ROOM by Emma Donoghue
Are we not all prisoners in some sense? Whether prejudices, emotional baggage, physical challenges, identity crisis, a spiritual search...An open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to recognize our boundaries are the keys to unlocking the deadbolt that is keeping us inside ourselves.
106 St. Annes Drive, Mabank, Texas is ROOM today for the regular meeting of Bookers. As 36 members arrived, flashing lights from a security vehicle blocked the escape of a pickup truck parked in the driveway. In the bed of the truck, a five-year old child pretending to be dead is rolled up in a rug, his long braid the only thing visible out of one end. He was on his way to the freedom he had never experienced and to save his Ma, for the second time in his young life. The stage was set for the two-act play presented by MN and JoDee in review of this month’s selection.
The group seated in MN’s living room overhears a conversation between a visibly shaken JoDee and MN. They are discussing a story from Austria several years ago where a father confessed to kidnapping and incest of his eighteen-year old daughter. He kept her in a windowless 860 square foot cellar for twenty-four years, fathered seven children, and even admitted to burning one of them in the building’s furnace when the baby died. And in the US, eleven year old Jaycee Dugard was forced into a car on her way to school and for eighteen years lived in her kidnapper’s backyard with her two children, the first born when she was only fourteen. Both cases are upsetting, but JoDee has found an article in paper that is so disturbing she asks MN to put her errands on hold and let her read it to her:
HOPE FOR BONSAI BOY
“He is ‘Miracle Jack’ to the staff at the exclusive Cumberland Clinic, who has already lost their hearts to the pint-sized hero who awakened Saturday night to a brave new world. The haunting, longhaired Little Prince is the product of his beautiful young mother’s serial abuse at the hands of the Garden-shed Ogre (captured by State troopers in a dramatic standoff Sunday at 2:00 AM.) He was born in captivity and for five years lived, sealed up in an 11x11 foot rotting cork-lined dungeon. The only world he knew was what was inside this 121 square feet until he escaped and led the authorities to where his mother was being held. The experts cannot yet say what kind or degree of long-term developmental retardation he will suffer, but for now, this little boy, with his unblemished view of the world, seems to be feeling his way through with a mixture of fear, awe, and youthful curiosity. Our exclusive interview with both the mother and son tells a harrowing story of kidnap, rape, isolation, survival, and the ferocity of a mother’s love. In exchange for their story, we have agreed to an undisclosed sum of money to be set aside in a college trust fund for Jack. It all began seven years ago when a young college student was kidnapped from her campus…”
MN interrupts to ask why they call him bonsai boy to whom JoDee replies, “I guess it’s because a bonsai is a tiny tree that is kept indoors in pots and cut daily so it will stay all curled up….like Jack. All these cases are sickening, but this one is too close to home for me because of my little grandsons. Why does it seem so easy to victimize the innocent? Someone should write a book!”
The second act begins with everyone being escorted out through the front door. The garage door is opened and when each member is seated, the walls of ROOM are removed to reveal a recreation of the space in which Ma and Jack resided. JoDee, standing in the middle of this space, leads the review as follows:
In My Words:
“Well, someone did write a book – unfortunately, it wasn’t me…but Irish author Emma
Donoghue. Admittedly, she based ROOM, ‘loosely,’ in her words, on the Austrian case of Joseph Fritzl and his daughter, Elizabeth. A published author (this is her 7th) she has written historical fiction novels, short stories, fairy tales, contemporary fiction, stage plays for radio and screen in addition to editing anthologies of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She says this one is the least factual of anything she has written, although it remains permanently linked to the notorious crimes of Fritzl. Her goal was to focus on freedom versus imprisonment and deliberately kept the captor’s story at arm’s length, as Ma did in ROOM. ‘I wanted them to enter into the magic kingdom Jack and Ma manage to create in the middle of the underworld…I wanted this to be Jack’s story of childhood.’ By successfully capturing kid-speak she was able to show us how a child views the world and by writing on several levels, she challenged us to decide what the book was about – an imprisoned boy, a story of kidnapping, or simply a celebration of motherhood? ROOM has garnered unprecedented attention, of which she is overjoyed, however she describes its’ success like ‘when you get a new haircut and suddenly all your friends are going…Oh I am so relieved you’ve got this haircut…it is ten times better than your hideous hair…it’s a compliment, but you are mildly insulted that everyone hated your previous haircut.’ She is currently writing the film script for ROOM and beginning her next novel, set in San Francisco in the 1870’s.”
“Each time I read this book. I closed my eyes trying to visualize this room. In my mind I would take 3-1/2 giant steps north, south, east and west making a square...the perimeter of the area…then I added a bed, dresser, wardrobe, clothes horse, stove, refrigerator, bathtub, toilet, sink and mirror, a table with two folding chairs, a lamp, a rocker, a shelf, a TV with rabbit ears, and an area rug. The only natural light source – a skylight, and the only portal to the outside – a heavy-metal-keyed-security door. Add a teenager kidnapped, abused, and a mother all before her 22nd birthday – and you have this…an 11x11 dungeon – home to Jack, prison to his Ma. By recreating the room, we wanted to give you have a birds-eye view of the reality of their existence. As we walk through the story, please focus on the power of love – what a young mother did for her son.”
