Free as a Bird
by Gina McMurchy-Barber
Dundurn Press, 2010
$12.99, 168 pp, ages 15+
Born with Down syndrome, Ruby Jean got dropped off at Woodlands School when she was eight years old. Ruby Jean’s grandmother, who had been her primary caregiver, had died and her mother wanted to get remarried. Some people called Ruby Jean “retarded” or a “moron.” Told from Ruby Jean’s perspective, all we know is Ruby Jean doesn’t think she’s all that smart. Being at Woodlands won’t help her; Woodlands School isn’t a school, it’s a mental institution. Ruby Jean said it “wasn’t a nice place for a liddle kid – nope, not a nice place a’tall.” Staff were negative and at best, negligent.
The harsh truth of Ruby Jean’s childhood will resonate with any young reader. Ruby Jean was curious, but seclusion and medication kept her mostly drooling in a corner. When a new program to learn “living skills” becomes available, Ruby Jean is given a chance for a life.
Based on an actual institution and histories—Woodlands was an institution in New Westminster, BC which housed people with mental health or developmental problems from 1950 to 1996—Ruby Jean’s story at Woodlands is terrible because it’s so true.
Review by Amanda Parker.
This review is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2011 issue.