A Step Towards Falling by Cammie McGovern (review copy) - 'Neither of us is exactly living the dream. But we're living something and that's more than either of us expected this year.'
In A Step Towards Falling, Cammie McGovern tells a poignant, compelling story of not judging people on appearances and knowing how to fix the things you've broken.
Emily has always been the kind of girl who tries to do the right thing - until one night when she does the worst thing possible. She sees Belinda, a classmate with developmental disabilities, being attacked. Inexplicably, she does nothing at all.
Belinda, however, manages to save herself. When their high school finds out what happened, Emily and Lucas, a football player who was also there that night, are required to perform community service at a centre for disabled people. Soon, Lucas and Emily begin to feel like maybe they're starting to make a real difference. Like they would be able to do the right thing if they could do that night all over again. But can they do anything that will actually help the one person they hurt the most? From Goodreads.
TW: Sexual assault.
Having loved Amy & Matthew, I was really eager to read Cammie McGovern's second novel, A Step Towards Falling, especially when learning it featured people with developmental disabilities. And I'm so glad to say this is such an incredibly moving book.
Belinda is sexually assaulted during a school football game, which both Emily and Lucas witness, but neither tell anyone - they both assume the other has told someone. But Belinda ends up saving herself by screaming loud enough for someone to hear. As punishment for not seeking out help for Belinda, and just letting it happen, both Emily and Lucas must do community service at a programme for people with developmental disabilities, like Belinda, a class called Relationships and Boundaries. Working there, they get to know the students and feel strongly about helping them, about how others - businesses, even their own school - aren't, and fighting for their rights, and even trying to find a well to apologise and help Belinda.
I was a little worried at first. When Emily first gets to the Relationships and Boundaries class, the way she describes the students really wasn't great. While she wasn't being nasty as she was describing them, it was just really uncomfortable to read – she would point out the things she thought were weird; their speech, the clothes they wore, and so on. And I was just wincing as I was reading it, because it was so rude - but it was unintentionally rude, in that she hadn't yet been educated – she didn't realise it was rude. And, you know, people do think these things. But I knew the author has a son with Autism, and that she helped set up a centre for people with disabilities, so obviously these weren't her opinions, and that the book would show Emily's growth. Then we meet Belinda, who also narrates the book, and we get her side of things, too – the reader gets to know Belinda as Emily gets to know the people she works with. It was a great way to show someone growing, but also to potentially challenge the reader's own thoughts.
I also loved getting to know the students along with Emily and Lucas, though I wish we got to see more of those classes. It was almost like we didn't get to see enough of Emily and Lucas learning and having their assumptions change. We do see it in every class we see, but we don't see all the classes, so some of the time, we just get told about it. Emily also seemed much younger to me than 18, and it just seemed some of her discoveries throughout the book - most of which aren't to do with the students, but life in general - were a little ridiculous, in that, how is she only just learning this now? She isn't stupid. Why hasn't she realised these things earlier on? She also acts a little younger than I would have expected, and I found her kind of annoying half the time.
Belinda was the star of the show, though - but not because she has developmental disabilities. She, too, learns and grows as the book goes along. But she is so brave, and clever in a way that has nothing to do with learning and education, but to do with understanding. Having developmental disabilities, she doesn't get everything, and she has ideas that aren't true - that Colin Firth in Pride Prejudice is looking at her when he's looking into the camera, that he's trying to communicate things to her (but even then, in those moments, it's Belinda figuring things out for herself, even if she needs to see a "look" from Colin Firth for things to become apparent to her) - but she understands things through observation. Sometimes, she's just able to see things a little more clearly than others. But she's not perfect, she also makes mistakes and can be rude because of ideas she has about what's right and wrong, but as I said, she also learns over the course of the novel, and she's just brilliant.
But what this book did point out is how badly people with developmental disabilities are treated. Not just by every day people, but institutions and companies. Belinda loves acting, and every year of high school she auditions for the plays, but knows she will never get a part, because the school can't afford to someone to be with her, an aid. But she auditions anyway. And they keep turning her down - even though she's actually a brilliant actress. This is actually illegal, they're not allowed to deny people with disabilities access to groups and clubs because of their disabilities. I loved seeing Emily fight against this - and how riled up she gets when hearing one of the students keeps getting fired from a jobs at restaurants, and that the restaurants that would work well don't have any vacancies. It's just so unfair.
I want to talk a little about the sexual assault. We don't get to hear much about it from Belinda until the latter part of the book, though it happens before the book starts. It's absolutely heartbreaking - any assault is - but because Belinda doesn't understand at first what's happening, it's so upsetting. Which makes it even worse that Emily and Lucas didn't say anything. Emily froze at first, panicking, not believing what she was seeing, and I'm not going to blame her for that. But once she got over it, her attempt to tell someone fell flat when she saw Lucas' run on the pitch and assumed he told someone. And Lucas' excuse for not saying anything... oh my god. I just can't. I get it, I understand why he thought what he did, but Jesus Christ. I just can't talk about it. Either of them. I'm just so incensed. Neither of them knew for definite that the other had told someone, so I just don't accept that as an excuse. And I don't think their community service was good enough, really.
On the whole, though, I'm so glad to have read this book, even if just to get to meet Belinda. Such an emotional, but also lovely story.
Thank you to Macmillan Children's Books for the review copy.
Published: 11th August 2016
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books
Cammie McGovern's Website