I’ll begin this review with a disclosure. As the writer of positive remarks on the cover of Trish Harris' memoir, The Walking Stick Tree, it might seem like overkill for me to write a review as well. After all, I’m already favourably biased. But this book warrants closer serious scrutiny and exploration from a disability perspective. This is an important book.
This time last year New Zealand disabled people were demonstrating outside cinemas about the depiction of disability as a fate worse than death in the movie Me Before You based on the book of the same name. For the “hero”, death was better than living with quadriplegia.
At the time both in New Zealand and internationally there was much anguished discussion among disabled people about the need to tell better, more realistic and more nuanced disability stories. The Walking Stick Tree makes an excellent contribution to filling that aching void.
It establishes a place for disability and disabled writers in the literary world in general, since the themes are universal, but it makes a place, with its familiar setting, in the New Zealand literary world.
There has long been a need for reflective writing about living the experience of disability in our local context, taking the reader beyond lifeless, stereotyped portrayals of the experience of impairment and disability. (I’m not including academic writing here).
Weight without stodge
The Walking Stick Tree goes well beyond self-absorbed or cathartic writing about the disability experience, and isn’t about triumphing over disability. Nor, thankfully is there any inspiration porn. While there are excellent and thoughtful blogs written by disabled people online, there is something about a book that brings weight to the subject. The Walking Stick Tree is a disability memoir that gives that weight without stodge.
Using the paradoxical metaphor of the walking stick tree as a symbol of growth, development and creativity, Trish Harris writes thoughtfully and with insight about life lived increasingly on her own terms, as she comes to terms with living with juvenile onset rheumatoid arthritis from the age of six. She develops the story of a life well-lived, not without struggle.
The narrative is enriched by Sarah Laing’s drawings, which lightly and cleverly focuses the attention of the reader on the creativity which of necessity nearly always accompanies disability.
Her story resonates with anyone who has lived with impairment and disability since childhood. Trish Harris is unsentimental. Difficult events and experiences are not sugar-coated but nor does she dwell overly on the negative. A gentle humour adds a light touch to the straightforwardly written and engaging narrative.
Despite our different impairments, The Walking Stick Tree holds a mirror to some of my own disability experience, while painlessly teaching me about aspects I haven’t experienced. For other readers, it may open a window on an unfamiliar, but not alien world, as Trish explores universal themes such as coming of age, and finding her place in the adult world – experiences familiar to us all. The reader discovers that living with limitation, pain and impairment does not preclude living an ordinary life, in the best sense of the word
Essays strengthen memoir
I enjoy a good story well told, but often look for more depth in books about disability. Trish Harris’s life story and the illustrations alone would have made The Walking Stick Tree a good read, but happily for those of us hungry for more substantial disability fare we are not disappointed. The Walking Stick Tree is greatly strengthened by the essays threaded through the text. In the four short essays, Trish Harris steps back from the narrative and reflects on the meanings of the experience of impairment and disability,
The essays follow the structure of the book, with a short essay at the end of each section exploring in more depth themes threaded throughout. The first essay is about Pain, the second confronts Loss, Sadness and Grief, the third, my personal favourite, performs the Dance of Identity, and the last explores Body and Soul.
As a writer I am in awe of Trish’s ability to recall the events and details of her childhood. As a disabled person,I am very aware of both the individual and the wider disability picture she creates, and is part of. Her experience offers the general reader an opportunity to explore one disability experience. When I finish a book with reluctance, and a feeling of wanting more, then it has been a satisfying read. That’s how I finished The Walking Stick Tree.
Published by Escalator Press (ISBN: 978-0-9941186-4-6), the print book is available from all good New Zealand bookshops and also:
Trish Harris is also a poet. She has a book of poetry due out later this year, written during and about her time as a patient in Hutt Hospital’s orthopaedic ward. That experience forms the basis for her debut poetry collection. She says, ‘I became a writer in residence by mistake. For eight weeks the hospital provided me with a room, a bed, and three meals a day.’ The resultant book, My wide white bed, will be published by Landing Press in October.
Robyn Hunt’s communications company AccEase helps ensure websites, information and communications are accessible. She is a member of the Arts For All Wellington Network, facilitated by Arts Access Aotearoa. This review first appeared on Robyn's Low Visionary blog.