There seems to be some unwritten law in fiction for the disabled; assimilate or suffer.
Whenever I would hear stories about kids who stutter, it always ended with them happily learning to speak fluently, usually with the help of some condescending child who was the main character. In the only story where this didn’t happen, the kid in question killed herself after being bullied one too many times. To make matters, this wasn’t any old Babysitter’s Club or Little House on the Prairie scenario; this was Chicken Soup for the Preteen’s Soul. In the same anthology that told stories of losing a styrofoam breast enhancement at the pool or learning compassion through adopting a stray cat, my fate was apparently to foolishly think I had friends, be betrayed by said friends, and then die off screen while everyone else learned a Very Important Lesson. But when I read it, it wasn’t upsetting to me, or rather not in the way most people would think. Sure, I was unsettled by the ending, but any ten-year-old would be. I tried instead to distance myself as best I could from narratives like this, but because that was all that was offered, it became near impossible. If this is what the life of a stutterer was, I didn’t want to be one.
So it’s important to have books like Paperboy, warts and all. Paperboy centers around a cleverly unnamed protagonist (it’s too difficult for him to pronounce), an eleven-year-old boy living in the suburbs of Memphis in 1959. After taking over a paper route for a vacationing friend over the summer, he’s forced into uncomfortable interactions with his customers while dealing with the violent local junkman.
The book reads in a straightforward and sparse style, as it’s told through the protagonist on his typewriter. This spares the reader from a lot of stuttering clichés such as looking constantly nervous or jokes about all the “wacky” mishaps when talking to a stutterer. Nor do you have to read through lines of repeated letters a la Porky Pig. The narrator has a much more realistic stutter that comes in a mixture of blocks during certain sounds and repeated phrases. There’s also the interesting historical aspect of early techniques in speech therapy. Thirty years after the events of The King’s Speech, the protagonist sees a therapist who teaches Gentle Air, slowly exhaling on words he can’t say. This will later turn into Easy Onsets, what I was learning in the early 2000s, where a deep breath is taken before every phrase as a precaution to any stuttering that might come ahead. Author Vince Vawter is a lifelong stutterer himself, and many aspects seem to be taken from his own childhood in Memphis, giving it a very sincere and authentic feel. If you want a child to get an empathetic and realistic look on the life of a stutterer, this will get the job done.
The writing itself, while plainspoken and down to earth, is nothing special. At times the book seems to be juggling too many plot points at once, with a violent third act that seems to come out of nowhere. Another setback is the narrator’s background. The kid’s family is loaded, especially by 1950s standards. His father is mentioned owning a plane while the mother seems to not work at all. This explains how the family can afford a private speech therapist, something that wasn’t too common at the time. The boy is mainly cared for by Mam, a black nanny who is his closest companion. It’s an odd take on Jim Crow era south, where black garbage collectors can apparently walk through upscale white neighborhoods without a fuss and the only violence we see aimed at black characters is caused by other black people. The character of Mam herself veers dangerously into stereotype territory. Living in a garage behind the house of the protagonist, her life seems to revolve around serving the white family she works for and being a surrogate mother to their son. Any ties to the black community are full of tragedy and violence. Sort of like The Help but for prepubescent boys.
The book also suffers from an overload of characters and subplots, most them regarding the various newspaper customers, including an alcoholic housewife and an eccentric intellectual whose then innocent actions (inviting an eleven-year-old he barely knows into his house) would firmly place him into the “stranger danger” category today. Named Mr. Spiro, this character gives an odd mixture of advice to help the protagonist’s speech, some of it sincere and some of it so awkward it comes across as clueless and condescending.
After finishing Paperboy I wondered how I would have reacted to it if I had read it around the same time as the Chicken Soup fiasco. I’m a sucker for historical fiction and this would have been right up my alley as a ten-year-old. I would have probably gotten through the first couple of chapters, gotten too uncomfortable at the similarities, then switched back to the Dear America series or whatever Jerry Spinelli was putting out at the time.
The one thing that’s really missing in most children’s disability books is a sense of pride. You get some of that at the end of Paperboy when the protagonist finally says his name proudly on the first day of school and says that he stutters, but it takes two hundred pages to get to that point. And he still tells Mam on the final page, “My soul doesn’t stutter.” Maybe souls don’t stutter, but stuttering is still an identity, it’s still a huge impact on anyone’s life. Whether the impact is good or bad is up to the individual to decide.
Paperboy is only one character’s experience of stuttering, but it’s an honest one. And in a world where so often these stories aren’t told, that comes across like a breath of fresh air.