I’ll start with the verdict: I loved the way Saundra Mitchell writes about disability in The Elementals. Julian Birch, one of the protagonists, has a “withered” leg from a childhood bout of polio, and Mitchell’s depiction of him is one of the most believable, relatable portrayals of disability I’ve come across.
Julian’s disability is present but backgrounded to the rest of the story, which focuses on the mysterious powers that Julian and Kate, a girl Julian sees only in visions, seem to share. As Julian goes about his life — experimenting with his powers, working on his family’s farm, thinking about the girl he hopes to marry — Mitchell often notes the way Julian moves. In an early scene, he “hauled himself up,” “thumped” across a porch, and leaned against a railing for support, and the ways in which he uses his crutches to do things that an able-bodied person might do with his legs (trip one of his brothers, for instance). These adaptations, when described from Julian’s point of view, seem like a thoroughly ordinary part of his life.
That’s not how everyone else in his life sees things, though. Julian experiences rejection and surprise when he goes looking for work, with landlords and potential employers sometimes shooing him away and sometimes offering him jobs only on the condition that he never ask other employees for help. One potential employer, Mr. Zweifel, bluntly asks Julian, “What’s the matter with you?” while pointing at Julian’s leg. Even though he’s had several potential bosses notice his disability by this point, Julian still feels awkward and uncomfortable in these conversations.
His own attitude about his disability also changes based on how other people react to him. Early in the book, Julian’s disability is just a part of who he is, something he doesn’t seem to think about much. But when the girl he wants to marry rejects him because she thinks he won’t be able to work on her family’s farm, Julian looks down and “his bad leg taunted. It hung too short; in the intermittent light, it seemed not only withered but gnarled….The world, the wide, limitless world, shrank to the size of the barn where he’d once lain fevering in the night.” Going back into his family’s house, he sees only the way the house and his family members’ lives have been altered for him, with a slide over the stairs for him to use, hooks on which he can hang his crutches, and chores that don’t involve the use of his leg. His brothers, leaving for the army, highlight that Julian can’t fight or tend to the farm in their absence. He feels infantilized in a way he hasn’t felt before, and that feeling is part of what sends him fleeing west to make his own way (and, eventually, cross paths with Kate).
Julian has a magical power — the ability to breathe dead things back to life — that he may have gotten from the same polio that affected his leg. But the power in no way compensates for or cures his disability; in fact, it brings Julian another set of problems, and it is that power and its consequences, rather than disability, that drive much of Julian’s portion of the plot. Julian’s disability is one of his motivations as a character — the lack of independence he feels at home pushes him to try to make his own way in the world — but it isn’t a crucial engine of the book’s wider plot, and that felt, to me, exactly right.
Thank you, Sara!
Author Saundra Mitchell has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–hardcover copy of The Elementals be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to North American addresses.
The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!