When Among Others by Jo Walton first came out and everyone was geeking out about it, I decided not to read it. I felt that I would be annoyed by the endless references to books she had read, and possibly put off by Mori, the main character, and her sneering at those she finds less intelligent.
But then my friend Naomi handed it to me, demanding that I read it. “It’s like someone wrote a book specifically for you,” she said. “Mori walks like you, she’s got serious mamma issues, and she sees fairies. Real, Celtic ones.”
(I feel it is necessary to mention that I don’t see fairies. I’m just obsessed with Celtic fairy lore — the real stuff, not the twee Victorian ones or [forgive me, my friends]the breathy New Age romantic ones that like to play with crystals you hang in your kitchen window.)
What she didn’t mention, and what so many people seem to have missed in their reviews, is that Mori isn’t just physically disabled in a way very similar to the way I’m disabled. She also has PTSD — a mental health issue that can be disabling enough that I’m going to call it, for the sake of argument and this essay, a hidden disability. This is another thing that Mori and I share.
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Mori is clearly traumatized by her abusive and possibly mentally ill mother (what I loved most about this book, besides its interesting look at disability and the faeries, was that the magical system was so incredibly subtle and based on wishes, kitchen witchery, luck, coincidence, and nightmares, that the book could have easily sold as a straight memoir or ‘realistic’ fiction as well, which is my favorite type of magical system. Her mother may be mentally ill and refusing to address it, or an evil queen witch. One or the other. Or both. A much-loved-because-it-is-so-apt metaphor or a literally evil witch queen. In the context of this book, it doesn’t really matter.), and has all the signs of PTSD: a heightened sense of danger/reactivity, nightmares (that may or may not be magical attacks), a strong emotional avoidance of the scenes that traumatized her in the first place, And a sense of profound disconnectedness from her body in many ways — including a scene that, outside of the context of PTSD, is deeply puzzling and creepy, where she idly wonders if her biological father’s drunken attempt to have sex with her was actually incest at all as they are ‘practically strangers’ and even considers allowing it, as ‘who else is going to want me, broken as I am?’ Read one way, it’s a reference to her physical disability. Read the other, it’s a reference to the feelings of self-loathing so many people with PTSD have.
She wakes from nightmares convinced her mother is magically attacking her. She fears seeing her around every corner. She has flashbacks and panic attacks, and often feels that her life has ended with the moment that killed her sister and damaged her leg.
Her escape into books is also a perfect way for children of trauma to dissociate and find a way to handle things; at one point she actually tells herself that if she has books she can handle anything.
Walton’s references to Mori’s physical disability are so incredibly on-target, as one might expect from someone who herself uses a cane to get around: although she is in pain much of the time, and dearly misses running, most of the time it’s disablism that causes Mori the most difficulty. Mori winces at the expressions of pity on people’s faces when they see her and refuses to ask for a seat — a familiar experience for many disabled people. For those of us who grew up before the Americans With Disabilities Act (or the British equivalent, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, as this is set in Wales and England), her experiences being denied basic access to PE classes (not that she wants them) and public transportation accommodations ring very true, as does her complete assumption that this is how it should be.
Other things I loved about this book’s depiction of disability: the fact that even if she thinks that she is, sexually speaking, damaged goods, she Gets the Guy — and Wim is a pretty hot ticket, too. A disabled girl, able to have sex! Imagine that! She also thinks about birth control, as well, and handles her relationship with him in a realistic teenagerish sort of way. No sexless sweet crip here, no.
Walton’s look at disablism is intersectional, as well: Mori’s status as Welsh and therefore lower-class than the other girls at the boarding school where her estranged father sends her is very clearly as much of a hindrance to her popularity and success as her disability: they see her as a “crippled barbarian.”
Her history of vicious abuse and misery also marks her as different from the other girls in their easy assumption of certain family origins and values: also ringing true for a girl with PTSD.
As a matter of fact, her sometime snobbery with the dull girls around her also seems far more bearable when you see her as someone who has survived so much and absorbed such toxic stories about exceptionality and separateness that many children from dysfunctional families have in order to survive and make themselves feel a cut above instead of a cut apart.
My main issue with this book, as far as PTSD goes, is that it is so realistic that it actually harms the drama of the book.
So many people with abusive parents find, when they finally face them, that the parent is nothing but a dysfunctional person with no particularly special powers in comparison to the person who has been fearing them for so long. In the end, Mori defeats her mother, rather handily, with book magic. It is completely realistic from the standpoint of a girl whose PTSD has inflated the reality of her mother into an unwieldy all-powerful monster: defeating the enemy is never as hard as you thought it would be. But as a plot device, it’s a rather unsatisfying, anticlimactic end.
I have read so many books for young adults in which disability is something to ‘overcome,’ or in which disability is something that completely defines the main character. I’ve even liked a few in which the person became disabled and learned to accept it and move on with their lives.
But there are precious few that are about magic, and books, and power, and faeries and language and culture and class and sex in which the main character is disabled — and it matters that she is disabled, but that is not even the beginning of the whole story.
Among Others is one of them. It’s a terrific book, even if it isn’t perfect, and I’m so glad she represented a disabled teen girl as interesting, strong, and unique.