Twink By John Neufeld

Her family had been warned of the awesome responsibility they were all accepting… her “preppie” step-brother Harry felt sick the first time he saw her.

The 1960s and 1970s (and into the ‘80s) saw a new wave of YA Fiction dealing with teenagers coping with physical and mental disabilities, debilitating illnesses and mental health issues and the impact on their families. Some of these have aged better than others. John Neufeld is best known for his novel Lisa, Bright and Dark, which was made into a popular TV movie in 1973.

Twink, (or as my copy notes “Twink, formerly Touching”) (STOP LAUGHING) deals with a 16-year-old prep school student meeting his step-sister, who is afflicted with Cerebral Palsy, for the first time.

The Plot: This novel is so brief, there is not much beyond that to say about it.

The first part is told from Harry’s point of view, as he returns to the Midwest from his New England boarding school, at some point after his mother has died and his father has remarried to a widow with two daughters, college-aged Whizzer and 17-year-old Twink.

Harry has insisted upon meeting Twink for the first time, who lives in a residential school near St. Louis. His father and stepmother meet him at the airport in a rented VW Bus:

My stepmother slid around in her seat and motioned at the pair of girls behind her. “This,” she said pointing, “is Twink.” And this is one of her friends, Mary Jane. Harry’s here now,” she said to them.

I had to look then. Just for a second. I had to look straight at them. I tried to smile hello when I realized how dumb that was. Mary Jane’s head wasn’t turned in my direction, and Twink couldn’t even see.

Then I heard the sounds. Sort of chortles, I guess. Almost happy sounds.

And then I felt sick.

Harry and his family spend the day at Twink’s school picnic, where he reacts with both interest and revulsion in the presence of the other students, who suffer from brain damage, birth defects or “CP”. He learns a little bit about his step-mother, Ellie’s, life before she was widowed and how she learned about and coped with Twink’s condition. An “accident” is darkly alluded to.

Leaving the school, they continue on to their home in Chicago, where Harry meets his other new step-sister, the bohemian art student Whizzer, six years his senior and somewhat flirtatious towards him (WEIRD).

At this point the writing switches into the third person, as Whizzer announces that she had a feeling that Harry would want to know all about Twink and announces that she has collected a variety of family photographs, letters and pages from her old diaries to read aloud to him, and the narrative again switches to first person from Whizzer’s point of view.

We learn that at the age of two Ellie read about a famous doctor who ran a training school for Cerebral Palsy patients in Florida, and he agrees to take Twink on.

Twink thrives at the Parkers’ school, although it isn’t until six years later that she is strong enough to make her first visit home; it is a happy reunion, marred only by an incident when the family goes out for a fancy dinner at the country club:

The maître d’ appeared from nowhere. Had we finished? Would we mind hurrying a little? We were making it difficult for other members and guests to dine comfortably.

But then of course, we couldn’t just slip out. We had to weave through all the tables, pushing Twink’s chair. I’ll never forget the look on Mother’s face as she threaded her way through the members and guests, memorizing every face in the room, drawing up lists of whole families never to see or speak with again.

This coincides with the Parkers having to close the Florida school, and Twink’s parents discovering just how limited their options are. They end up sending Twink to Arizona next, to a severely understaffed institution that neglects its students. Whizzer shows Harry photos from this period:

In the background, there, you can see the center’s color television set, relied on pretty heavily. Educational television during the day; commercial shows at night. To keep the kids occupied, because the McGraws seemed to be having a lot of trouble hiring proper help. There were no real classes during the day.

Twink at nine. Much thinner now, and very pale despite the Arizona sun. Her walker had never been replaced. Also, for some reason, all the clothes Mother sent her were never to be found on visits. Twink began to have cavities about this time. Mother began to have nervous sleepless nights. Daddy began writing to other schools.

When Twink’s parents find out that Dr. McGraw is actually playing in Bridge tournaments when he claims to be away on lecture tours, he blackmails the family with the threat of tuition hikes or dismissing Twink from the school altogether.

Twink next goes to Oxford Mountain, Massachusetts, where her case gains the interest and support of a young intern, Dr. Stoddard, and together they follow developments in new, experimental surgeries for CP.  The family thoroughly investigates the credentials of a Chicago doctor, Joseph Fry, who is pioneering a new brain surgery.

The procedure requires two separate surgeries, and when Twink responds favorably to the first, she is eager to follow through with the second. But Dr. Fry botches the second surgery, and the family realizes that something has gone horribly wrong when she starts vomiting the contrast dye from the CT scan.  Twink is now completely blind.

A newspaper clipping about Fry’s dismissal from University Hospital. His medical license was revoked unconditionally.

I’ll never forget what he said the last time we saw him. “Well, how do you expect us to learn if we don’t experiment? I warned you, you know.”

We learn that this is the “accident” that everyone has been talking around, and that Twink and Whizzer’s father died six months later.

And then the book literally just ends. Seriously, I thought I might have lost some pages out of the back of my copy, but nope, Twink’s blind due to medical negligence, Dad died, here’s your overly-friendly new sister, night-night Harry, the end.

Stylin’ Department:

Whizzer looked down at herself. Green bell-bottoms, cable-knit green sweater, a green scarf holding her hair back from her forehead. All rumpled. “At least I’m not color-blind,” she said. “There is a point to it all.”

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6 Responses to Twink By John Neufeld

  1. Sheesh says:

    What the fuck!

    I love Lisa Bright and Dark and he had another good book, Sunday Father, but the blurb on this never appealed to me. I’m glad it didn’t. Seriously, what the fuck!

    • mondomolly says:

      There is so little to this book. I guess the scene on the cover is supposed to be at the school picnic, but (SADLY) there isn’t a description of Twink and Harry going to pick lemons anywhere in this book!

  2. Jo says:

    I’m a little annoyed that my parents didn’t name me Whizzer.

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