Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar, 256 pp, RL 4
Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar, with absolutely beautiful cover and spot art by Penelope Dullaghan is a book I will not forget. The heart of the story is Ruthie Mizrahi and the year she spends in bed recovering after a horrible car accident, but Behar fills her story with a rich cast of characters, making this one of those rare books that is organically diverse.
It is 1966 and Ruthie has just moved from Cuba to Queens with her parents and younger brother to join mother's parents, Baba and Zeide, and her Aunt Sylvia. In fact, Sylvia has an American husband and children, Dennis and Lily. Ruthie and her classmate Ramu, whose family immigrated from India, are anxious to get out of the "dumb" class and prove that they are smart even if English isn't their first language. Ruthie is also yearning for go-go boots, just like her elegant neighbor Danielle, who is from Belgium. A fatal, multi-car accident leaves Ruthie in a full body cast, in bed for a year and being taken care of by her Mami like a baby.
During this year, Ruthie learns much about the people in her life and about herself, and Behar does a fine job balancing both. Ruthie begins the year in a full body cast, suffering the humiliation of having to use a bedpan, with the help of her mother, and being bathed by her mother. Her mother's frustration and sadness is palpable, especially when she cuts off Ruthie's long hair, despite her fierce protests, so that it will be easier to wash. At first, Ruthie feels isolated. Her friend Ramu is not allowed to visit her, but gets a letter to her, and Danielle is so disturbed by Ruthie's injuries that she never returns after her first visit. But, Ruthie gets a teacher all to herself, when Joy begins tutoring her, even bringing Nancy Drew books for Ruthie to read. Ruth knows that she is lucky to be alive, but she can't imagine ever being whole again.
Ruth begins writing letters, first to Ramu, then God, then, after he sneaks a visit and gives her a pendant that is special to him, letters to Shiva as well. She also begins collecting stories, starting with her Jewban grandparents, learning of her grandmother's escape from Poland during World War II, then her escape from Castro's Communism. When Ramu's family experiences a tragedy that sends them back to India, Chicho, an immigrant from Mexico, moves into their apartment and befriends Ruthie. Chicho brightens Ruthie's small world, literally and figuratively, moving her bed so that she can see out the window and bringing her paints and introducing her to Frida Kahlo, telling her she is the guardian saint of wounded artists. As Ruthie heals, moving from a body cast to just one leg, but still bedridden, her world opens up again when her father gives her a typewriter and she can now record people's stories. Ruthie learns the details of the accident and struggles with hatred for the boy who caused it, eventually realizing she can forgive him. She also struggles with intense fear when it is time to begin using crutches and descend the six flights of stairs in her apartment.
Behar does a masterful job telling the story from Ruthie's perspective. At times, I felt myself wanting a deeper story, wanting to know more about her grandparents and Danielle's mother, a Moroccan Jew who moved to Belgium then fled an abusive husband, but I reminded myself that this is the story of an eleven-year-old girl who cannot leave her room, her bed even, and also that this is a story for children. And, considering that almost all of Lucky Broken Girl takes place in Ruthie's bedroom, Behar has written a story that is global. There aren't many children's books about children dealing with injury and illness, making Lucky Broken Girl stand out on the shelves for that reason alone. But, the richness and beauty that Behar imbues this story with, which, as I learned reading the author's notes are largely autobiographical, are universal, whether you are an immigrant or someone who has experienced a catastrophic injury.