Book Review: The Transcriber (Kristen Witucki)

Reviewed by J. L. Powers

Kristen Witucki doesn't pull any punches in The Transcriber

From the moment her protagonist, a young boy named Louis, opens his mouth on page 1—to discuss at length all the conundrums and contradictions he sees in the street sign near their house announcing "BLIND CHILD AREA" for his (blind) sister Emily—we understand that Louis has no reverence for a subject many people tiptoe around, that is, the subject of "disability."

I asked Mom why we have to have signs telling the world that Emily is blind, or why we have to tell everybody we have a blind person living in our house. She said the town insisted on putting them up so that people who are driving too fast will see the signs, slow down and look to see if Emily is in any danger of being run over. But Emily's not stupid. If she wants to play in the street and get run over, that's her decision.

Instead, for Louis, Emily isn't "blind." She's his sister—and like all brothers everywhere, he is sometimes mean to her, sometimes makes her his ally, and sometimes exploits her lack of vision for his own amusement and/or benefit. One thing that never changes for Louis is his insistence on treating Emily as Emily, not as his blind sister—an insistence that some people might judge him for but which actually opens up an important conversation about how we understand "disability" and how we treat people with disabilities in our society.

To understand how Louis's relationship with his sister opens up this conversation, we have to return to the statement I made earlier—how Louis spends quite a lot of time thinking about what it means literally to be blind as opposed to the crushing emotional and psychological weight that society attaches to conditions we've labeled "disabled," such as blindness. Though Louis is curious about how his sister physically experiences blindness—indeed, for a long time, he walks around with his eyes closed, pretending he can't see, in an effort to understand her—he never loses sight of this one important fact: She's Emily. She's not a label—that is, "blind person,"—she's his sister.

The adults in Emily's life sometimes treat Emily as special because of her blindness, but Louis refuses to play that game. In fact, he even sees some advantages to being blind—"For instance, I'm jealous that Emily gets to carry a weapon to school." But he never thinks that the way adults treat Emily as special because she's blind is cool. He understands instinctively that this disrespects Emily as a person. She's not smart because she's blind or despite being blind. She's smart because she's smart. Her blindness doesn't make her musical talents especially remarkable—in fact, Louis finds it rather "nauseating" the way people fawn over her musical talents. "Or maybe I was just annoyed with those teachers who would never have noticed Emily's talent if she weren't blind."

To everybody besides Louis, her blindness makes her talents—whatever they are—exceptional. "I wondered if Emily's trying so hard was pointless," he thinks, "because no matter what she did, whether she failed to do something or whether she exceeded people's expectations, they would always notice her blindness first."

And then Louis and Emily's dad gets sick. And Louis watches as his father gets more and more frail. He makes an interesting distinction: his sister is "disabled" but his father is "crippled." The difference in definitions has to do with the level to which his father learns to accommodate his illness, to live with it. Because his father refuses to be honest with himself, and wishes to ignore it, and even lies to Emily about it, his illness "cripples" him—whereas Emily's blindness is just a fact about herself.

Louis has a dream where his father, with his freshly amputated leg, is begging on the street in a snowstorm. A woman appears and asks him what he's doing there. He tells her he can't walk anymore. "I'm not normal," he says. She comes back later with a boot for him. "You are normal," she tells him, then urges him to hurry up and put the boot on or his other leg will need to be amputated too.

Louis thinks about this dream and realizes what it reveals: that his dad has diminished in his estimation. The dream has pointed out an important facet of reality to him. What do we perceive as normal? Is "normal" a way of being like everybody else—in which case, if we are different or perceived as different in some way, we are no longer normal—or is "normal" simply a description of reality—in which case, being blind or losing a leg is just as normal as being sighted or two-legged? Louis comes down firmly on the side of normal as a description of reality, not as an idealized state that some people measure up to and others do not. And because his father does not or cannot perceive this truth, Louis can no longer look up to him in the same way he once did.

Though The Transcriber(Gemma Press, 2014) is an extremely short work, its depth and weightiness suggest otherwise. Like a poem, it is a work you can return to again and again to mine its layers for gold.


J.L. Powers is the author of 3 books for young adults ( The Confessional, This Thing Called the Future, and Amina) and editor of two collections of essays (Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent and That Mad Game: Growing up in a Warzone). Her first picture book, Colors of the Wind: The story of blind artist and champion runner George Mendoza, is forthcoming in September. You can visit her website and read her blog at .net.