The first time I’ve really seen someone in a book who is just like me, and she turns out to be a superhero.
I was born with one arm, a condition called a congenital amputation. It’s not terribly common in real life, and it’s even less common in fictional life. It’s more common to that people with limb deficiencies lost a limb later in life in an accident or in combat. Most people assume that’s what happened to me. It often takes people by surprise to learn that I was born this way. And that’s just the first of many assumptions I encounter on a daily basis.
If there’s a book about an amputee, it’s usually about someone who has lost a limb later in life. Often I can find elements of relatability in these stories, but it’s never quite right. Books like Izzy Willy Nilly and One-Handed Catch, both amputee stories, are about adjusting to a new physical reality. When you’re born with a physical difference, you don’t have to adjust to it. It’s always a part of you. The adjustments that I make to do things one-handedly are almost subconscious. So I was excited to discover that Dangerous by Shannon Hale featured a protagonist with a congenital amputation, but I was also very skeptical of any writer’s ability to write my experience accurately.
Dangerous did not start off well. On page ten, you find out that our heroine, Maisie, has one hand. She describes amniotic band syndrome as the reason for her lack of an arm, which is cool because no one usually knows what that is. But then she says, “It was my right arm’s fault that I was into space. When I was old enough to dress myself, Dad replaced buttons on my clothes with Velcro, saying, ‘Velcro—just like the astronauts.’ I’d wanted to know more, and a few library books later, I was a space geek.”
I wish she would have said shoes. My parents bought me Velcro tennis shoes when I was a little kid, so I didn’t have to worry about tying them. It took me a bit longer to learn to tie shoes than it did other kids because it was hard to get the shoes tied tightly enough with the kind of prosthetic arm I used. I did eventually get it, but it took some hacking. But buttons? They really don’t take two hands to do. Not even as a little kid.
It’s an easy mistake to make though. Most two-handed people assume that if they do it with two hands, it must be done that way. I decided to let it slide. I rationalized that Maisie’s parents wouldn’t have known about one handed life any more than most people. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think that they would try to make life easier for their daughter by replacing buttons on clothes with Velcro. I might argue that shoes would have been a more obvious choice, but I’ll set aside my arguments and move on.
The story moves quickly—sometimes too quickly—and soon Maisie is on her way to astronaut camp. She’s a little self conscious about her limb deficiency, but she isn’t worried about her ability to do everything the other kids do. That’s when I started feeling optimistic about the book. It’s often hard for people to believe, but the biggest worry of my one handed life isn’t how I’m going to do something with one hand. It’s wondering how people are going to respond to my one handedness. Will I have to prove myself? Will they not let me participate? Will they stare or ask questions? Will they acknowledge it at all? Especially as a young person, these social concerns were a much bigger deal than physical tasks.
When Maisie and her astronaut camp team gain super powers through some alien technology, the focus shifts away from any social concerns Maise might have to more pressing issues that propel that fast-moving plot ever forward. Her limb deficiency didn’t come up that often as the story unfolded, but every time it did I found myself pleasantly surprised. Hale avoided falling into the main false assumptions about one handed life: that everything will be so hard and that everything about a person who is different has to be serious. I loved that Maisie never needed help because of her limb deficiency. She didn’t complain about it or not attempt to save the world because of it. She made jokes about it. She nicknamed her initial prosthetic device and the robot arm she eventually builds herself. That might not seem like a big deal, but it is. Those assumptions are ever-present in my life, and it is always a pleasant surprise when someone gets it.
There were occasional minor slip ups, like the Velcro thing at the beginning, throughout the novel. I would have loved more detail about her prosthetic arm, and I also wondered where her amputation began. It makes a pretty big difference in how you do things whether you have an elbow or a wrist. I was skeptical of Maisie’s teammates casually referencing her limb deficiency so quickly since that isn’t my experience. But these things seemed so unimportant considering what Dangerous did right.
I really believed that Maisie was born without a hand. With the exception of the superpowers via alien technology thing, she might have been me. Kudos to Ms. Hale for doing her research and not allowing assumptions to write the story.
Mindy Rhiger also live-Tweeted her experiences reading Dangerous; check it out for even more of her thoughts and details about the character’s portrayal.