The Story of Beautiful Girl
On a stormy night in small-town America, a couple, desperate and soaked to the skin, knock on a stranger’s door. When Martha, a retired schoolteacher living a safe and conventional life, answers their knock, her world changes forever.
For they are fugitives. Lynnie, a young woman with an intellectual disability, and Homan, a deaf man with only sign language to guide him, have escaped together from The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, a brutal institution where people with disabilities are left to languish, shuttered away from the world.
In a moment of despair, they reveal that Lynnie has a newborn baby. But, moments later, the police bang on the door. Homan escapes into the darkness, Lynnie is captured. But just before she is returned to The School, bound and tied, she utters two words to Martha: “Hide her.” And so begins the unforgettable story of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia – lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love.
It’s 1968. In the middle of a dark and stormy night, an elderly widow’s evening is interrupted by a knock on her door. She’s greeted by two people who will change her life forever.
On her doorstep, she finds Lynnie and Homan. Lynnie is a white woman with learning disabilities. Homan is a black deaf man. Together, they’ve escaped the confines of the Pensylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. And Lynnie’s just given birth to a baby girl, the beautiful result of a horrific incident which took place within the so-called school.
Despite the pair’s best efforts, the authorities arrive, carting Lynnie away in a straight-jacket while Homan – who we discover is referred to simply as Number Forty Two by the school staff, as he can’t communicate with them – takes off. Before she’s taken back to the school, Lynnie – who can’t speak – found the courage to whisper two words to the old lady, Martha: “hide her”. Martha does what most in her situation would run away from, and takes on the task of raising the baby left in her attic on her own.
The Story of Beautiful Girl flits between the story of Martha and baby Julia trying to start a new life together, Lynnie back in the school, Homan on the run, and Kate, one of the few caring staff members in the brutal, prison-like school. It’s a touching tale of unlikely romance, lives torn apart and reunited again, and shows a fascinating insight into the way in which disabled people are treated in society.
The book was inspired by author Rachel Simon’s own life. Her sister has learning disabilities and while their parents decided to keep her at home, Rachel has met dozens of people over the years who were institutionalised. Just a few decades ago, people with various different disabilities were still being locked up in appalling conditions. At the fictional Pennsylvania school, residents were subject to horrendous physical, mental and sexual abuse, being treated as second-class citizens. This was Simon’s attempt to tell the story of every person who was failed by the system.
From this point of view, the book really struck a cord with me too. In my day job, I write for a magazine which is for disabled people and carers across Britain. Day to day, I’m writing about topics like disability rights, the world of care and the politics surrounding disability. When I thought about all the disabled people, family members and carers I’ve talked to and met over the last year through work, it absolutely broke my heart to see how standards of care for people with disabilities used to be and how different life would’ve been for them just a few decades ago.
Contrasting both the cruelty and kindness of humans, Simon offers a great insight into the injustice often suffered by disabled people, her sister included, wrapping it all up in a tale of love, bravery, trust, understanding and unlikely relationships, romantic, familial and friendship.
For me, this was one of those books that I just couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, but I do wonder if it’d mean as much if I wasn’t interested in disability rights myself, which is why I can’t quite bring myself to give it five stars. Overall though? The Story of Beautiful Girl is, well, beautiful. It’s definitely not one that you’ll forget.