“As disturbing as the horrific circumstances of kidnapping and imprisonment inflicted upon a young girl are, this book transcends a tale of abuse, and centers on survival, the importance of freedom, strength of love in face of adversity, and fierce maternal instincts. It shows us that you really don’t ever want to cross hairs with Mama Bear when it comes to her cubs. ROOM is described as a ‘claustrophobic read in that you feel as though you are gasping for freedom.’ We invariably ask what makes a particular book a Bookers’ book. The benchmarks are generally the same… is it well written, are the characters developed enough to make you have an opinion about them, and does the story have substance and therefore generates discussion. Yes, Yes, and Yes. However, this book, not unlike Little Bee, took an extremely difficult storyline and put it in the hands of an innocent five-year old, which made it not a victim’s story, but a testament to the bonds between a mother and child. With the combination of pureness and wisdom tied together with a little humor, we saw the world through the eyes of someone who has never known freedom. This is why it works and why it took hold of me from the first page and hasn’t released me yet.”
“Everything in ROOM is normal to Jack, even Old Nick. He doesn’t particularly like him, but not any more
or less than his distaste for broccoli or green beans. Ma created a world for Jack in which only what was inside ROOM was real…anything outside was outer space, everything on television was nothing more than other planets, colors, and pretend people. She did this because she couldn’t tell him there was a whole fun world out there, but he couldn’t be in it. For two years, she tried desperately to free herself from her kidnapper and witnessed first-hand how ill or evil he was as he stood by and did nothing while her newborn daughter suffocated as the umbilical cord strangled the life from her. Jack saved Ma’s life when he was born and she was determined to keep him out of harm’s way even if it meant pacifying Old Nick to insure his safety. Jack was not a by-product of anything more than Old Nick’s sperm finding Ma’s egg – he was the biological donor – but never his father. We often talk of walking in other’s shoes before we pass judgment on their actions. This story clearly addresses those issues and opens up discussion for – What would you do?”
“We meet Jack on the dawn of his fifth birthday. As he tells us about a normal day in their lives, we realize the only freedom they enjoy is in the company of each other. We have to applaud this young mother’s imagination, perseverance, sacrifices, and faith. Jack says ‘we have a thousand things to do every day.’ She developed a daily routine just like any ‘outside’ normal young family. Rise and shine, breakfast, brush teeth, take vitamins, get dressed for the day, except they had nowhere to go. Mondays were laundry days, Tuesday a cleaning day, Wednesday they washed their hair, Fridays more cleaning, flipping the mattress, and making a grocery list. She could have relied heavily on TV to fill their days, but instead she used what was available to emulate what he might be doing if not confined to this room, although Jack was allowed to watch his favorite Dora The Explorer and an occasional other show. Instead of Lego’s, Lincoln logs, paints, play dough, musical instruments, and most other typical toys, Jack was just as happy with his homemade versions – a fort made out of empty cans and vitamin bottles, a maze made from toilet roll holders taped together, a grocery bag filled with crumpled paper used as a bowling ball, beet juice for paint, and vocabulary lessons to practice taken from words on milk cartons. The orchestra fired up as they used everything imaginable to bang out musical tones – the table, legs of the bed, lid of the trash can, and his favorite, Twang, made out of an empty cereal box covered with catalogue pictures and tied in the middle with three rubber bands. Each had a few books to read. Jack had My Big Book of Nursery Rhymes with Alice in Wonderland, Dylan the Digger, The Runaway Bunny, and Pop-Up Airport. Ma’s library consisted of The Shack, Twilight, The Guardian, Bittersweet Love, The DaVinci Code. Prints from Monet, and Picasso from oatmeal boxes hung side-by-side Jack’s octopus painting with his favorite from Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John The Baptist. In his own words, ‘Baby Jesus is playing with John The Baptist, his friend and big cousin…Mary’s there too cuddled in her Ma’s lap…and what started Baby Jesus growing in Mary’s tummy was a really cool angel with feathers zoomed down…and when Baby Jesus popped out of her vagina on Christmas Day, she put him in the manger but not for the cows to chew, only to warm him up with their blowing because he was magic.’ Just as Jack saw ‘God’s face through the skylight every day,’ he viewed devotion in the faces of a mother and child in this painting. They said the ‘daily bread prayer’ and the ‘shepherd’s prayer about green pastures’ before each meal. Each day was timed so Jack would be hidden away in wardrobe by 9:00 PM in case Old Nick came. If they were lucky enough not to hear the beep, beep of the security door, Jack would crawl into Ma’s bed and she would begin switching the lamp off and on in hopes of someone seeing her SOS call for help. Except for the weekends, they would climb on the table to be closer to the skylight, and do ‘scream,’ even though they knew the room was soundproofed and no one could hear their cries. With few variations, this routine repeated itself during their 1,825 days of hopelessness.”
