This middle grade novel has a medieval, feudal setting, and the author kept me guessing all the way through as to whether it would turn out to be fantasy/fairy tale or realistic fiction. In the story, Elric must take care of his sister Wynnfrith after their mother’s death and protect her from the villagers who think that because Wynn is mentally handicapped, she is a changeling child, switched at birth by the fairies and therefore cursed. The narrative follows the journey of the two children through the countryside as they look for a safe home where they can live free of prejudice and persecution and where they can take care of one another.
The writing isn’t sparkly or impressive, but the plot and characterization, especially the characters of Elric and Wynn, carry the story. While I was reading I thought a lot about how we treat mentally handicapped or mentally challenged children and adults now in the supposedly enlightened twenty-first century. Throughout the book, while the majority of villagers and strangers treat Wynnfrith with contempt or else they fear her curse, Elric learns that she is a person with her own ideas and her own strengths and weaknesses, even if her ability to express those ideas is limited. And although the children meet with much cruelty and bullying, there are a few kind people who help them along the way.
For all the talk we give to “diversity” and “acceptance” and “tolerance” in our society, our actions speak louder than our words. How many children’s books and movies feature children of average or below average mental capacity? If the child in the book is autistic or differently abled in some other way, he or she must be a hidden or misunderstood genius, not just a kid of average abilities who again, has some strengths and some weaknesses.
Even worse though than the dearth of mentally handicapped kid characters in books is the disappearance of the actual kids themselves from our society. Although the majority of women who carry a baby with Down’s Syndrome continue to carry that baby to term and give birth, a significant minority (30-40%?) choose abortion. What are we as a society missing when we selectively choose death for the mentally challenged? What does it say about the human beings that we value and those that we don’t when a decision to abort a baby with Down’s Syndrome becomes acceptable and even laudable in the eyes of many people?
I don’t know that one children’s book can change the perception that devalues and degrades those among us who are learning disabled or mentally handicapped, but it’s a start. I would that there were more books like The Silver Gate, books that, without preaching, give mentally handicapped characters a place in literature and treat them with respect and dignity.