limb than the rest of you that I haven’t found in other books on the subject: humor and problem solving.
I’ll talk about problem solving first. One of the most frequently asked questions I get is some variation of “How do you [fill in the blank]with one hand?” Most people have never considered life with one hand, and the simplest tasks seem impossible to them. That’s what Norm thinks initially too. But thanks to his mom not letting him off the hook after his amputation, he learns very quickly that he can do everything he used to do with a little bit of creative thinking. The author doesn’t just say that Norm figured it out and leave it at that. She knows that kids want details. She describes Norm’s process for tying his shoes, which most people assume is impossible to do with one hand, and his trial and error method for figuring out how to play baseball well enough to make his local team. Some may say that Norm’s super-determined attitude when it comes to baseball crosses the “inspiration porn” line (I think every review I read of the book used some variation of the word “inspire.”), and I will admit that the tired theme of overcoming adversity is strong in this book. But I weigh the inspiration element with the de-mystification of many aspects of my life, and I still end up with more pros than cons. This book answers so many of the questions that kids ask me everyday about how I do things and how I learned to do them that way. That alone gets high marks from me.
Then there is the humor. I think this is the hardest thing for fiction writers to get right when writing about disabilities. My childhood was full of arm jokes with my brother or with close friends. We laughed at silly arm or hook related puns, and we giggled every time we passed a “second hand store.” Maybe we were just reacting to the awkwardness of people who tried to avoid using words like hand, arm, or hook. I don’t know the exact psychology behind it, but I do know that I loved the relationship between Norm and his best friend Leon. Leon was protective of his friend, often unnecessarily, but he was also willing to laugh when things were funny. Not everyone is willing to write about that. Or if they do, they don’t always get it quite right. The fact that the book is a light read without sacrificing realism or becoming saccharine is another huge chunk of points in its favor.
An author’s note from Mary Jane Auch reveals her connection to the subject. Norm and his story are based on her husband Herm’s childhood. While I would not discourage writers who have no connection to a particular disability from doing their research and include a character with a disability in their story, I imagine that the accuracy of the details and the realistic humor in this book are due to the author’s personal experience. I think that many readers will latch on to the element of perseverance despite an obstacle, but my hope is that readers will leave the book more informed about life with one arm. That they will consider the various responses of the characters in Norm’s life to his disability, which are all very realistic from his dad’s reluctance to acknowledge it to his mom’s tough attitude about it, and think about how they react to people who are different from them.
The story also explores period details of small town life just after World War II ended and includes some sports action and history throughout. Add it all up, and you have a great book to recommend to middle schoolers who like sports or historical fiction. It might also make a good classroom read-aloud (don’t worry, Norm’s accident is not graphically described) for fifth or sixth graders. You might even have your students try doing things like tie their shoes or sharpen their pencils without one of their hands to get an idea of Norm’s and my experiences. I predict it’ll be easier than they expect, and that’s one of the reasons I like this book.