Giving someone a place they can belong which is safe and secure, which allows them to thrive and not simply get by, and which is loving and full of care is just about the greatest gift you can give someone.
Deep down somewhere, 14-year-old autistic teenager Ginny Moon, the eponymous protagonist of Benjamin Ludwig’s richly meaningful and thoroughly affecting novel, knows that; she knows that her adoptive parents, Brian and Maura, whom she refers to as her Forever Dad and Forever Mum respectively, have transformed her life.
She knows that she no longer has to hide under the kitchen sink to avoid her mother’s violent boyfriends and nor does she have to look after herself while her mother goes off to a party or tries to score a hit from her dealer.
All the broken bones, the uncertainty, the malnutrition and the fear of what might happen to her next are a thing of a very dark and harrowing past.
But despite all the love and attention from her Forever Parents, from her therapist Patrice, who is endlessly kind and patient and from a formidable team loofa teachers and counsellors at school, Ginny can’t settle.
No matter what her parents do or where they take her or how much time they spend with her, Ginny is deeply unsettled, acting out, trying desperately hard to get back to her abusive, unpredictable, “unreliable” mother.
What on earth could be behind that?
“And my Forever Mom is right because Gloria is back at the apartment with my Baby Doll. I don’t know what town the apartment is in. I need to know if she found my Baby Doll or if it’s been too long and now I’m too late. If I’m too late I need to pick it up out of the suitcase fast and take excellent care of it again because Gloria sometimes goes away for days and days. Plus she has a lot of man-friends come over. And she gets mad and hits.” (P. 15)
Over and over to anyone who will listen, Ginny says she has to get back to her birth mum Gloria in order to look after her “baby doll”.
The baby doll, she points out, that is hidden away in a suitcase to keep it safe from harm, which is exactly what Ginny has been doing throughout her young blighted childhood; well, at least until social services took her away from an intolerable living situation and gave her a chance at a normal life.
One in which Ginny has to have nine grapes for breakfast – the number is symbolic of a heartbreaking moment in Ginny’s life, just one of the many things that will make you ache with sadness for this poor traumatised girl – and where Michael Jackson rules supreme and bacon & pineapple pizza is just about the best food you can give anyone.
It’s a good life, no it’s a great life, one in which Ginny plays basketball at the weekly Special Olympics and where can she play flute in the school band, but it’s not enough, it’s far from enough for a girl who wants nothing more than to give up what makes her happy so she can be there for baby doll.
Finding out who or what baby doll is and why she means so much to Ginny, who is one of the most moving protagonists you will ever come across because of the depth of her longing, care and tenacity to her own detriment, fills Ginny Moon with so much humanity and emotional resonance that there are times, many times when all you want to do is reach into the book, hug her and do whatever you can to help her.
The adoptive parent of an autistic teen girl himself, Ludwig, has poured much of his own life into this raw and powerfully honest book.
He doesn’t pretend for a second that adopting someone who is in desperate need of a forever home is the end of the story, and he is affectingly confessional about what a toll it can place on a marriage, a home and the lives of the people who have committed to helping this once-traumatised young people finding a lasting measure of peace, love and security in a new home.
It is this vulnerability, this willingness to admit to flaws and mistakes, to human frailty, that makes Ginny Moon such a beautifully affecting read.
We come to understand that the world which mostly makes sense to us can feel like a thousand levels of confusing to someone with autism.
All the situations we automatically navigate without thinking are a maze to someone like Ginny who can learn by rote the rules of what to do and what not to do but who doesn’t have the full capacity to reason her way through an unexpected development or to grasp things such as the passage of time or how her actions can affect the people around her.
She’s in so many ways a beautiful, gorgeous person and you understand why everyone thinks she’s so special.
But there’s a lot she doesn’t know or understand, all of which makes the events of this superlative novel so heavily, lastingly affecting.
“I look at the floor. My Forever Dad isn’t where he used to be.
‘Can I have my grapes now?’ I say. ‘I need to have exactly nine.’
Because if I have my grapes it will be like nothing is happening It will be like everything is exactly the way it’s supposed to be.” (P. 229-230)
Ginny Moon really brings home how much the vulnerable in society need our help and concern.
There are countless people like Ginny out there, people who cannot easily advocate for themselves, who don’t full understand how a particular situation might affect them or those around them and who have endured trauma without end, the kind that no one should ever have to to experience.
But this deeply empathetic novel also underscores in way large and small just how unconditional love and support can wholly transform someone’s life.
It may take some time to take effect, and mistakes will be made along the way by people who mean well, and by the object of their concern who may not fully appreciate what it is life has dealt them or what needs to be done in response to it, but eventually their life will be changed for the better.
Ginny’s life certainly is but the getting there is maddening, frightening, sad, painful and joyful, a polyglot of competing emotions that speaks to the fact that life is never easy and that fixing the pain in someone’s life is long and exhausting ordeal for all concerned.
But there is much hope and joy to be had in amongst all the pain and backward steps and Ginny Moon speaks powerfully to that, giving us one of the most amazing protagonists to come along for years in a novel, someone who has been the recipient of great loss and pain, and now love and safety, but who isn’t content to rest, whatever the cost, and they are considerable at times, until everyone she loves and cares for can be safe in that same place too.