The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Title:  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

Author:  Kim Edwards

Paperback:  401 pages

Date Published:  2006

Publisher:  Penguin Books

ISBN:  0143037145

The head crowned.  In three more pushes it emerged, and then the body slid into his waiting hands and the baby cried out, its blue skin pinking up.

It was a boy, red-faced and dark-haired, his eyes alert, suspicious of the lights and the cold bright slap of air.  The doctor tied the umbilical cord and cut it.  My son, he allowed himself to think.  My son.

“Where is the baby?” his wife asked, opening her eyes and pushing hair away from her flushed face.  “Is everything all right?”

“It’s a boy,” the doctor said, smiling down at her.  “We have a son.  You’ll see him as soon as he’s clean.  He’s absolutely perfect.”

His wife’s face, soft with relief and exhaustion, suddenly tightened with another contraction… he understood what was happening… “Nurse?” the doctor said, “I need you here.  Right now.”

…”Twins?” the nurse asked.

…This baby was smaller and came easily… “It’s a girl,” he said, and cradled her like a football… The blue eyes were cloudy, the hair jet black, but he barely noticed all of this.  What he was looking at were the unmistakable features, the eyes turned up as if with laughter, the epcantha fold across the lids, the flattened nose… A mongoloid.

-The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, pages 15-16

When Norah Henry goes into labor during a blizzard (I know, very Lifetime Movie, right?), Dr. David Henry is forced to deliver their children himself.  There is only one other person present at the delivery, the office nurse, Caroline Gill.  When David realizes that his newborn daughter has Down’s Syndrome, he passes her to Caroline with the directions to a “home for the feeble-minded,” and the name of the person to talk to there.  His intentions are to tell his wife, who is passed out from the anaesthetic gas, about their daughter’s condition when she comes to, however, when the moment arrives, he lies to her and tells her the girl is dead and her body sent to be buried in the family cemetery on his partner’s farm.  In her grief, Norah plans and announces a memorial for the lost child, “Phoebe,” and informs David of all this after it’s been made public, sticking him fast to the story he told her of the baby’s death.

Caroline, after seeing the deplorable conditions of the place David has sent his daughter to be dumped off and after being informed that the person to whom she was to speak no longer works there, decides to keep Phoebe.  Caroline, now in her early 30s, has spent her whole life waiting for her life to begin, waiting to be someone and to make a difference, she takes Phoebe and moves to Pittsburgh to raise her as her own.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards is the unfolding of the outcome of David’s decision.  It shows how this one secret, and really, much more that David has kept all his life, erects a wall between him and his family.  In his attempt to spare his wife and son the pain of having a daughter and sister who’s condition he believes will be a burden on them their entire life, he has only substituted one pain for another.  By the time he realizes his lie has caused more heartache than the truth ever could, his family has become individuals, islands unto themselves, lonely and feeling like they could never be good enough for the rest.

Because this book does a great job at recreating the sentiments of the time period toward special needs children, there are times when what’s being said is offensive.  My two older girls have special needs, and when the nurse in the Pittsburgh hospital asks Caroline if she really wants her to save Phoebe’s life, it rankled me as much as it did Caroline.  The book doesn’t crank out a happily ever after scenario, nor does it become an “Oh my God, yet another tragedy” soap opera, instead it presents a plausible, heart-felt outcome.

Things to keep in mind if you plan to read this book:  It is a real look at what life is like raising a child with special needs, and raising that child into adulthood.  It is a lifetime of events, and therefore can seem long, but it doesn’t drag.  Also, it does have heavy and sad moments, the character’s don’t do “the right thing” and there are no heroes… except maybe Paul and Phoebe, and even then maybe just Phoebe.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards can help the reader have more compassion for caretakers of special needs children, as well as having a moral that the truth is always the better way to go, that the best of intentions is often the surest and straightest path to Hell.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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P.S.  Do NOT watch the Lifetime movie of this.  It is officially the WORST book to movie EVER! EVER EVER EVER EVER EVERI give that POS movie NEGATIVE infinity out of 5 stars.  It made the characters appear flat and shallow, it changed parts of the story that didn’t need changed and it was just plain crap.  Anyone who says they didn’t like the book because the characters were shallow and selfish, I have to wonder if they really read the book or watched the movie.

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