This was a very unexpected book! I’m not sure where I learned of it. I believe it was through Kirkus. At any rate, I remember that the description was a bit elusive but for some reason caught my attention and it got put on my “to read” list. And I am very glad I did.
Ava and Fred are siblings being raised on a farm/ex-commune by parents who “free-ranged” them. Believing that children will thrive best in such an unfettered environment to learn in their own ways and their own time.
Fred has always been uncommunicative for the most part. Rarely talks, avoids eye contact and touch, sucks his thumb, flaps his hands and likes to wander the woods alone. It becomes quite obvious early on that he suffers from quite probably some form of autism, and though the author alludes to this herself, she never really states it flat out. I think this may be because she didn’t want to single out a specific disorder, or add another shadow to an already misunderstood disorder.
The story is told in dual time frames, when they were children on the farm and the current day. Fred has been arrested for a horrific crime and Ava is trying to figure out what happened, if he really did it, And as she begins to try and work with his attorney to help in the case, she also realizes that her parents free form parenting that precluded having Fred diagnosed has added to the difficulty in presenting a defense for him.
During her stay near the prison, she begins to reminisce about their childhood, offering a glimpse into the mind and shaping of Fred. Including an incident where play with a young boy almost resulted in tragedy that shines a beam of genuine understanding into the naivete of the mind of one like Fred and how often the story is much more than it seems to be.
The book is a fascinating glimpse into life and scratching the surface of the mind of autism. But, not only of autism, but simply how another mind can so differently process the world around them. It is also about the families of the “challenged”, the fears and realities of what could befall them when they are left behind with the parents die, when they are turned over to the care of strangers, or turned out by society.
There seems to be a lot of people who didn’t like this book and I have to wonder if they really gave a chance to the story that it really told and not the one they expected to hear. Or maybe because the story was a difficult one to open to. Giving humanity to the discarded is often difficult for many to accept. We want the simple and quick judgement, not the understanding that takes time and patience. Or maybe it is that we are afraid if we take the time to truly explore beneath the surface to understand, we may find the differences between us is not so great as we previously imagined.
“No Book But the World” is an amazing work of fiction. A wonderful and heart wrenching view into both the darkness and light in the depths of human experience, in love, family and responsibility. Leah Hagen Cohen is a beautiful voice in the land of literature and I look forward to reading more of her in the future.