“Ma’s desperation and Jack’s curiosity was building and she knew this room could not contain them any longer, so she devised a plan to escape. This sequence was probably the most harrowing part of the book as it detailed their path to freedom. When the doors finally opened, each faced a new world. Jack’s, of course, was very confusing as suddenly everything he knew to be true was not…there were other people in the world…outside was more than a dream sequence. He had never talked with anyone except Ma, and now he was conversing with strangers and his world had expanded to include grandparents, an aunt, uncle, and a cousin. Vending machines were spaceships with bags of chips and chocolates locked up inside like a jail, he was afraid the blue dinner plates were going to bleed color onto his food, and the automatic toilet flushers was met with distrust; ‘I don’t like a clever toilet looking at our butts,’ he said. He was like a newborn despite his remarkably accelerated literacy.”
“Ma faced her own struggles to reacquaint herself to the world she was taken from seven years ago. Her journey was both joyful and frightening as she became aware of the changes that had occurred during her absence. Her individual freedom was tied to Jack’s dependency and it proved a difficult transition for her to balance the two. On one hand, she felt a strong need to have some time to herself. It was finally over…she had raised her son, kept him safe, and engineered freedom for them both. Now what? She was forced to defend how she raised Jack from confining his world to just the room, to breast-feeding, to questions about whether or not she ever considered asking her captor to take Jack away so he could have a normal life. She was faced with her own freedom and trying to balance this against separation from Jack. She was seen as a beacon of hope but she says ‘all I did was survive and did a pretty good job of raising Jack...we are not the only ones who ever lived through something terrible.’ As overwhelmed as Jack was with his new world, Ma finally let her guard down…she needed to rest…to heal…to let someone else take the responsibilities for just a little while. She was an ‘inner Jack trapped in her own personal room.’ Her overdose, whether accidental or not, highlighted how strength can crumble when it is not necessary anymore. Jack thought she was just too tired to play any longer and was in a hurry to get to heaven, but wondered, ‘Why didn’t she wait for me?’”
“Jack asks to go back to Room, just one more time and although Ma hesitated, she knows in order to move forward you have to close the door on the past. Jack doesn’t believe this is the same place…it is smaller, and emptier, and it smells. He says, ‘I guess this was Room at one time, but not anymore and asks: ‘Can we say goodnight when it’s not night,” to which Ma answers, ‘I think it would be good-bye.’ Jack finds the picture Ma drew for his birthday still hanging in Wardrobe and as he zipped it into his jacket he proceeds to slam the door on his old world…good-bye wall, good-bye floor, good-bye roof, good-bye skylight, good-bye room.”
“GOOD-BYE BONSAI BOY….Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bugs bite.”
MN and I want to thank each of you for enthusiastically embracing ROOM and allowing us to share our thoughts on this book. You give us the avenue to do what is so close to our hearts and your support and appreciation is why, for us, every Bookers’ gathering is a special occasion!
On The Business Side:
Janet Noblitt’s son, Mark, and granddaughter, Sarah wrote a sincere note of appreciation to Bookers for our generosity in contributing to Sarah’s college fund. Hopefully within the tragedy of her mother’s passing, the dream of going to college will provide the light to guide Sarah through the darkness. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the family.
Incoming PWC President, Marlene Ungarean, asked MN & I to continue with Bookers and we have accepted to lead our group into their eighth season beginning in September. Time flies when you are having a good time!
The Tyler Community Band with our own Leslie Mullins will perform a concert on Tuesday, April 19th, 7:30 PM at the UT Cowan Center in Tyler. Admission is free and the doors open at 7:00 PM. If you need directions, please contact Leslie at 903-451-3951 or email@example.com.
Jean Alexander, at home and recovering from knee replacement surgery sent her love saying she really wanted to be with us today, as she loved this book. Jean, we missed you and hope for a speedy recovery. Mind your physical therapist…that’s from all of your “Bookers’mothers.”
COLOR CODING SYSTEM:
WHITE: Light read
PINK: Moderately challenging
May 10th: 4th annual Wine and Cheese Evening Meeting
WHITE or RED or PINK (wine, that is…your choice)
1st annual “Book Share & Chat”
6:00 PM @ the home of Melanie Prebis
Pick one of your favorite books; give a brief synopsis
and offer to share your copy
Bonnie Magee, food czar. Please contact her directly @ firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up to bring food
June 14th: Bonus Summer meeting
July/August: Summer Break
Summer Read TBA
September 13th: 8th year of Bookers resumes
Our heartfelt appreciation goes to all of those who made ROOM a reality for us. It could not have been done without you and we appreciate your willingness to indulge our “craziness.”
Elaine Bownes, our honorary Booker, who wore too many hats to mention each one
Mickey Neathery, for his cameo role and listening to ROOM details for several months
Mike Stanky, for desperately trying to understand what in the world we were doing
Antiques on Royall for loaning Jack’s “Wardrobe”
The Pinnacle Club for the security truck and “wall” panels
Paula, the ironing lady, for not throwing away the bathtub before MN could rescue it
The unidentified lady, whose toilet was there for the taking
Kim Hand, for Jack’s clothing
Gayle Robinson for loaning us The Da Vinci Code
Kathy Mueller for her hostess skills and chairs
Cherry Fugitt and Charlotte Pechacek for their chairs
Thanks to all…happy reading!