Review: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, The Perkins School for the Blind, 1932 (Dear America)Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
by Barry Denenberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mirror, Mirror (Perkins School for the Blind) / 0-439-19446-6

"Mirror, Mirror" is a solid addition to the Dear America series, and with a new kind of fictional diarist - a blind young woman. When Bess' eyesight is lost in a sledding accident, she despairs that she will ever be able to live a normal life. With the urging of her understanding and concerned family, she gains admission to the Perkins School for the Blind, and begins the onerous process of learning how to live independently without sight.

So much of this book is quite fascinating, as Bess describes senses and feelings that would never occur to me as a sighted person. She learns, for instance, to walk down corridors snapping her fingers, listening to the different types echoes as the corridors widen and narrow while she walks. She describes how the most thoughtful teachers automatically say "Hello" and "Goodbye" when entering and leaving rooms, so that the blind students can instantly know who has entered or left. Even the process of dressing herself in the morning has a 'system' - Bess puts her light clothes in a separate drawer from her dark clothes, so that she will always match. Bess also tells us, matter-of-factly, how poorly many of the blind students are treated by the outside world; the girls who are taken out of school by fathers who don't care if they learn to be independent or not, the boys who are not allowed to socialize with the girls because the school officials fear that blind couples will result in blind babies.

As good as this book is, it does have some very minor flaws. The conceit of this diary is a bit jarring - Bess cannot write her diary, so her twin sister writes it for her. This works well enough, but is a bit disconcerting when we read, "I felt that Elin was jealous today," and we realize that even though it is Bess speaking, it is Elin recording and it would be slightly unnatural for her to just write this down as such. I tried working this out in my own mind, and it feels like the two would talk about it instead, and have a nice discussion, but they apparently do not because no such discussion gets recorded in the diary, as in "I thought Elin was jealous today, but she assures me now that she was not," or something similar. It's a small point, but it did break up the reading frequently.

"Mirror, Mirror" is also very short; I was disappointed in the length of this diary, as I really wanted to learn more, and I wanted to wrap up the storyline where Bess was not comfortable being friends with her old sighted companions anymore, but that storyline was never resolved, which was disappointing.

Most irritating of all, the author shamelessly uses "Mirror, Mirror" as a platform to pitch his other Dear America book, "When Will This Cruel War Be Over?" which I have reviewed elsewhere as being a very poor novel, in my opinion. I was deeply displeased to see it 'marketed' in this book - Bess' teacher is the 'author' of a play by the same name, and Bess gets the part of 'Cousin Rachel' in the book, and much is written about how fabulously fabulous "When Will This Cruel War" is. There are dozens of pages devoted to laudations of this other book, and it feels like a very cheap and childish way to self-promote oneself. I am grateful that the many other Dear America authors have had the self-restraint to keep their greed from interfering with the story at hand - every moment spent talking about the awesomeness of the other book is a moment NOT spent talking about Bess and the Perkins School for the Blind.

I enjoyed the fascinating and valuable look at being blind in the 1930's, when Braille was first being widely accepted and schools for the blind in America were first being really taken seriously. However, I did not like the self-promotion on the part of the author, and did not like how short the story was. I recommend trying to find it at a discount price, if possible.

~ Ana Mardoll

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